Thursday, 5 December 2013

Eroded Aura

Big Red Stripe and Tiny Pencil Flag

I was on the South Bank in London a couple of weeks ago, wandering in and out of various galleries.  On any day, at any time, it seems that looking at art in the major London galleries is rather like going to a funfair.  I had hoped to see the Paul Klee exhibition at Tate Modern, but the tickets were expensive and the queues were long, and I find it hard, these days, to share contemplative space with parties of shrieking schoolchildren.  I gave it a miss.  By contrast, I enjoyed the quiet of the Bankside Gallery, home of the Royal Societies of Watercolours and Painter-Printmakers, even though most of the work on show there is kind of stuck in a tasteful "late 20th century decorative" mode.*

I don't know if I'm peculiar in this respect, but I find many modern paintings, encountered directly, disappointing.  Frankfurt School theorist Walter Benjamin is best known for a single essay, "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction", in which he reflects on the social and aesthetic consequences of widely-available reproductions of works of art, and recordings of music.  I'm not going to discuss this tendentious (and widely misunderstood) essay here, except to refer to Benjamin's idea that the "aura" of a unique work or performance -- its presence in time and space -- is "eroded" by reproduction.  I have to say that, for most post-19th century painting, I have the opposite experience.  Works I have encountered many times in reproduction seem to lose their numinous quality and simply deflate when encountered on the wall.  They become mere bits of wood and canvas with painty marks on.  I become obsessed with the careless and unfinished quality of much brushwork, something which is smoothed out in reproduction, so that the painter's intention is able to shine through the sloppy execution.  But, hey, I'm just a petit-bourgeois skill-fetishist.

In the spirit of the gallery experience, I have given my photos titles, for a change.  After all, is there anything more annoying in a gallery than a work entitled "Untitled", or worse, "Untitled #97"?  Actually, yes, shrieking parties of schoolchildren are much more annoying.

Illumination Respects a Boundary

* A secret for gents of a certain age:  it has excellent toilet facilities (worth knowing if you're exploring the Thames embankment with a camera in a cutting cold wind).

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