In “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Walter Benjamin describes the “aura” that might be held by a unique work of art. The term “aura” is convenient shorthand for the particularity of time, location, and meaning that produce an original work of art. For example, the reproduction of a religious carving detaches it from its context in the spiritual place and practice for which was it was made; to view such a reproduction in a museum or household far from its intended cathedral is to view a diminished object. Mechanical reproduction is not purely a decaying process–Benjamin notes that reproducing photographs, for example, can allow one to make enlarge details that were present but invisible in the original; further, there is something to be said about detaching art from ritual, or even the secular “theology of art” that characterized “art for art’s sake” in the nineteenth century.
In the twenty-first century, artists must work in the context of digital reproduction, a technology-saturated environment that in some ways benefits and increases artistic production and in other ways threatens to diminish its value. At the same time, we haven’t entired abandoned the ideal that artworks should be unique, precious, and impart an aura of the artist’s skill and intent.
It’s not too surprising, then, that some artists paint with wine.
Wine, like art, has a sort of holy resonance in the imagination. It certainly has “aura”–or, as oenophiles would have it, terroir; wine is entirely a unique product of its particular grapes, grounds, preparation and pressing. There’s a lovely monologue from the movie Sideways that captures the import of a wine’s context, both in its creation and in its consumption:
“I like to think about the life of wine. How it’s a living thing. I like to think about what was going on the year the grapes were growing; how the sun was shining; if it rained. I like to think about all the people who tended and picked the grapes. And if it’s an old wine, how many of them must be dead by now. I like how wine continues to evolve, like if I opened a bottle of wine today it would taste different than if I’d opened it on any other day, because a bottle of wine is actually alive. And it’s constantly evolving and gaining complexity.”
Artists Amelia Fais Harnas and Scott Gunderson each incorporate wine as a medium in the artwork: the wine stains the canvas or the corks to create color, shading, complexity. (In the winestain portraits by Harnas, wine even makes a kind of “aura” around the heads of those depicted.) In this way, the pieces leave the impression both of the artist’s hand (who spilled the wines or collected the stained corks for their unique properties) but also the wine itself, a product of so many particularities.
I would imagine that the finished pieces have a unique scent, too, meaning that the reproduction of these wine-stained portraits would quite literally illustrate the loss of aura described by Benjamin. On the other hand, as a literary scholar I know that what we miss in hands-on experience we can supply with stories–as I am doing here–so my digital reproduction of the pieces above do not diminish their interest for me one whit.