Transforming the Aura: An Analysis of the Political Nature of Walter Benjamin’s Aura in the work of Street Artists

(Submitted as a Formative Essay [no credits] for LSE module SO434: Cultural Theory and Cultural Forms)

In a society besieged by advertisement images, street art can be viewed as an attempt to reclaim the streets from capitalist consumer culture and inject the possibility for creativity and spontaneity into contemporary society. Not always overtly political in nature, street art or graffiti has long been considered an anti-capitalist movement, providing minorities and subcultures with a platform to express identity across the globe.

 

A controversial genre, contemporary graffiti or street art is term that covers a wide expanse of wall paintings, ranging from simple words or artist ‘tags’, to vast murals covering whole buildings. As often this art work is produced by those with no formal art training or education and on sites without property owner’s permission, it is imbued with notions of illegality and vandalism.  Consequently, the understanding of graffiti as art form is highly contested.

 

In the late 1970s street art came to influence the commercial world. Drawing upon the success of emerging hip-hop culture, street art was utilised in marketing campaigns, with corporations often employing well known graffiti artists to produce street advertisements and murals, or have them assist in the creative design process. Consequently, graffiti and street art became detached from theories associated with vandalism and denigration (see Wilson and Kelling, 1982) and moved into a commercially viable art form. This commodification has seen street art increase in market value over recent years, with works by highly acclaimed street artist Banksy working going for up to $1.87 million US dollars. Alongside this increase in profitability and capitalisation of street artwork is the shift towards the view that graffiti and street art now constitute a legitimate art form. A move that has pushed graffiti off  the streets, and into art galleries and private viewing spaces. This transfer from public to private has a profound impact on the political dynamics of this art form. Where once the work of street artists stood as an attempt to subvert and destabilise messages of capitalism and elitism, its new market position can be seen to have depoliticised the genre.

 

Traditionally street art has been viewed as reactive towards the elitism and exclusivity of the art field. Standing in isolation from profit-motivated institutions such as art galleries, museums and schools of art, street art provides a platform for artists to display their work outside of the capitalist model. Through increased accessibility via public displays of art the elite cultural status of the art gallery in society is challenged[1].

 

Bourdieu’s (1986) work Distinction helps to provide a framework to understand the political relationship and power struggles associated with the art field. Bourdieu notes that art is a social product, it cannot be seen as a distinct or autonomous entity, rather it is the result of a complex set of power dynamics linked to hierarchical relationships between in groups and out groups. For Bourdieu, taste and consumption patterns provide a relevant tool in modern societies as a means to identify social groups; those who are like us, and those who are not. This politics of recognition relies upon the fixing of the other as means of achieving recognition of the individual’s own worth.

 

“Taste classifies, and it classifies the classifier. Social subjects, classified by their classifications, distinguish themselves by the distinctions they make, between the beautiful and the ugly, the distinguished and the vulgar, in which their position in the objective classifications is expressed or betrayed.”

(Bourdieu, 1986:6).

 

What is defined as “high art”, argues Bourdieu, is defined by the upper classes who seek to highlight a superior form of participation, and exclude those whose tastes and politics are viewed as “vulgar”.  This acts as a form of “symbolic violence” acting against the perceived lower forms of artwork, denying them distribution and acting as an impenetrable barrier into the art world. Symbolic violence acts to ensure the exclusivity of the art world is preserved.

 

It is in this respect we can view Street Art as holding a unique identity in the art world, championing access to art through everyday experience and enabling those with little capital or access to formal institutions of art to participate. For example, the works of the street artist Banksy regularly appears in poorer areas of London, utilising the local landscape and infrastructure to develop a political point. Banksy’s piece ‘Slave Labour’ which appeared on the side of a Poundland shop in Wood Green, Haringey in 2012, drew relevance from its apparent critique of consumer society and global child labour, in the wake of celebrations of the Queen’s Jubilee and London Olympic Games. Its relevance to its local environment is paramount; Haringey is notably one of the most deprived areas in the UK, and ranked as the fourth most deprived area in London (Index of Multiple Deprivation Report, 2011).

 

It is through consideration of the chosen locations of Banksy’s work we can begin to gain the significance of Walter Benjamin’s concept of aura. For Benjamin aura is captured only within the original and the authentic, it is specific to the context in which it is created and displayed;

 

“Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be.”

(Benjamin, 1936:II)

 

For Banksy his work draws implication from context, specifically his targeting of sites relevant to the political issue the piece aims to highlight. Equally, the aura of his work is reliant upon the temporality of street art. It captures the viewer in its ephemeral nature; the time in which it is viewed reflects “the history to which it was subject throughout the time of its existence” (Benjamin, 1936: II). Areas of the work may become damaged or adapted by other artists, thus, appreciation of the piece is fluid and evolutionary in nature as the setting of the artwork changes over time. Street art can be therefore viewed as a conversation between the artist and the surrounding environment.

 

The fluidity and contextual relevance of this form of art means it becomes difficult to inspire the political reaction the artist aims to invoke through the reproduced image. As Benjamin notes the reproducible image can never capture the milieu of a piece. The audience is directed to what those behind the camera wish us to see. In the case of street art this is likely to be simply a close range shot of the art piece itself, the environment in which it is displayed is likely to be ignored. The art, by consequence, is no longer reflexive; the image is manipulated and mimetic quality of the artwork is lost. As Benjamin highlights, the removal of the aura infers a loss of authority in both the art piece and the audience.  The audience is subject to the lens and consequently new modes of deception and distraction come into play as the author of the artwork changes. By consequence it is to some degree depoliticised, it becomes fixed and alienated from the context from which it’s meaning was rooted.

 

Tourism studies have drawn upon Benjamin’s notion of aura to illustrate that aura remains valued in modern society as the consumer still searches for the authentic experience (Rickly-Boyd, 2012: 270). This value of the original feeds into the art world also, despite mass reproduction of famous art images, the draw of experiencing the aura of the authentic piece remains highly valued. The high tourist footfall to places such as the Louvre, Paris to experience the Italian artist Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, indicate the aura is by no means destroyed by mass reproduction, and arguably could be seen to be enhanced. However, it remains relevant to note that what differentiates Street Art from the traditional sculpture or hung art work is the way that it draws meaning from its context.

 

In this sense it may be of greater value to draw comparisons between Street Art and archaeological finds and debates surrounding decolonisation. Learning from postcolonial studies and discussions held concerning the return of articles deemed of historical relevance to populations and states, it is possible to develop two clear lines of thought when observing the transformation of Street Art from an urban context to the gallery. Firstly, the concept of ownership and entitlement- Is it possible to own a public art piece? If so, who is the owner? Secondly, the concepts of value and appreciation- who is able appreciate the value of the art work? Work following this paper may wish to draw upon these two questions in order to create a more embellished body of literature on the subject of Street Art.

 

The popularisation of the Street Art genre has resulted in both the mass distribution of reproduced images, which arguably may increase the piece’s political message, but also ignites the desire to own the original. Whilst it is not clear the extent to which street artists are able to profit directly from these sales, if at all, it is apparent Street Art now functions in the capitalist sphere. There remains no onus on local authority or government to protect the art from such sales and subsequent denigration of local cultural heritage. By consequence of the commodification and appropriation of this political art form into new sites of experience, a crucial element of the original aura is lost. The art work is stripped of its uniqueness and its place in history. This brief paper does not attempt to argue that the work of street artists, once situated in a gallery is depleted of all political value. Certainly the clear cut messages illustrated in work of artists displayed in elite institutions remains politically controversial. Rather the paper attempts to highlight that the political meaning of the art transformed into an ironic statement: highlighting the ills of capitalism from within one of its temples.

 

Reference:

 

BBC News. (2012). ‘’Banksy’ boy worker image on Poundland shop wall’. Available: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-london-18075620 . Last accessed 16 November 2013.

 

BBC News. (2013). ‘Banksy’s No Ball Games mural removed from Tottenham wall’. Available: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-london-23461396. Last accessed 16 November 2013.

 

Benjamin, W. (1936/2008). ‘The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction’. London: Penguin.

 

Bourdieu, P. (1986). ‘Distinction: A social critique of the judgement of taste’. Oxon: Routledge.

 

Chan, T.W and Goldthorpe, J.H. (2007). ‘Social stratification and cultural consumption: the visual arts in England’, Poetics, 35: 168–190

 

Haringey Council. (2011). ‘Index of Multiple Deprivation Report 2010: Headlines For Haringey’. Available: http://www.haringey.gov.uk/indices_of_deprivation_2010.pdf . Last accessed 16 November 2013.

 

Hazelwood, A. (2011). ‘Hobos to Street People: Artists’ Responses to Homelessness from the New Deal to the Present’, Freedom Voices Publications

 

Rickly-Boyd, J.M. (2012) ‘Authenticity and Aura: A Benjaminian Approach to Tourism’, Annals of Tourism Research, Vol. 39, No. 1, p. 269–289

 

Whitehead, C. (2012) ‘Interpreting Art in Museums and Galleries’, Routledge, London

 

Wilson, J. Q., and Kelling, G. L. (1982). ‘Broken windows’. Atlantic monthly, 249(3), 29-38.

 


[1] For a full discussion on the social status and accessibility of art galleries see Whitehead (2012) and Chan and Goldthorpe (2007)

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