Walter Benjamin – The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction

Since the development of engraving and woodblock, then lithography, then photography, the work of art has been mechanically reproducible, changing profoundly how we are exposed to information. This, and the development of the film, has changed how we see traditional, original artworks.

The “aura” of a work of art is that which is lost in its reproduction. This includes its uniqueness, its state of repair, history of ownership and so on. Reproduction also allows the viewer to experience the work in a lesser form in his own situation, meeting it half way. This adds up to a shattering of tradition which has broader societal repercussions outside of the realm of art.

The masses are increasingly inclined to sacrifice access to the authenticity of the original object in order to quickly grasp the reproduction, and a sense of the aura of the original is lost.

As new forms of art have developed since the invention of reproduction and photography, the idea of the aura of the original, historical work has ceased to make sense. In art designed from its conception to be reproduced, it makes no sense to ask for an “original”. We also have the rise of “pure” art which needn’t perform any social function and and is self-reflexive. This process WB sees as taking art out of the realm of ritual (historical) and into the realm of politics.

Art has shifted from having a cult value, such as prehistoric works which were intended to have magical or spiritual significance, to a modern emphasis on exhibition value and accessibility.

There has been difficulty in accepting photography and especially film as unique modes of expression, with many critics insisting on discussing them in the context of traditional, ritualistic forms such as painting. It would have been more useful to examine the effects the newer forms were having on the status of art in general

There is a profound difference for the actor between stage and film work. On stage he can see and react to the audience, and performs his piece in its entirety at one time. In film he is detached from the audience, a prop to be used, surrounded by equipment and his performances will be later edited together in a way over which he’ll have no control. This in turn leads to a public projection of the actor’s personality for the film studio’s promotion, a projection which may bear little or no relation to the actual person, but is demanded by consumerist forces anyway.

There’s a growing sense in film, which also happened in literature, of the spectator being able to take part in the making of the piece, such as when part of the content of newspapers might be letters and comments sent in by readers. In the Soviet Union this ability becomes a valid aspect of work itself.

There’s a difference between the reality that the cameraman presents and that of a painter. The cameraman permeates deep into the real world and presents an edited version of what he sees uncluttered by the evidence of the equipment used to capture it. A painter always maintains a natural distance from reality.

Since film can be seen by a large audience simultaneously, it tends to promote an acceptance among the masses, who can collectively enjoy its merits thereby increasing its accessibility.

Photography and film have the ability to present us with records of subtle human movement which weren’t accessible before its invention, in contrast with painting. He equates this with psychoanalysis and its ability to reveal our unconscious impulses. Almost went a whole day there without encountering Freud  –  F.O.F (Fuck Off Freud). That really should be a meme.

The Dada movement went out of its way to remove the aura from art, assaulting the senses and attempting to prevent the viewer from entering into a chin-stroking, contemplative state of reverent appreciation. WB argues that film achieves the same effect, as the viewer doesn’t get a chance to focus on one image before the next one is presented.

WB quotes Duhamel’s opinion on movies – “a pastime for helots, a diversion for uneducated, wretched, worn-out creatures who are consumed by their worries a spectacle which requires no concentration and presupposes no intelligence which kindles no light in the heart and awakens no hope other than the ridiculous one of someday becoming a ‘star’ in Los Angeles.” – If this was a modern-day pitch for a reality TV show it would be snapped up immediately. WB counters this opinion though by explaining that a distracted state in the viewer is in fact a very receptive one, as ideas absorbed in this state must be aquired through habit and repetition, and will be absorbed at a deeper level.

The epilogue discusses the social and political implications with respect to fascism, and its goal of introducing aesthetic expression into political life while preserving property relationships. War can be the only outcome from this situation. Communism can respond to this by politicizing art.


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