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Art, Aura, and Admiration in the Age of Digital Reproduction

Walter Benjamin famously argued that the mass public of the twentieth century would necessarily correlate with a newly politicized art. But the world has changed considerably since Benjamin’s article was written, as Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer already were assessing less than a decade later. It is the purpose of this article to examine how the aesthetics of the Frankfurt school, though frequently still invoked, have lost some of their immediate relevance. The anti-establishment phase of the 60s, compounded by a pronounced taste for irony, rendered aura and exhibition outmoded values, while on the other hand, more recently, price escalation in the art market and digitization have made certain of the Frankfurt school arguments more pertinent than ever. Taking as examples Goldsworthy and Kentridge, this essay argues that a deliberate loosening of the artist’s control over both medium and reception displaces the warmed-over religious responses endorsed by Benjamin, positing instead increased intellectual agency on the part of viewers, whose identity as a mass public has become newly complicated.