With sound and music studies in mind, I recently re-read Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Benjamin famously suggests that the mass reproduction of art has stripped it of its “aura,” which he defines as the mystical emanation surrounding an aesthetic object that identifies its authenticity. Proposing three stages of art, Benjamin explains how this aura originates and decays: in the first stage, art is appreciated for its cult or ritualistic value; that is, someone would create a unique piece of art (like a sculpture) for worship. Second, following this religious stage is a secular one, where people value art for its aesthetic beauty. Benjamin claims that during the Renaissance and for three centuries thereafter, aesthetic objects retain their aura. (Think of any famous Renaissance painting; there is still a spiritual presence surrounding that very object, which is why, in part, we revere them.) In the third stage machines begin to mass-produce art, and the aesthetic object’s aura disappears. Once art is made for reproduction, Benjamin explains, the “authentic” product is no longer valued, and the original will become indistinguishable from its innumerable duplicates. He gives the example of a photo, which does not carry the same presence as, say, a Renaissance portrait; we value the photo for its (reproducible) content, not for its original print. As Benjamin writes, “one can make any number of prints; to ask for the ‘authentic’ print makes no sense” (256).
But has mechanical reproduction totally diminished art’s aura? My immediate counter-argument to Benjamin’s history of art is the vinyl record. I have what may be a very subjective response to vinyl: when I hold one of my records, I can sense the very aura Benjamin describes. Yet maybe my feelings aren’t so unique; the recent resurgence in record sales cannot be attributed only to the (often debated) difference in sound between vinyls and CDs/MP3s. There is an allure to records — no other format (CDs, cassettes, and, especially, digital music) has the same cultish appeal. Even though records are mass produced, their form — not to mention the music they hold — still carries some cultish and aesthetic value.
Part of the appeal of vinyls is that although the record is mass-produced, it contours to its owner, becoming more and more individualized over time. Some of my records, for instance, begin to crackle after repeated listens, especially near the songs I play over and over. Scratches modify the record, making it one’s own. Because records are frequently bought used — at record stores, garage sales, and flea markets — these individual memories are constantly exchanging hands, preserving with them a bit of someone else’s past. Whereas Benjamin says the distinct “here and now of the artwork” wanes once art is mechanically reproduced, I find that vinyls are like time capsules in that they preserve a history (while also growing in the present) (254). Many of the records I own are from the 1960s and 70s, and it shows. There is a distinct presence to the record — its look, condition, inserts, and even smell. All of these qualities contribute to its aura.
After considering Benjamin’s argument, I mostly think he’s right: show me five unsealed, identical records, and I won’t be asking, “which one is authentic?” It’d be a foolish question to ask! But I do think it is interesting how something like a record can build its own aura over time.
Benjamin also writes that technological reproduction “emancipates the work of art from its parasitic subservience to the ritual”; that is, once art becomes mass-produced, it can serve a different function other than worship (256). Yet I think Benjamin downplays the ritualistic appeal of mass-produced art. I keep my records as I would a shrine, for they hold some of the most cherished sounds of my existence. I think great records are meant to be worshiped; they become deeply personal objects that unlock different worlds for its listeners. I know others share these feelings too: one of my favorite scenes from one of my favorite movies, Almost Famous, depicts this mystical aura surrounding records when the film’s young protagonist, William Miller, explores the record collection his sister left behind for him. He knows he is about to discover new worlds as he flips through the albums, feeling their almost palpable aura. Watch as William begins caressing albums by Hendrix, Cream, and Joni Mitchell, as if he’s grazing the spiritual presence enveloping them.
Further underscoring the mysticism of music, William’s sister’s advises him to light a candle during Tommy and unleash its clairvoyant potential. He does, and, as promised, we’re propelled five years into the future, when William’s career as a rock journalist begins. (Keep watching for Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s excellent portrayal of Lester Bangs; you may ignore the Spanish subtitles, though). As audience members, we can sense the invisible aura surrounding these records, and director Cameron Crowe also lets us visualize their mystical possibilities.
For the many who do not purchase any tangible form of music, the concert may be the last place where there’s an aura present. After all, if there’s one thing we first-worlders do right, it’s build auras around celebrities — big and small. Concerts, however, even the most intimate ones, are constantly disrupted by technology: cameras, smartphones, and so on. When I saw Neutral Milk Hotel last month, the band specifically requested that no one use cameras or any video recording devices. Midway through the show, the lead singer politely asked a somewhat disobedient audience to put their cameras away, telling them (to paraphrase) to live in the present moment. Here Benjamin’s argument resonates, as technology again disrupts the “here and now,” blurring the present moment with its many past copies. Just look at the concert footage that makes it onto youtube: it generally looks and sounds the same — the same unsteady hand capturing sounds too loud for his/her device to capture. But the concert experience remains unique, and it’s best enjoyed without someone else’s camera shielding your view. At concerts, I can’t help but think Benjamin was right; but at home, when that first sound of warm fuzz bleeds into a record’s opening song, I can still sense the aura.