The late cultural critic Walter Benjamin alludes to the true relationship between energy and art in his discussion of our relationships with art in “the age of its technological reproducibility,” but he is still unable to break free of the limited Western paradigm. He argues that an original work of art should not be technologically reproduced because it strips the work of art of its intended “aura” or energy. Benjamin falls short by describing the concept of aura as uniqueness. Through equating these two concepts, he thoroughly misses the deeper knowledge at stake – that uniqueness is merely one facet of aura, which usually refers to a concentration of energy. The Western focus on detached observation is obvious in these conclusions:
The uniqueness of the work of art is identical to its embeddedness in the context of tradition. Of course, this tradition itself is thoroughly alive and extremely changeable. An ancient statue of Venus, for instance, existed in a traditional context for the Greeks (who made it an object of worship) that was different from the context in which it existed for medieval clerics (who viewed it as a sinister idol). But what was equally evident to both was its uniqueness-that is, its aura (105).
Benjamin continues, explaining that an object like this statue can never be entirely separated from its ritualistic function. I must completely disagree with this assertion. The Greek pagan tradition to which Benjamin refers is not alive at all, but is in fact quite dead. Here Benjamin seems completely oblivious to the fact that the interaction with reality that gave rise to the statue of Venus, and the “pagan” or Animistic assumptions which drove this interaction, entails an entirely different type of relationship to, and perception of, reality than that of the clerics. Consequently, even the facet of physical uniqueness looked entirely different to the Greeks, who used the statue in their spiritual practices, and the clerics, who co-opted and removed much of the life from the pagan traditions they conquered.
What Benjamin also fails to account for is that there is actually a spectrum concerning the nature of energetic interaction between any one individual, their culture, and reality. This means that there is also a spectrum concerning the extent to which any work of art can pass on its aura, intended or otherwise, to the observer. Here it is equally important to note that Benjamin thinks of the human as merely observer, not participant. This stance exemplifies the Technological Worldview, a worldview so prevalent in the West that it can be classified as hegemonic. Such a worldview operates under the assumption that physical reality is essentially meaningless outside of its operational context. It is essentially quantitative in nature rather than qualitative. As the philosopher Marcuse notes, this fundamental assumption, as well as other equally limiting ones, stems from certain cognitive habits including what he calls a “logic of domination” (153- 155).
This perspective can be contrasted with the Animistic Worldview, prevalent in most native cultures. The Native American beliefs about the nature of reality are as good an example as any: “The major difference between American Indian views of the physical world and Western science lies in the premise accepted by Indians and rejected by scientists : the world in which we live is alive” (Deloria, 40). She explains that Native Americans look at events and physicals objects to determine the spiritual activity beneath them. Critic Melanie Martin reinforces Deloria’s argument when she suggests that the myths of Native Americans, “revolve around traditional beliefs that the physical and spiritual worlds are one, and that the physical world, as part of the spiritual, has the ability to adapt and change in ways far beyond the grasp of Western geological studies” (233). Such assumptions stem from, and at the same time reinforce, shared collective habits of perception and interpretation. Essentially, these basic assumptions largely determine how we will come to energetically interact with others and with our surroundings. Benjamin condescendingly refers to the cognitive habits of this worldview as “magical”, a thoroughly predictable dismissal common to those only experienced with the Technological Worldview.
The philosopher Robert Solomon very perceptively notes that just as history is self-actualizing, in that one must first believe in the abstract concept of history before one has access to its content and truth, so too is spirituality. Building on the notion that, as animate energetic beings, we have a large amount of conscious or unconscious control over the nature, limits and scope of our interaction with the universe, Solomon shows us that this self-actualizing property of larger abstract concepts like spirituality and history allows us to expand our consciousness so that we can come to interact more dynamically with the universe. The concept of history is a step in this direction, but the concept of spirituality is a profound movement in this direction, due to its extremely elastic boundaries and its ability to operate outside of language. This is an essential point to grasp when attempting to understand energetic interaction as it pertains to life and art. This right-hemispheric, Animistic and spiritual conception of the world clearly allows more dynamic energetic interaction.
Benjamin is right, in his discussion, to the extent that technological reproductions of a work of art lack in the ability to transmit their aura or energy when compared to something like an original painting, statue, or live performance. At the same time, due to his cultural blindness he fails to see the true spectral nature of the energetic interaction between even these reproductions and those who purchase or observe them. People would not observe them or purchase them if they did not transmit some type of aura, intended or otherwise. A wall with a beautiful technological reproduction is far superior to a wall void of anything. The fact of our observance and purchase can be taken as proof positive that even these reproductions can convey powerful auras and provoke even more powerful energetic interaction between the participant and the work or art.
The one-sided nature of even his most prized human relationship with a work of art, the observation of an original piece or performance, betrays just how limiting the Technological Worldview can be. Even his best examples of energetic or aura-related interaction between the individual and the work of art are relatively lifeless when compared to the participatory storytelling, dance, and ritual of Native American culture, as relayed by Simon Ortiz. Ortiz describes a dancing event hosted by the Yaaka Hano, or Corn Clan, within his tribe: “In a metaphorical sense, they will come into being as Corn People in that event. In a philosophical sense, they will give it [their identity as Corn People] life and by so doing they will give themselves life. They, therefore, as Corn People, will come into being” (87). Ortiz notes that these traditions of participation, through engaging the participant, endow him or her with energetic emotional responsibility toward the story itself, the other participants, and the universe at large.
Thus, through these participatory Animistic traditions, the people come to form a dynamic energetic basis for interaction with the other animate (organic or inorganic) beings of this world. The western traditions, by contrast, seem to be much less dynamic in terms of their energetic interaction with the universe. These Animistic energetic interactions fall on the far opposite end of the spectrum from technologically reproduced works of art that are intended merely for observation by Western audiences. At the same time, it is true that the participant may compensate for this lack in the medium by the way he or she interacts with the work of art, thus adding degrees of complexity to the relationship. Nonetheless, I believe it is safe to say that, generally speaking, the participatory work of art yields far more energetic interaction than technological reproductions or original works of observation-based art, and that those operating from the Animistic worldview drastically expand their capacity for energetic interaction.
We may say that participatory storytelling, dance, and ritual seem to be among the highest art forms, in that they are interactive energetic experiences. The aura of the work of art, be it dancing a collective meta-narrative into being, like the Yaaka Hano, or a personal, orally related, narrative, comes to interact with the aura of the participant in mutually reinforcing ways that multiply the power of both energies exponentially. There is a dramatic and dynamic flow of energy in all directions, which stands in stark contrast to the relatively one-sided observation of a painting or sculpture. It is no wonder that Benjamin misses out on any meaningful discussion of oral tradition, dance, and ritual, stuck as he is in the western Technological Worldview. Were he able to step outside of this worldview, the role of participation in art and the world would become obvious, as it is in the Native American tradition and other Animistic cultures. Stepping outside of the Technological Worldview would also foster awareness of the true spectral nature of all things.
Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility.” In Selected Writings Volume 3. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press. 2002.
Deloria Jr., Vine. “Science and the Oral Tradition.” In Red Earth, White Lies: Native Americans and the Myth of Scientific Fact. Golden, CO: Fulcrum Publishing. 1997.
Marcuse, Herbert. One-Dimensional Man. Boston: Beacon Press, 1964.
Martin, Melanie J. “Myths of Loss, Myths of Power: Disappearing Animals in American Indian Stories.” In Of Mice and Men: Animals in Human Culture. Newcastle, UK: Cambridge Scholars Publishing. 2009.
Ortiz, Simon. “Native Heritage: A Tradition of Participation.” In Simon J. Ortiz: A Poetic Legacy of Indigenous Continuance. Albuquerque, NM: The University of New Mexico Press (pgs 86-94). 2009.