Surely Vincent van Gogh’s 1889 painting is one of the top candidates for thinking about what Benjamin called “aura.” It’s splashed on billboards, coffee mugs, buses, and shoes. It’s used to clinch TV dramas about depressed artists and to sell movies about perceiving the world “differently.” I’d really like to be sanctimonious and turn my nose up at this kind of savage commodification of a work of art, but what happens when, as in the case of the shoes above (made by Arkham Prints), the reference is to an episode of a show (Doctor Who) about Van Gogh and not quite to the painting at all?
At a certain point, an image becomes so ubiquitous that it’s hard not to perceive the world through its filter. When I look up at the night sky, all these images of starry nights (in variously distorted hues and shades) come clustering into my awareness. Maybe stories of time travel and adventure become part of what I see in the constellations, but there’s also a nagging sense that I’m supposed to see “another realm.” Other people’s notions of beauty and genius and mental illness, which I don’t often share, crowd into the way the moment means for me.
But imagining that I could cut away all these kinds of associations and confront the night sky alone, in rational or geometrical isolation, is also a fantasy. In one of my favorite short pieces, “To the Planetarium” (1928), Benjamin warns that the ancients and the moderns look to the stars in very different ways. Whereas modern astronomy, after Kepler and Copernicus, places “an exclusive emphasis on an optical connection to the universe,” the ancients’ “intercourse with the cosmos” required “the ecstatic trance.”
Characteristically, Benjamin swerves from this seemingly nostalgic insight (i.e. “dude, those Greeks really knew how to stargaze”) to give a startling gloss on what it means to experience this kind of trance:
For it is in this experience alone that we gain certain knowledge of what is nearest to us and what is remotest from us, and never of one without the other. This means, however, that man can be in ecstatic contact with the cosmos only communally (58).
For Benjamin, the spine-shaking experience of an ecstatic perception is inescapably social.