Post-Mechanical Aura in Art
Early 2023 will be written to history as the first phase of artificial general intelligence (AGI). This time is characterized by the emergence of controversial techniques like generative image creation and large language models. Tools that quickly and clearly showcase their threat towards a multitude of artistic industries including writers, actors, and visual artists. Like a recoil of philosophical predictions, we see echoes of Walter Benjamin's warnings about the diminishing "aura", in artwork - a crisis due to mechanical recreation. Benjamin argues that the traditional concept associated with a unique, authentic presence, is eroded when creative work can be reproduced on mass scales. Not since the introduction of photography has authenticity and originality of art been in such despair.
The Conflict of Mechanical Reproduction
Walter Benjamin’s 1936 article, “Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction", builds off the tensions between the destructive nature of photography and the authenticity that art loses as a consequence of this interaction. In his mind, its a weapon, pointing to the concern of its impact since the pre-mechanical standard - arriving us to a new position of authentic inaccessibility. Today It’s clear to see that not only has authenticity proceeded, but photography has found its place amongst the crisp walls of museums, galleries, and collections. For years since his article new machines, mechanical plotters, digital cameras have all come to the aid of a growing complexity required to achieve a modern masterpiece. Artists like Andy Warhol stood up to Benjamin’s challenge and focused most of his work on replication as an artistic expression.
Consider the events in 2022 when artists were in revolt against the popularity of AI art on the ArtStation platform. Should we portray these artists as anarchists or nihilists? Or, do their efforts in producing a new form or art, or participate in the largest crowdsourced artwork ever seen ignite the path to which post-mechanical reproductive threat, allow for art and 'aura' to be realized once again., At a minimum they raise valid questions about the adherence to the customs of artistic tradition, the preservation of the authenticity and the ethical considerations regarding the ownership equity held by the creator.
Benjamin believed the 'aura' of art is embedded in the fabric of tradition in which its ritual function is never entirely separated. He describes it as something inaccessible and elusive, something highly valued but out of reach. He establishes authenticity as an identifier of 'aura' that includes but is not limited to: uniqueness, permanence, and cult value. He admits early in the writing that,
“a work of art has always been reproducible, but the most perfect reproduction of a work will always lack the capturing of presence in time and space” (Benjamin, 2-3).
This uniqueness of the work is established by the physical interaction between itself and its surroundings. For example, we may consider that each craftsman's mark is so irrevocably individual that even a master counterfeit could not achieve such high precision. The slight destruction of a canvas as it is ripped and stretched to its frame is nearly impossible to imitate. The millennial and unrepeatable wear of water and wind on a sculpture signifies its temporal history within the world. Although it isn’t made clear how these characteristics are the elements of uniqueness that bring about ‘aura’, It is important to understand it as a part of the aesthetic experience of art in its original context. It seems for Benjamin that technological advances such as photography initiate conditions in which these individualisms can be dissolved or destroyed, possibly disallowing the existence of any originality to be created.
One of these dissolution, is the need to concern one's desire to “bring things closer” - spatially and humanly (Benjamin, 5). One could seemingly lose the experience of uniqueness in an attempt to remove the phenomenon of distance. Photography implicitly accomplishes this by capturing a rendition of a view, one that the masses can hold steadily in their hands, giving the false sense of nature's reality. There is a strong proposal by Benjamin that In its purest form, 'aura' is contained in all things that are nature. He presents the notion of an experience following the crest of a mountain range on the horizon with your eyes. However, acting similarly to an Ansel Adams photograph is not. By accepting Adams’ reproduction of the mountains, we are in turn decimating the relationship of an “image seen by the unarmed eye”. The concern for humanity is that by accepting these images as reality, we are separating ourselves further from truth. Everyone becomes a photographer, and every photograph is a work of art.
Benjamin standardizes that in order for authenticity to be established, the presence of the original is necessary as a prerequisite for that classification. In comparison to a work's authenticity, we may be properly led to determine the lack of another’s authentic nature in the declaration of forgery, or a photograph capturing an imprint of nature. Photography as a development of “process reproduction” may bring out “aspects of the original that are unattainable to the naked eye…”
Today, one could easily compile a divergent application of advanced processes to capture the effective characteristics of just about any work. Although creating remarkably similar reproductions, this would result in a product capable of situations out of reach from the original's capabilities. Zoom into the ridgeline and find a ridgeline, zoom in the ridgeline and find a whole word. Benjamin relates this to the process of allowing an “original to meet the beholder halfway.” An objective relationship in which the mechanical reproduction captures the work yet we find the presence of depreciated. This destruction in a mechanical event signals the passage away from a work of art and its occult value.
We should acknowledge, as Benjamin did, that this concept of art losing its ordained state of being has precedence. W. F. Hegel writes this in The Philosophy of Fine Art,
“We are beyond the stage of reverence for works of art as divine and objects deserving our worship. The impression they produce is one of a more reflective kind, and the emotions they arouse require a higher test. . . .”
If we can be granted that there is no “pure covenant” of authenticity, or at least that there no longer exists authenticity without the possibility of its destruction by mechanics - this broken relationship also offers that authenticity must emerge when it is threatened. What once was considered art - no longer is. In the traditional sense, it is no longer capable of achieving such unique autonomous existence. Neither does there seem to be a case where truthful 'aura' can be identified. We may never be able to experience 'aura' as our perception of value in art has transitioned from occult to that of exhibitionist value. When was the last Ark of Covenant created? If a work of art were to remain in a state of cult value, it would, by the same reason, have to remain hidden away from impressions of the world, just as it seems.
War Disguised as Art
Other philosophers have considered the negative, and often existential, interaction the camera has on the world. Susan Sontag writes about the camera's ability to camouflage reality in a false hope of holding “the whole world in our heads.” This implies the camera represents much more than the collectible; its action as the “ideal arm of consciousness” puts one into a feeling of knowledge about the world. She exemplifies this personification by detailing the way in which we experience the world with the camera extended in front of us. She recognizes “images, which now provide most of the knowledge people have about the look of the past and the reach of the present,” are only representations of the world, miniatures of reality. It is true that the camera is democratic, willing to shoot at anything without prejudice. However, the implication that we have knowledge of the world by capturing the “camera record” could not be further from the truth. In fact, Sontag suggests that just the opposite is the application of knowledge by “not accepting the world as it looks” and that all understanding is in the ability to say photography does not capture reality (Sontag, 174). If we must be wary to the camera's ability of promoting reality with more hidden aspects than those it discloses, we must the very same way concern ourselves with generative AI, and the art which it produces as a mere semblance of knowledge, and wisdom - one that masquerades itself as an artist.
A New Machine for Controversy
In a contemporary context, a simple statement such as "AI generative art", quickly ignites controversy. The early part of the second decade in the second millennial, is a milestone for the ever-progressing medium. Creators flood almost every social stream with binary replications, often trained on digital images - or as some point out…”stolen works” which were previously made only by complex organic systems, mostly of the human type. Are these images outputs of a tool similar to the camera? Do they somehow contain even less of a sentiment of 'aura' as a remix of an original false truth of another original or dishonest representation of nature?
AI are by design a digital intelligence grown mostly of mathematics, and as Sontag might suggest, are nothing more than a semblance of reality. How then do we find artist winning photography contest, or art competitions, after submitting AI-Generated Images? Those in judgment must in some gaze have obtained a bit of 'arua' response from the works, or have been fooled enough by the synthetics of the details to find themselves patsies in a game of “find what’s real”. Many artists were furious about these “forgeries of creativity.” Instantly claims were made that the works being trained by images of other artist works were simply deposits of thievery and represent the downfall of the working artist. This seems like an oddly familiar response, similar to which we saw with the invention of photography. It is likely going to be the case that we will see a similar growth in the understanding of art and its evolution as such. Exactly as we witnessed out cropped from early mechanical reproduction threats to art.
If we do not believe this to be as important as a shift and only a tool of means then we should pause to explore that a bit. When Adobe released their AI toolkit “Firefly” it was the first time that a company thought about the ethics behind building such a tool and made a conscious distinction to navigate creative property rights . Quoting efforts like the Content Authenticity Initiative and Coalition for Content Provenance and Authenticity, they claim to be standing up for accountability, responsibility, and transparency in generative AI. Their first model was populated with Adobe stock images, open license content, and public domain content where copyright has expired. (https://www.adobe.com/sensei/generative-ai.html) If their goal is to enhance the creative process and give creators practical advantages, they are certainly not concerned with the spiritual nature of art output with their tool, but rather adding a feature set to a roadmap for a product enhancement that is meant to grab a larger percentage of the designer marketplace.
Keeping in line with Benjamin’s theory, these reproductions will also lack the luster of 'aura'. By 'aura' we are insinuating the lack of 'soul', one that the human kind of being has the uniqueness of containing. We are returning to the implication of 'aura' as being separate from that which all have and directed particularly as a means of a divine, transcendental, and unreachable characteristic. This “authenticity” cannot be translated nor transferred by any occupancies of reproduction.
In a sense, it would exist as an indistinguishable replica to the human eye. Yet, we would certainly question its ability to achieve and meet the requirements of being human. Martin Heidegger suggests in the “Origin of the Work of Art” that all 'things' are not art, but all that is art are 'things'. These clones may fool us into believing that the complex structures make them more than things; we may even qualify them in a contemporary sense as works of art.
It seems evident that our new concept of art as 'things' both contains and does not contain 'aura' simultaneously. All objects appear to hold the potentiality of quantifiable measurements of both occult and exhibitionist values. Imagine the world's most perfect urinal, then hand it to Marcel Duchamp, who’s “Fountain'' seems to hold true that it is what it has always been intended to be. Although “broken” away from its purpose in production; it is also art.
Is this Aura Not that Aura?
Thinking of art from an alternative perspective in this new age of artificial reproduction allows us an opportunity to reinstate its 'aura'. Even the counter arguments to this will perhaps become the strongest evidence for its return.
What we see clearly is that it resonates fondly of its predecessor, mimicking the same as it creates. More individuals are creators, either crowning an exponential percentage of the population as artists, or removing the artist as necessary. Culture and interpretation is certainly not lost on prompt engineering. Words have always stood as placeholders for evolving meaning. As perceptions change, so does the criteria for what constitutes 'aura' and authenticity. We are witnesses to a shift aligning with contemporary sensibilities and a tapped society accessing human creativity on a scale never seen before.
An artist was once asked how long it took them to lay the imagery of a painting so beautifully. Rather than detailing the years of tutelage under mentors and months of layering paint only to start over and scrub away until it was just so, the artist simply responded - “My whole life.” This progressive artistic expression is propelled solely by intricate machine algorithms fueled by attributes of humanist exploration, but it took us 3.8 billions years to evolve from early complex organisms to achieve it. These works are of their own unique and valuable characteristics. They form a direct relationship, or are of equal significance to the type of 'aura' in pre-mechanical standards. Beyond its uniqueness, and cult value, we should admit here today, that moving forward, generative AI has a permanence that will be sustained alongside humanity - at least until the moment humanity is no more.
Benjamin, W. (2005, August 30). The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction - MIT. Massachusetts Institute of Technology. https://web.mit.edu/allanmc/www/benjamin.pdf
G. W. F. Hegel, The Philosophy of Fine Art, trans., with notes, by F. P. B. Osmaston, Vol. I, p. 12, London, 1920.
Sontag, S. (2011, January 21). On photography . University of Pennsylvania. https://www.writing.upenn.edu/library/Sontag-Susan-Photography.pdf
Xiang, C. (2022, December 14). “Artists Are Revolting Against AI Art on ArtStation”. Vice. December 16, 2023, https://www.vice.com/en/article/ake9me/artists-are-revolt-against-ai-art-on-artstation
Stock, A. (2023, September 13). “Generative AI – Adobe Sensei”. adobe.com. https://www.adobe.com/sensei/generative-ai.html
Heidegger, M. (2008). “The origin of the work of art”. University of Waterloo. (pp. 50-60)