Street Art to Media: From Contemplation to Distraction with Walter Benjamin

Scan 2I found this particular mural within the Mission District in San Francisco, CA and from my perspective I think the artwork could be described as having what German critic, journalist, historian, social scientist, philosopher, collector.Walter Benjamin’s (1982-1940) would deem as “Aura”.

  “ Historically, works of art had an ‘aura’ – an appearance of magical or supernatural force arising from their uniqueness (similar to mana). The aura includes a sensory experience of distance between the reader and the work of art.

      The aura is an effect of a work of art being uniquely present in time and space. It is connected to the idea of authenticity. A reproduced artwork is never fully present. If there is no original, it is never fully present anywhere. Authenticity cannot be reproduced, and disappears when everything is reproduced. Benjamin thinks that even the original is depreciated, because it is no longer unique.”

cited from CeaseFire Magazine

I was attracted to this particular mural somewhere in between 17th and 21st in the city by the bay because the colors and different textures used to describe the facial features and emotion of the face created a sense of awe and confusion. The contrast between the black and white optical aspects of the piece in conjunction with the array of colors used within the palette is remarkable. I enjoyed what I understood the mural artist’s take on what lies next – the unknown of the present and the unbearable anxiousness one can feel at times like everything is happening at once. The mural made me question the artist’s motive and I believe that is an important aspect of creating and sustaining the viewer’s attention.

Walter Benjamin talks about the uniqueness and the certain permanence that an image is seen by the “unarmed” eye (without the help of photography or film) as “Authentic”

             Along with their authenticity, objects also lose their authority with the aid of reproduced imagery. The masses contribute to the loss of aura by seeking constantly to bring things closer. They create reproducible realities and hence destroy uniqueness. 

     The traditional work of art is experienced mainly through distanced contemplation. In declining bourgeois society, this since become an asocial stance. In contrast, modern cultural forms such as photographs, TV shows and film do not lend themselves to contemplation. They are imperative, challenging and agitating the viewer, putting up signposts.

Benjamin argues that distraction became an alternative to contemplation. Distraction is fundamentally social. It replaces the viewer’s thoughts by moving images, stopping the viewer from thinking. Benjamin criticises the usual account whereby true art is contemplated and the masses seek only distraction.   I think murals are able to combine both of these functions in the tradition of the craft as well as being politically motivated.

cited from CeaseFire Magazine

I agree with Benjamin about how the practice of photography and film ultimately has deduced the quality and scope of what can be deemed art. Instead of art being a stamp in time, time lapsed media such as film and photography play a role of more “progressive” responses to the works and this dissipates an opportunity for the imposed “aura” to be created. In photography, we are shown an image that begs for more information instead of viewing and enjoying the emotion and intellect behind it all. As Benjamin described it, it  has “devolved” when the important aspect of involving handiwork with creation has crumbled. This is important because authenticity is what began as the practice of art- to make things more beautiful and not quite like anything else.

I like how Benjamin says that in prehistoric times, art was simply regard as magic and only later as a work of art.

I believe murals are more likely to have a kind of aura than most other artworks in this day and age because, as Benjamin demonstrates, the value of a piece in situ will have much more of a presence than an object that can be moved.

What do you think? Do the murals that adorn the buildings of San Francisco have more of an important part and place in the community than our local museums? The often political and emotionally charged pieces such as the one on the infamous Balmy Alley are pictured below that I consider “la corazon of la Mission”.


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