Assignment 3: Reflections on feedback

On reading the dense feedback that my tutor sent me on Assignment 3 my first thought was that I am proceeding through this introductory course to Creative Arts as in a thick forest where I slowly make my way discovering new trees and unknown animals at every step: it’s an exciting if challenging journey in which there are always more questions than answers and every answer generates new questions in a continuous search. This is really stimulating.

I try to follow every thread as best as I can but I am beginning to think that after all is the journey itself that matters, that there will always be new ways or detours ahead and that a progressive increase of awareness is what I can be striving for.

In this particular feedback Dr. Belshaw points to me several directions that could be followed and explored further in this forest and I suspect that he could as easily have suggested several others.

Starting from my remark ‘… the aura is not dispersed’ I am invited to expand on the concept of ‘aura’ and to think about the critical problems that arise when the market – in this case fashion and advertising – appropriates art – in this case an absolute masterwork like Las Meninas by Velázquez.

First thing I went back to Benjamin to look for more information about his conception of aura and I found this definition:  ‘What is aura actually? A strange weave of space and time: the unique appearance or semblance of distance, no matter how close the object may be’ (SW: 518)

These words mark the uniqueness and the extraordinariness of the object of contemplation and also the almost religious distance that separates the viewer and the object – as if the object could be never completely approached and explained, but only intuitively and not rationally absorbed and understood.  When this object is brought closer it loses its aura.  Benjamin adds elsewhere that the aura of a work of art depends on ‘its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be’ (Work of art: 3): only a piece of art that is original and authentic has an aura, when it is reproduced its aura is destroyed.

If this is so, in the poster reappropriation of Las Meninas the aura IS indeed dispersed, only a cosmetic superficial resemblance with the original has been retained, all complex cultural, historical, artistic, emotional elements of the masterpiece are lost in the translation from high art to marketable fashion. The aura of the original has been used and transformed into something of an altogether different nature: the aesthetic experience of the aura has become an efficient marketing tool to sell fashion.

This is true, but I don’t think that in this operation the aura of the original has been exhausted and destroyed by the poster. The painting is still there, in The Prado Museum, and has maintained all its aura, and even if it is surrounded by noisy or even inattentive crowds it’s still possible to perceive this aura, this beautiful distance, if only the viewer pays attention, is open to it. I would say that the painting has been lending its aura to the poster without losing it.

I think that this can happen because the painting and the poster speak different languages, are judged according to different criteria, do not have a real relation between them and we as viewers have learnt or can learn to shift between the two communicative ‘modes’, from high art to visual culture and back again, from being immersed in the aura of the painting to the commercially effective message of the poster. There is no real exchange going on, the channels remain separate: the poster borrows what it needs from the painting and invites customers to buy and the painting lives on untouched with its irreducible aura. I’m going to briefly expand on this in the final review of my essay.

I also think that the case can be very different when a work of art is appropriated by another work of art, like when Picasso appropriates Velasquez’s Las Meninas in 58 paintings or Jeff Wall appropriates Manet’s Un bar aux Folies-Bergère in Picture for Women (1979), as mentioned by my tutor. Here the language is the same and the aura of the original is explored, reverberated and perhaps even enriched with new layers and viewpoints by the appropriations – the presence of a mirror in all these works is not casual and creates complex exchanges in all directions, within the works themselves,  between the appropriated and the appropriating works and between the works and the viewers.

As Dr. Belshaw correctly guessed, I was aware of Barthes concept of ‘Italianicity’ when speaking about the Spanish signification of Las Meninas for foreign consumers, at least for European consumers. The advertisement was presumably addressed to visitors in their ‘tourist mode’, to use Dr. Belshaw’s words, and could be lost for example on a Chinese audience not familiar with the Western tradition of painting and the Spanish cultural identity, and for which the connotations of the poster could be others. This is certainly another interesting area of research in Visual Communications, how connotations of the same message do change depending on several individual, social and cultural factors.

My feedback includes also the stimulating suggestion to have a closer look at the meaning of ‘meaning’. This is a difficult area to grasp thoroughly given also the linguistic intricacies of the different theories on the two sides of the Atlantic and it is a very suggestive idea to look at it in the light of the ‘heresy of paraphrase’ thesis of Cleanth Brooks, from a literary and philosophical point of view instead of a linguistic one.

At a first guess the notion that a poem cannot be explained because it is not possible to rephrase it without destroying its irreducible meaning that is inseparable from its form might be usefully extended to the visual arts: also the aura of a work of art cannot be really expressed – paraphrased – in words and can be perceived only in its whole and not in its separate elements. When we look at the parts we seem to lose track of the whole, and its ‘meaning’ evaporates. It would look as if the meaning cannot be explained, can only be ‘felt’.

Another thought: if this is so, to differentiate between signifier and signified, denotation and connotation is analytically useful but does not explain the ‘meaning’ of the sign.

 

Bibliography

Benjamin, W. (1931-1934) Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings. Harvard: Harvard University Press [online] At: https://bookshttps://books.google.it/books?id=7M0x5svvwyEC&pg=PA518&lpg=PA518&dq=what+is+aura+actually?+a+strange+weave+of+space&source=bl&ots=2ak13tdNZk&sig=elnfJsMYLvzb6qvbGyCtXQQi7NY&hl=it&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwiK44nRuODUAhVE1hQKHYDVBLgQ6AEIJDAC#v=onepage&q=what%20is%20aura%20actually%3F%20a%20strange%20weave%20of%20space&f=false.google.com/?hl=it (Accessed 27/06/2017)

Benjamin, W. ‘The work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ (1932) [online] At: http://web.mit.edu/allanmc/www/benjamin.pdf (Accessed 10/04/2017)

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