The technique of reproduction detaches the reproduced object from the domain of tradition. By making many reproductions it substitutes a plurality of copies for a unique existence. And in permitting the reproduction to meet the beholder or listener in his own particular situation, it reactivates the object reproduced. These two processes lead to a tremendous shattering of tradition which is the obverse of the contemporary crisis and renewal of mankind.
Walter Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (1936)
For Walter Benjamin ‘that which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art’. He believed that audiences feel overwhelmed and inhibited when in the presence of an original artwork. On top of that, they feel that curators and aesthetes are setting the conditions for their appreciation. In contrast, when dealing with a reproduction of the same artwork, the audience can have a direct and involved relationship. They meet it on their own terms. They choose the time and place in which to hear or see the reproduction. They don’t feel the need to seek approval for what they feel about it; they have their own jurisdiction. Benjamin argued that:
Mechanical reproduction of art changes the reaction of the masses toward art. The reactionary attitude toward a Picasso painting changes into the progressive reaction toward a Chaplin movie. The progressive reaction is characterized by the direct, intimate fusion of visual and emotional enjoyment with the orientation of the expert.
He was right. And that is why we keep going back to him. We also come back because his thesis includes some head-spinning stuff. Benjamin argued that reproduction shatters aura, but he also claimed that reproduction facilitates its return. Ramping up the complexity, he suggested that this return provides a different type of aura. Benjamin’s essay is focused primarily on film production. He noted that:
The film responds to the shriveling of the aura with an artificial build-up of the ‘personality’ outside the studio. The cult of the movie star, fostered by the money of the film industry, preserves not the unique aura of the person but the ‘spell of the personality’, the phony spell of a commodity.
This is the only time in the Work of Art essay that Benjamin discusses commodification in pejorative terms. Mass manufacture is liberating; mass promotion is not. It bewitches us.
These processes happen in music too. Records make music ordinary: they render expensive productions cheap and these productions become part of our everyday lives. The music industries want records to be un-ordinary. They want us to fetishise recordings so that we feel the need to own them (or at least this was the record business model in pre-digital times). They do so through their star-making machinery. They promote their performers because they want us to become invested in them.
Benjamin saw this much, but he was less alert to the fact that fans re-create aura too. His essay is centred on the idea that mass manufacture ‘reproduces’ original works of art. With recorded music, however, this soon ceased to be the case. As Sarah Thornton noted:
Initially, records transcribed, reproduced, copied, represented, derived from and sounded like performances. But, as the composition of popular music increasingly took place in the studio rather than, say, off stage, records came to carry sounds and musics that neither originated in nor referred to actual performances … Accordingly, the record shifted from being a secondary or derivative form to a primary, original one.
As a result, records ‘accrued their own authenticities’. Thornton claimed that:
Recording technologies did not, therefore, corrode or demystify ‘aura’ as much as disperse and re-locate it. Degrees of aura came to be attributed to new, exclusive and rare records. In becoming the source of sounds, records underwent the mystification usually reserved for unique art objects.
Although record companies eventually cottoned on to this practice, it was audiences who undertook this attribution first. They developed the art of record collecting.
A record embodies two creations: there is the creation of the sound recording and there is the creation of the product that houses the sound recording. Sound recording became ‘primary’ rather than ‘derivative’ and this is what prompted fans to restore aura. It was, however, the product that enabled this restoration to take place. The restoration of aura is therefore diffuse. It comes back via the worship of stars and via the worship of objects.
The restoration is also incomplete. A fan might be in awe of a star, but that aura is accumulated in the fan’s ‘particular situation’ – it is developed through the purchase of reproductions that are played in the fan’s own home. When a fan plays the record of a star they can indulge in a private fantasy of engagement; they do not have to suffer a public display of power. And when a fan attributes aura to a record they are not under a phony spell: they are restoring aura on their own terms. It takes the ‘orientation of the expert’ to develop a knowledge about record collecting. There is creativity rather than passivity in what is going on here. The shattered aura is re-assembled, but this building process results in something that is new.