In the previous blog post I addressed (travelling) concepts (Bal 2002), in general, here I will focus on a specific concept – aura – and how it can be used. The concept of aura features from the work of the German philosopher Walter Benjamin (1892-1940) in his theory of modernity and interpretive readings of modern culture. It first appeared in his essay “Little History of Photography” from 1929 and was later developed in his artwork essay; “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” from 1936 (there are four different versions of the essay). Benjamin used the concept of aura to articulate the shift when the subject of capitalism turns into the subject of modernity in the middle of the 19th century. It appeared in the crossroads of literature, painting, photography, philosophy and modern subjectivity. According to Benjamin is aura the luster or attraction that has been associated with the uniqueness of the work of art that subsists in our perception. He writes in “Little History of Photography”: – “What is aura, actually? A strange web of space and time: the unique appearance of a distance, no matter how close it may be” (1927: 285). Benjamin claims that it is the aura of the work of art that withers in the age of mechanical reproduction. Even the most perfect reproduction of a piece of art is lacking in one particular way – its presence here and now. The process is symptomatic and its significance outreach beyond the field of art. (1936: 222-223).
I first came across the concept of aura in economist Ivar Björkman’s doctoral dissertation; Sven Duchamp: Expert on production of Aura: A study on Entrepreneurs, Visions, Business and Art (1997) where conditions that influence the aura of a product are investigated. Björkman use the Swedish furniture company Källemo AB and its founder Sven Lundh as a case study. (Källemo specialize on exclusive “arty” furniture produced in limited editions where the most important quality aspect is the visual quality. Lundh stated the well-known quote “It [a piece of furniture] shall stand the wear of the eye”). Björkman claims that aura is a social and cultural construction, created by people and is not something that is just “out there” He argues that the majority of aura experiences are interweaved with a variety of cultural factors that influence the experience. For example tend museums to reinforce the perception of aura and media tends to influence the observer’s consciousness of aura. Björkman has in his study tried to deepen the understanding of what is regarded as cultural context for a design company and how value is created in the company. He claims that aura is created in the “art world” which consists of a number of actors, from institutions to professional reviewers, who due to their high cultural credibility has the power to decide what is art and not art (1997: 36-39).
I find the concept of aura useful in my research on modern Swedish furniture where I study how particular pieces of furniture become something called modern classics. I am interested in how different factors and aspects (eg. context, framing, quality and aesthetics) influence us in our perception and definition of modern classics that I also think contributes to their survival, visually and commercially. It is these qualities and values that add to the aura of the furniture or their uniqueness.
Aura is an enigmatic term. Its nuanced understanding does not make it less inscrutable. I will conclude with a quote by philosopher Mieke Bal: “Concepts are never simply descriptive; they are also programmatic and normative. Hence, their use has specific effects. Nor are they stable; they are related to a tradition” (Bal 2002: 28).
Benjamin, Walter. (1936). “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”. Illuminations.
Björkman, Ivar. (1997). Sven Duchamp: Expert on production of Aura: A study on Entrepreneurs, Visions, Business and Art. [Sven Duchamp: expert på auraproduktion. Om entreprenörskap, visioner, konst och företag]. Diss. (selected parts)