Theses on the Philosophy of Rarity

by Eliot Cardinaux


In the present age, visual and aural senses are the only used to absorb those works of art that are digitally reproduced and distributed. In the case of other senses, we rely on synesthesia as it correlates with these differing modes of expression. In a museum, one is rarely allowed to touch a work of art; as Benjamin states, one may simply stand near it, amidst its “aura.”[i] No matter how many works of art that one views digitally, the object which is touched will be the device used to produce the image on a screen or to play the sound through speakers, that is, unless it is an object completely removed from the work of art itself. The act of assigning lack of gravity to the sole element of a work on which its function depends is therefore of importance.



As it pertains to the digital age, Benjamin’s philosophy of collecting can be ascribed its place in the purchasing of “physical” copies of a work. The aura of rarity in the digital age is a far cry from the aura that distinguishes an original work of art in time and space, or even that of a work of art owned by a collector, which has been mechanically reproduced in a physical form. In that its aura is temporal, this philosophy of rarity exists, despite its critiques. Within their phenomena of reality-based assumptions, these theses could be used as a means of assessing the impact dynamics of an art form at present through its means of production, including live performance.


Within this philosophy, however, our relation to the work of art in the digital sense is primarily one of distraction. Different speakers may be used to affect the sound accompanying a video. Different levels of brightness and other variables discerned by the setting of a screen or the lighting of a room, may be seen as interaction with the work, whereas adjusting one’s position in a room, the time of day, are parallel to viewing the work in a museum. While a glitch in the program or device that is used for viewing or listening to a piece corresponds with the shock of its distraction having been disrupted,[ii] radical content might likewise relegate the audience to the realm of distraction, as Benjamin writes of Dada.[iii] Harsh techniques used to produce either sound or vibration might likewise result in a shift in the listener’s focus or engagement, while abstraction in the layout of a written-language piece might distract the reader from its oral and aural content.


In different public places this aura of rarity is apparent. In the city subway it appears as social critique as it is relegated to silence, social phenomena as they appear amidst their own noise – or in the empty car, as freedom’s apparition in the absence of external phenomena while remaining in the public sphere.

Here the poetry and drama of rarity are also apparent. In the crowded bar, within the atmosphere of social interaction, gestures of silent analysis are like a critical distraction akin to a conductor waving his baton to an unheard symphony. In restaurants, the consumerist critique of service in service of the server in service of capitalism may quickly become an anarcho-creative manifestation. These contain an air of the romantic, and the ideal, and serve to oil the gears of association.


To paraphrase Ornette Coleman, beauty and rarity are interlinked through their overlapping modes of perception.[iv] A search for the beauty inherent in reality carries several symbols within its relation to the flaneur in history: the journal, the pocket, and the instrument all serve as expressive function. While the record is the archiver’s tool, thought and beauty are of necessity to the collector. In Celan, beauty of a private nature that is witnessed by another outside its sphere may not be relegated of necessity to voyeurism; only temporarily does a thing of beauty taken under duress belong to the thief.[v] The theory of beauty embedded in the thief’s object of contemplation, something related to the definition ascribed by Herzog to “film-making,”[vi] and something akin to Monk’s “ugly beauty”[vii] is that of its inverse action, while in prettiness or gaudiness it subsumes to the same negativity in passive form. In terms of distraction, the anti-intellectual in art may serve the intellectual insofar as it critiques it. These opposing views of awareness may hinge on their equation the same phenomena of distraction, as held within the philosophy of rarity.


[i] Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Illuminations.

[ii] Walter Benjamin, “On Some Motifs in Baudelaire,” Illuminations.

[iii] Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Illuminations.

[iv] Ornette Coleman, Beauty is a Rare Thing, The Complete Atlantic Recordings, CD.

[v] “Corona” Paul Celan, ‎Pierre Joris (2005). Paul Celan: Selections. p. 44

[vi] Werner Herzog: Masterclass, film, web.

[vii] Thelonious Monk: Straight No Chaser, dir. Charlotte Zwerin, film documentary.