Authenticity

Ancient Evenings: Ka Libretto by Matthew Barney

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Authenticity is of the utmost importance for Benjamin and for Book Historians. You remember that Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” is something of an extended lament for the loss of aura, which Benjamin equates with authenticity, in the work of art. Benjamin writes “The presence of the original is the prerequisite to the concept of authenticity is outside technical—and of course, not only technical—reproducibility. Confronted with its manual reproduction, which was usually branded as a forgery, the original preserved all its authority” (220). According to Benjamin, the essence of authenticity is aura, a term that is never actually defined in this essay. Aura, it seems, is the work's presence within a tradition. The uniqueness of the work within the “fabric of tradition” (223) secures its authenticity. Although Benjamin never quite makes this jump, we could say that the "fabric of tradition" is a filial tradition, a tradition legitimized and patrolled by the author/father.

Mechanical reproduction rips the artwork from its tradition and thus violently destroys its aura. The technique of mechanical reproduction “substitutes a plurality of copies for a unique existence” (221). In order to demonstrate this principle, Benjamin uses the examples of painting and photography, and stage drama and film. He asserts that in both photography and film, the aura of the work of art is lost. He writes “To an ever greater degree the work of art reproduced becomes the work of art designed for reproducibility. From a photographic negative, for example, one can make any number of prints; to ask for the ‘authentic’ print makes no sense. But the instant the criterion of authenticity ceases to be applicable to artistic production, the total function of art is reversed” (224).

Book historians are similarly concerned with markers of authenticity in an age of not only mechanical, but electronic reproduction. Graham Barwell writes "For documents in paper form, there are long-established practices of ensuring authenticity and originality; these include the use of specific formal characteristics in document design and creation, certification by witnesses, etc..

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