Commentary Track

National Treasure (2004)

This week on The Spectator Film Podcast…

National Treasure (2004) 9/13/19
Featuring: Austin, Maxx

Commentary Track begins at 15:25

— Notes —

  • Let America Be America Again by Langston Hughes
  • Ways of Seeing by John Berger — Here’s a link to Ways of Seeing, which we quoted several times in the later part of our commentary track. As we mentioned, Berger’s book incorporates ideas from other thinkers (such as “Aura”) but he elaborates on them in a beautifully accessible and straightforward way – no wonder it’s a classic. This book is a must-read for anyone who’s interested in visual arts, and it does an amazing job introducing the implicit politics within the art market and the way we value different artistic creations – and this naturally extends to the way we value other historic documents/objects. We’ll also include a link a free pdf version of the book. Find the quoted passages below:
    • “The uniqueness of every painting was once part of the uniqueness of the place where it resided. Sometimes the painting was transportable. But it could never be seen in two places at the same time. When the camera reproduces a painting, it destroys the uniqueness of its image. As a result its meaning changes. Or, more exactly, its meaning multiplies and fragments into many things” (19).

    • “… the uniqueness of the original now lies in it being the original of a reproduction. It is no longer what its image shows that strikes one as unique; its first meaning is no longer to be found in what it says, but in what it is. This new status of the original work is the perfectly rational consequence of the new means of reproduction. But it is at this point that a process of mystification again enters. The meaning of the original work no longer lies in what it uniquely says but in what it uniquely is. How is its unique existence evaluated and defined in our present culture? It is defined as an object whose value depends upon its rarity. This value is affirmed and gauged by the price it fetches on the market. But because it is nevertheless ‘a work of art’ – and art is thought to be greater than commerce – its market price is said to be a reflection of its spiritual value. Yet the spiritual value of an object, as distinct from a message or an example, can only be explained in terms of magic or religion. And since in modern society neither of these is a living force, the art object, the ‘work of art’, is enveloped in an atmosphere of entirely bogus religiosity.  Works of art are discussed and presented as thought they were holy relics: relics which are first and foremost evidence of their own survival. The past in which they originated is studied in order to prove their survival genuine. They are declared art when their line of descent can be certified” (21).

    • “The bogus religiosity which now surrounds original works of art, and which is ultimately dependent upon their market value, has become the substitute for what paintings lost when the camera made them reproducible. Its function is nostalgic. It is the final empty claim for the continuing values of an oligarchic, undemocratic culture. If the image is no longer unique and exclusive, the art object, the thing, must be made mysteriously so” (23).


  • The Penguin Dictionary of Critical Theory by David Macey — Here’s a link to another wonderful resource. There’s an incredible amount of information in this book, and we recommend it to anyone looking to do any sort of academic research on film. We’ll include the passage on Aura below:
    • “An important, but very ambiguous, term used by Walter Benjamin in his account of the work of art in the period of Modernity (1935, 1936). It refers primarily to that quality of a painting or sculpture seen in the immediacy of ‘its here and now’ (sein Heir und Jetzt), or its ‘unique existence at the place where it happens to be’ (Benjamin 1936). In his famous description of the work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction (meaning lithography and then photography), Benjamin remarks that not even the most perfect reproduction can capture this fleeting aura. In the earlier but related essay on photography (1931), the notion of aura is associated with the atmospheric character of early photographs; this too is destroyed as more perfect processes of reproduction strip the object bare. Aura is said to originate in the original ritual or cultic function of primitive works of art, and to be destroyed as mechanical reproduction transforms their ritual value into exhibition value. As Adorno remarks (1970), Benjamin appears to be both nostalgic for and critical of the phenomenon of the aura. He both regrets the loss of the non-recuperable experience of perceiving the art work in its Hier und Jetzt and welcomes its liberation from parasitical dependence on ritual, arguing that it can now be based on the new practice of politics. The loss of aura is associated with the Avant-Garde practices of movements like Dada, which Benjamin describes as relentlessly destroying the aura of their creations. It is clear from both essays that Benjamin also associated aura with the contemplation of nature and landscape. Elsewhere the term ‘aura’ is associated with the essence revealed by the ‘profane illumination’ (see Cohen 1993) induced by contemplating object when under the influence of hashish” (22-23).

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