Shabby Authenticity

I have wanted to pick up a few threads from earlier pieces and weave them together. The discussion of aesthetics and occultism at the end of Phase I and my concern with the disruptive role of capital in spiritual practice come together in this piece focusing on Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in an Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” It also has some connection to the hesitation I have around relying on narrative discourse for a deeper understanding of spiritual experience, too.

Originally part of a larger piece I tried to write almost two years ago (portions of which I may also work out at this point), it took a lot of reworking to make it into a post. This is one of those pieces that languished because I was trying to make it fit an argument I was having with myself. I have finally been able to let go of the argument and this ended up going in a very different direction than I originally intended…which is also sort of the point of this essay, so it gets a bit meta.

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Whether we are talking about capital and art or capital and spirit, issues of authenticity are often in play, either implicitly or explicitly. A good work of art or spiritual experience is ‘authentic’ and we are often worried about how capital puts an obstacle between us and authentic spiritual and aesthetic experiences.

If we examine the conceptual penumbra of authenticity, it connects us to a whole network of ideas about meaningfulness, intimacy, intensity, viscerality, and originality. The artist or religious person is posited as having a more direct relationship to their experience and to be especially capable of transmitting that relationship to another through their participation in art or religion. Authenticity is the guarantee of a certain charisma.

Capital, on the other hand, is by its nature rooted in money, wealth, an abstraction which facilitates rapid exchange. That abstraction reduces other values to itself. Everything has a price, right? And if everything has a price, then everything can be equated to something else, losing the singularity and meaningfulness that defines authenticity. The capacity to buy a rare painting doesn’t destroy the painting’s meaningfulness, but it does make it easier to look at the painting first and foremost as an object with monetary rather than aesthetic significance.

I have talked a bit about why I think modern art and modern occultism are entangled, but Walter Benjamin’s essay “The Work of Art in an Age of Mechanical Reproduction” points out a broader horizon for that discussion. For Benjamin, art and religion are intimately related. When Benjamin talks about the ‘aura of authenticity’ that clings to a work of art, he understands it to derive from the aura that sacred places and objects possess. The artistic aura of authenticity is a displaced form of cultus, with the work of art taking the place of the altar or shrine.

Benjamin observes that the separation of sacred and profane defines cultus. The cult objects and cultic spaces are removed from common view, set aside, and it is only through certain protocols that anyone is then able to participate in viewing that object. Some of the objects, in fact, are deliberately obscured even in this sacred context, so that the aura derives in part from the object being protected from entering subjective human experience. Even if we look to the cultus performed in a public festival, the same holds. Costume and choreography create a space in which revelation and concealment are simultaneously in play.

Art carves out a space for itself that occupies a position somewhere between the sacred and profane. It does this through its singularity. Benjamin ascribes this singularity to the mode of production available to art prior to mechanical reproduction. A work of art takes a lot of effort to produce and make reproduction both costly and time-consuming (and unlikely to fully replicate the original). Its singularity prevents it from being widely circulated, making it somewhat akin to a sacred object in that a great work of art’s praises extend well beyond the ring of people who have had an opportunity to participate in its presentation.

On Benjamin’s account, mechanical reproduction ought to deal that aura a decisive death blow, opening the door to new and potentially more revolutionary forms of aesthetic experience.

What Benjamin’s account has trouble with, though, is explaining how the aura endures through the age of mechanical reproduction, troubling and inhibiting the revolutionary possibilities of aura-free art which Benjamin admires. Even when anyone can look at the Starry Night, people still get excited and seek out opportunities to view the original as it hangs in MOMA. While the image becomes more accessible, the object itself acquires a new aura, one rooted in its originality.

Tellingly, even works (like many of Andy Warhol’s) that deliberately subvert this retain this aura of singularity by their relationship to their creator. Latter-day capitalism’s love of kitsch may seem to run counter to this, too, but in most cases it presumes the aura it pretends to dismiss. What makes kitsch delightful to so many is precisely its anti-aura. Delight in kitsch functions a bit like blasphemy—it is precisely because the aura of originality is taken for granted that the suspension of it is able to delight.

Without the aura? Kitsch is just trash. Why are you rolling in trash again? Because demeaning the aura still titillates you with it, teases your hunger. It is gross, a little sadistic, and helps keep everyone locked in their little places, because kitsch denies the subjective wonderment that the aura inspires. And, yes, there are definitely portions of the contemporary art scene which are racing toward trash, beyond kitsch, like some of Damien Hirst’s work.

So what is it that Benjamin’s account of the aura is missing? It overlooks a key component of cultus, both in art and religion—charisma. It is not just the singularity of the work of art that gives it an aura, it is its relationship to something else, to a higher agency. In religion, these agencies are often spiritual entities, but they can also be gurus, priests, and devotees. In art, that agency is almost always the agency of an individual artist who is seen as having an especially intimate or powerful insight into what they address in their art.

We may also talk about a work of art as reflecting the spirit of an age or a people, and the appreciation of a work from that perspective gets us much closer to the work of art as a form of cultus, with the spirit of the people being an abstracted and yet singular entity with which we can develop a connection.

What gives much of the work its aura of authenticity is that perceived sense of connection between ourselves and what moved the creators to create. We are not just participating in the work of art, we are participating in the mystery of its production by an artist, whose inner workings we are never fully privy to. The inner (and ‘authentic’) life of the artist becomes the true guarantor of a work’s aura, because it, like the cultic object, is never fully available to our subjective experience. The cult of art becomes difficult to separate from the cult of artistic genius.

Consider, for example, the text which became subject to mechanical reproduction long before other forms of art. Literary texts retain their power because even as reproduced, they offer a shared subjective experience that nonetheless exceeds any specific individual’s experience of it. Rare books acquire value in large part because of their connection either to their creators or to distinguished people who owned or produced them, whose enjoyment of it indicates their own proximity to it.

The original retains its aura in part because it is that which was born most directly from the artist’s hand, is the most closely connected to the mystery of artistic production. In our latter day modernity, this sort of charisma extends well beyond the artistic domain. The deployment of celebrity spokespeople to define a commercial brand also plays into this same structure. Mimicking the tastes of a celebrity is akin to acquiring a piece of art, it is an opportunity to cling to a mystery that will inevitably escape our final understanding.

Benjamin’s sharp comparison of the revolution and fashion in the “Theses” acquires more depth in this light. What makes fashion’s appropriation of disparate temporal moments problematic has everything to do with the fashion market, with it being embedded in the system of capital that readily absorbs its aesthetic production into the system of abstract monetary value. It becomes a lure and a trap thereby, but there remains in it the possibility of liberating fashion, of freeing the tiger for its spring into the open air of revolutionary, messianic time.

Even as the image of the original multiplies, it retains a connection to the creator’s creative force and through it we often hope to become more intimate with this creativity, perhaps even experience some of what originally inspired the creator . The image retains its capacity to carry us beyond ourselves even when it is chained and hampered by the operations of capital which seek to neutralize those trajectories and convert them into financial valuations. This is a key part of why the trash heap is often the medium through which eternity first flashes.

The flashing of the trash heap doesn’t just open us to the creator’s experience, though. It opens us to the operations of creativity and it is this that puts us in touch with the democratic and revolutionary potentials of art, which begins its liberation. For all its ludicrous excess, the creative production of fan fiction and fan art bears witness to this, it begins (though may not bring to fruition) the process of pointing the fan toward their own creative agency, not just in producing art, but in living their life.

We like to talk down fashion and dress as a creative, intellectual, and spiritual pursuit, to emphasize its slavery to capital and empire, but if we are honest with ourselves, all creative, intellectual, and spiritual work has been entangled and poisoned by capital and empire. The tut-tutting of this or that domain’s especial succumbing is, at best, cooperating in a crab game to pull everyone down to the lowest common denominator. At worst, it is the action of a collaborator who has bartered away other’s spiritual and intellectual freedom for the shabby accolades with which empire rewards those who keep their fellows down.

We can’t break free easily and instead of looking down at others, start asking after your own entanglements. How are you complicit? Where have you compromised yourself? Empire is everywhere, we’re not getting free, but we can take hold and struggle with the bonds, find ways to make the poison world compromise with us instead of always compromising to it.

This holds even more so for the spiritual marketplaces of today. Spiritual products have a charismatic link to their creators that, like art, serve as the guarantor of the product, a link that is secured by the connection between person and spirit which made possible the spiritual product. The marketplace can easily drive a spiritual work deeply into the realm of trash, demean and sully its cultic aura until it is unrecognizable, while simultaneously multiplying the possibilities of someone having an authentic spiritual experience within the trash heap itself.

The trash heap is sort of the masquerade writ large.

The sacred demeaned can become the redeeming profane, but it most often becomes so by losing its charismatic connection to a legitimating authority. As it loses its connection to a priest or a lineage or an expert, it can acquire a more direct connection to the moment of its creation, to the intersection of human agency and spirit that made it possible. The person for whom it flashes then gets a glimpse, however brief and indirect, of what it means to be at that crossing. If it becomes a guiding light, it may provide them with what they need to find and recreate a sacral point within their own life, even if they don’t quite call it that.

This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t protect what is sacred to us from the threats of the market; we should and most of us quite naturally do. It is to affirm that the sacred isn’t our possession, that it can leap and spring from us to others without our ability to fully regulate it, without our having the privilege of judging and shaping its developments.

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