the aura of art

i've been thinking about pricing as you all know, and that has led me to think about walter benjamin. i never thought he would stick with me after grad school - he's not the most entertaining writer (although i remember loving the arcades project). he wrote his famous work "the work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction" in the early 20th century when art was just beginning to be mass distributed in prints.

he pondered what exactly it was that created the value of the "original" art work and why it should necessarily be worth more than a copy. he theorized that the original had been imbued with some sort of magical or religious significance and called this special something the work's "aura." but if you read the essay carefully and know that he was a good marxist, it seems that he meant this to be tongue-in-cheek. there really isn't an "aura" - it's an arbitrary system of value that's been assigned to the original, the rare, something called "art" - and that value system is inextricably linked with wealth and power. the mechanical reproduction of art made it available to everyone. one can only imagine what he would have thought of digital age! but the nazis made that impossible.

so i was thinking about those of us working from photographs, especially endlessly and instantly reproducible digital photographs - and re-interpreting them as fiber art. in some ways, it's the reverse of the process benjamin was describing - taking the copy and re-aura-izing it. even en embroidered pattern has something of this. the stitches give that same indexicality as the brush-stroke that lets you know the person, the artist or crafter, was really there. i guess this is nothing all that new since painters have long worked from photographs, which is another reason the whole logic of the "original" can be circular.

i've just been wondering why it is we stitch, beyond the beauty and enjoyment of it. what is it that's so compelling about this medium. the labor of it and time involved seems to have something to do with marking it as an original - and then the fact that it's typically a representational art, images or text but not often abstract - makes it seem very much like trying to fix something in memory, memorialize it, make it last. that's how i feel anyway. what do you think?


  1. I'm going to talk all over your comment section, because it seems I'm the only one jumping in. :)

    I've thought a lot about this, especially, your last paragraph. I think I may have started to suss it out for myself. (I wrote a really long post a while back that kind of relates to this stuff, how storytelling is essential to humans and how art and craft are functions of that.)

    So anyway, I think that art is story telling, and if the history (pre-history, really) of stitching and fiber work tells us anything, it's that the longest unmolested traditions are rooted in cultural "magic". I use the term loosely, but not too loose. Perhaps the labor involved made people feel like there was a definite deliberateness in creating these pieces with specific designs or images. You've really got to mean it or you wouldn't bother with how much work it takes. (Like the Ikat weaving I showed in an early xstitch article. The women who wove those pieces believe that the animals depicted inside could really harm them, even kill them or cause miscarriages, and the geometric borders are there to contain their power.) So maybe, this special kind of labor tended to be reserved for pieces with an enhanced meaning.

    I mean, the design work probably didn't come out of sheer domestic ingenuity, it's too time consuming. And I'm not talking about great grandma being clever turning old clothes into quilts, I'm talking about how we've had spindles for well over 10,000 years. The more I read, the more I'm convinced that stitching has it's design roots in the precious, not the practical.

    All over the world, we find shuttles or spindles in burials. Nearly every pantheon I can think of has weaving gods and goddesses. So much of our language is taken from fiber phrases. (Clue/Clew, spinning a tale, loosing the tread of a conversation) A few years ago I read about a court weavers (I can't remember where, I'll have to look it up) being employed specifically to influence battles. Apparently it was believed you could tangle and strangle your opponent's army in the weft. However, many war deities also tend to be weaving deities, so it could also be to curry favor.

    This is also interesting because it's easy to find examples of other superstitions similar to this in fiber. Like it's bad luck to see a woman embroidering because she can tangle you in her thread, (In one region, the verb "to embroider" is apparently the same as "to cast a spell") There are very similar stories about how it's bad luck to see a woman spinning.

    So I guess what I'm trying to say, is that it seems like fiber art has always been considered powerful and dynamic. Perhaps it's because of the time and skill it takes, and probably because these pieces almost always do double duty, infusing the useful with the ritual, in a way that other arts rarely do.

  2. penny, you are so eloquent on this subject. i wish you'd talk even more about it (maybe a series on donkeywolf or mr x?) because this history is unknown to me and fascinating. it has given me a lot to think on and a whole new angle on my loves... perhaps i've got religion and didn't even know it.