Can Technology Capture Art’s Aura?

Updated: Jan 15

Walter Benjamin argued in his essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”, that art possesses “a presence in time and space, [a] unique existence at the place where it happens to be”, also described by him as an aura. Benjamin goes on to discuss an artwork’s aura in all of its complexities, but one of his main takeaways, is that the physical presence of art has a special effect which evokes emotions, produces complex thoughts, or conveys messages, which are lost when reproduced through photos and prints. In the age of technological advancements and device driven lifestyles, where does and can art fit into the technological revolution?

The advancement provided by technology is that art becomes more accessible through distributing representations worldwide and it lowers the bar the enter into the art world.

People can access museum’s collections from across the world and see pieces they otherwise might not ever have the opportunity to view in their lifetime. They can learn about other cultures, periods, and styles, that might not be as widely discussed or valued where they come from. Artists also have a way to distribute their work without going through the typical system that might prevent their work from being seen. But does Benjamin’s theory have some truth? Is there something lost when viewing art through the lens of technology?

In a mere comparison between the real work and a photo of the real work, there are some obvious discrepancies despite the subject being the same. Photos vary on color, making the hues differ in intensity and tone depending on the lighting and angle. They are not the best indicator on size and scale of the work depending on how the photo is cropped. Also, photos are more difficult to notice details due to the nature of the image trying to capture the whole piece which puts the work at a distance. Overall, there is typically one view of the work that might not capture the true coloring or unique aspects that make up the valuable aspects of the composition, which creates a loss of aura. Additionally, photos do not often show how a piece is situated amongst other works or how it is integrated within a space, further losing the other qualities of the aura.

However, technology has been rapidly advancing and there is now hope for the aura of a work to survive reproduction. With technological developments such as augmented reality, viewers have a better chance of interacting with a piece on multiple planes or from multiple angles so as to bring back a sense of physicality and depth to a work. There is also the ability to approach a work and notice details that a full shot cannot address. As augmented reality advances further, the issue surrounding space might also be reduced by the viewer virtually entering the space that a work is located and viewing the work as it would be seen in person. With more developments, the aura might be less affected by technology than before. Although these advancements would be incredibly beneficial for the distribution of art and art consumption, Benjamin theory still remains and holds true, art is more powerful and moving in person.

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