Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction

Updated: Dec 11, 2019

Originally written as a summary to Benjamin´s essay for a course at the Institute of Electronic Music and Acoustics in Graz (IEM).


Brian Questa

Marko Ciciliani: Computermusik 02 (17.0062)

Essay on Walter Benjamin´s The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (trans. J. A. Underwood)

Walter Benjamin was an author and cultural theorist whose work utilised sociology, marxist thought, and cultural commentary to create a unique approach to the analysis of art and its role in society. As a German Jew who fled to Spain during World War II, Benjamin´s role as a theorist, as well as an exile, provides him with a unique vantage point to the question of facism, and the conditions necessary for its creation. Coming from the standpoint that society´s relationship to art is intimately connected to to its sense perception in general, Benjamin, in Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, makes stunning connections between reproduced images and national identity.

As a marxist theorist, Benjamin characteristically links capitalist changes in the global conditions of production to changes in the formation of society. Benjamin acknowledges, in marxist tradition, that increasing wealth inequality indeed leads to revolution and to the eventual, or necessary, formation of a classless society. The stated aim of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, however, is to give a prognosis of the global situation in which he found himself: “prognosticative demands need to be made”. Benjamin therefore saw his role not as one who demands how art should be, nor how artists should combat facism per se, but rather saw his own revolutionary act in cultural analysis and prognosis. “These [prognosticative] demands will be met not so much by theses concerning the art of the proletariat after it has seized power, let alone that of a classless society, as by theses concerning how art will tend to develop under current conditions of production”.

The theses within Benjamin´s essay on how mechanical reproduction affects the conditions of art are intimately linked and bound with those concerning its affects on society as well. Although the two questions do overlap in many ways, I found it helpful nonetheless to separate my analysis along their lines. Key concepts in regards to the changing conditions of art include “genuineness”, “aura”, “tradition,” and “cultic value.” Those concepts which on the other hand, present the changing conditions of society include “the cult of personality,” “the creation of the masses,” and “facism.” As the main subject of Benjamin´s essay is indeed “mechanical reproduction,” all concepts mentioned are intricately linked to photography and film.

“Technological reproduction devalues the here and now of the work.”

The “aura” of a work of art can be defined as that thing which the work has that all of its copies do not. It´s concept is rooted in the physical structure of the work in its place of origin. “Even with the most perfect reproduction, one thing stands out: the here and now of the work of art - its unique existence in the place where it is now.”

In the age of mechanical reproduction, although the “here and now” of the original remains, the “aura” of the work shrinks. By reproducing a work of art into a plethora of images, there is no longer a single instance of the work, but a multiplicity of instances. The reproduced image allows viewers to come closer to the work of art and thereby “actualises” what is reproduced. The authority of the original is shared among its copies, the concept of “here and now” is devalued, and the “aura” begins to fade.

Benjamin further demonstrates the term “aura” by highlighting how we typically use the term as we encounter or speak about nature - when we observe mountains while lying on the grass, for example, and talk about “breathing in the aura”. The definition of aura here is a “unique manifestation of a remoteness, however close it [the object observed] may be.” That is, although we encounter the mountain and have it before us, we do not truly possess it. The mountain remains “remote,” far from us, unattainable. The concept of “aura” is destroyed by the modern world´s obsession with “bringing things closer.” In a society of reproduced images, we actively seek to “surmount the uniqueness of each circumstance by seeing it in reproduction.” On the other side of the coin, where the masses come closer to reality through reproduced images (as in the daily production of images for newspaper), Benjamin mentions the increasing tendency of reality itself to be oriented towards the masses (as in political events specifically staged for reproduction).

For Benjamin, the “current crisis” is the upheaval of tradition. Art´s relationship to tradition underwent drastic fundamental changes in the age of mechanical reproduction. Art was always embedded in tradition. The oldest works of art were at the service of religion, or some ritual thereof. By reproducing the work of art, and removing it from its context within tradition, the work´s “cultic value” is lost. That is, the utility value of its existence in the ritual in which it was born. The fade in cultic value had already begun in the Renaissance with the “worship of beauty.” The art of the Renaissance, although often commissioned by the church, saw the rise of art at the service of beauty. The ritual of beauty, although secular, was cultic and quasi religious in nature, seeking to ground art in something other than utility. When referring to art in the modern era, or the age of mechanical reproduction, Benjamin touches on a slightly different and yet similar belief - the idea of “l´art pour l´art,” a philosophy of art which rejects art´s ties to any type of social or political function.

Both represent a search for something in which to ground art. After the service of beauty (as in the Renaissance), and the grounding of art in the service of itself (as in l´art pour l´art), Benjamin clearly states that art is clearly no longer pinned in ritual at all, rather it is now pinned in politics. Art which is reproducible leads to art which is made for reproduction. The fact that a film is seen by a large mass of people, for example, is a direct correlate to the large amounts of money it takes to produce it. “The technological reproducibility of films is rooted in the manner of their production. This not merely facilitates the mass circulation of films in the most direct way; it positively necessitates it. It necessitates it because a film costs so much to produce that an individual who might be able to afford a painting, say, cannot afford to buy a film. In 1927 someone worked out that a major film, if it was to pay for itself, had to reach an audience of nine million.”

As art is rooted in politics, so too, on the other hand, we see the “aestheticization of politics.” This begins with the cult of personality. As the authority of work of art, which was grounded in the concept of genuineness, fades, the level of importance traditionally given to the art-object is transferred to the artist himself. Celebrities are born. “Film´s response to the shrivelling of aura is an artificial inflation of ´personality´ outside the studio.” In film, the actor reaches a status level similar to that of a rarified artwork. Film companies exploit the celebrity culture as selling points for their movie - a more popular actor leads to a better selling film, for example.

A lengthy critique of film makes up the middle of the essay. A main takeaway is the dishonesty of the editing process that is inherent to film. Far from the reproduction of a real event, film is the reproduction of an event which does not exist. For example, film does not show you the camera nor the staging and lighting crew which define the true situation of its production, rather it portrays an event which should appear camera-less.

According to Benjamin, film as an art form does not encourage intense reflection, not in the same way as a painting, or other art forms do: the constant shifting of the camera, the editing process, the angles, the immediate shots which interrupt the previous ones (erasing, as it were, what came before), etc. The audience must follow, is forced to “sympathise” with the camera. Certainly, much of Benjamin´s critique of film is outdated. Many theorists today, including marxists ones, vouch for the artistic, even revolutionary, palpability of film. However, what is valuable in Benjamin´s critique, is that film´s greatest and most powerful effects do indeed require passive reception. In “reality” television, for example, the desired effect is lost if one begins to reflect on what is real vs what is staged. The illusion of reality should not be lost to the average observer. The horror genre provides a similar example: if one remembers what the “blood” on screen actually is (ketchup, perhaps) the intended effect fades.

The passive reception of media such as film and television on a large scale creates masses of passive consumers. This is the situation which leads to dramatic effects for society in general, especially regarding the rise of facism. Running in parallel to this state of affairs is the rise of the cult of celebrity (perhaps no more prominent than today, years after Benjamin). The quasi-religious authority of the celebrity prohibits the public from judging the star´s true character (who he or she really is). The danger of such a state of affairs is heightened when the celebrity and politician are one, when the celebrity is in charge of the mass.

Benjamin gave the example of the president of a nation who, once ago would address the parliament, now addresses the camera and is therefore broadcast immediately to millions of people. Only those who know how to “work” the camera, so to speak, or those who the camera favours, can be elected. “This gives rise to a new type of selection, a selection in front of the camera, from which the star and the dictator emerge as victors.

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