t? “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” is among WalterBenjamin’s best work.
Benjamin wrote this essay while in exile in Paris fromGermany in 1936 in response to the political turmoil in Europe with the rise ofFascism. He became involved with Marxist theory through his exposure to theworks of Georg Lukács and his friendship with Asja Lazis.1Inthis essay Benjamin examines the impact of technology on art and its receptionin modern mass society. He does so from a Marxist perspective and investigatesthe possible political implications arising from the impact of technology onart.
Benjamin begins by discussing the links between technology and emergingart forms. Technology has enabled the mass reproduction of art in the modernage. He points out that art has always been reproducible – from the Greeks andtheir technical reproduction of art by founding and stamping, to 19thcentury lithography. However, this is different, art is being reproduced withincreased intensity. Paul Valery captures the impact of technology on art andhow it is received by society in the following sentence: ‘Just as water, gas and electricity are brought into our houses from faroff to satisfy our needs in response to a minimal effort, so we shall besupplied with visual or auditory images, which will appear and disappear at asimple movement of the hand, hardly more than a sign’2 Not only did technology result in the mass reproduction of art, it alsoenabled the creation of new art forms such as photography and film.
Benjaminargues that the existence of film had brought into question the concept of artitself. 3 Up until this point art was reserved for the bourgeois class. It wastotally elitist as it was pretty much inaccessible to the working class.
As theart market opened up and the relationship between the creative artist and the cultivatedartistic consumer began to dissolve, there was a shift away from the norms ofnaturalism and representationalism.4Technology enabled the democratization of art and was a form of modernization thatactually benefited the working class.5The mass reproduction of art such as film and photography rendered art easilyaccessible and affordable. Art now meets the beholder half way: “The cathedralleaves its locale to be received in the studio of a lover of art; the choralproduction performed in an auditorium or in the open air resounds in thedrawing room.” 6 Thisis evidentially a positive change according to Benjamin because as a Marxist hebelieved that art should be accessible to all members of society. However, hedoes discuss the negative aspects of the emergence of new art forms as a resultof technology. Benjamin argues that as a result of technology enabling the massreproduction of art, the art work’s aura is lost. He describes aura as the”unique phenomenon of a distance” between the viewer and the work of art.
Awork of art’s uniqueness comes from its presence in a particular time andspace. An objects aura is closely linked to tradition, the history of an objectand the changing of hands of its ownership throughout the years. Without thistradition and the presence of art in a particular time and space, there isnothing authentic about art. He sees the technological reproduction of art as a”tremendous shattering of tradition” 7Evidentially authenticity is not reproducible and therefore the reproduced artis lacking in aura. Benjamin is convinced that the technological reproductionof art and this loss of aura means that the quality of art is alwaysdepreciated. The meaning of aura becomes clearer with the use of an example.
“ASunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte” by Georges Seurat is in myopinion totally underwhelming when reproduced in a film or a photograph.However, viewing this work of art in person is a completely differentexperience. Neither its size nor its complexity are translated through itstechnological reproduction, and the aura that is attached to it is lost throughthe lens. Benjamin sees the desire of contemporary mass for things to bespatially and humanly closer as one of the cause of said loss of aura. Benjamin explores further the tradition associated with art. Theoriginal function of art was closely linked to ritual.
Art was perceived to besomething sacred, a means of religious worship particularly in the Renaissanceperiod. However, technology has completely altered the function of art, ritualand tradition are defunct. Consider for example the case of film: “Mechanical reproduction is inherent in the very technique of filmproduction. This technique not only permits in the most direct way butvirtually causes mass distribution. It enforces distribution because theproduction of a film is so expensive that an individual who, for instance,might afford to buy a painting no longer can afford to buy a film.”8 Benjamin contends that technology not onlyresults in new art being created and reproduced, but also causes the receptionof art to be altered. He homes in on film as an art form and its reception toillustrate his point of view. In Benjamin’s eyes film does not come close totheatre in terms of the audience’s experience.
He sees the camera as dilutingthe quality of the experience for several reasons. Firstly, the stage actor isdenied the opportunity to interact with and adjust to the audience as heperforms for the camera. According to Benjamin an actor’s aura and the aura ofhis character is linked to his presence, without his presence this aura is lostin its reproduction and the quality of the experience is diluted significantly.Filmmakers replace aura with a cult of the star, “an artificial build-up of the”personality” outside of the studio. Secondly, the film actor does not have theability to identify himself with the character of his role whereas the stageactor does.
This is a result of the nature of film, a series of separately filmedperformances which are edited and put together. The actor’s performance feelsdisjointed. There is a loss of cohesion of experience that one does receivewhen at the theatre. Benjamin remarks that a stage actor’s performance canoften be forced and false at times. He gives the example of an actor’s failedattempting to convey shock.
The director has a gun fired behind the actor tospur the desired reaction. In 1 H. Ridley, ‘Towardsa New Marxist Aesthetic’, ( Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press, 1982.) pp.168-183Here: p. 169.2 W.
Benjamin (ed. By H.Arendt) ‘Illuminations’ (London: 1992.)pp. 211-244 Here p. 212.3 H. Ridley, ‘Towards a New Marxist Aesthetic’, (Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press, 1982) pp.
168-183 Here: p. 178.4 J.K. D.
Peukert, ‘The Weimar Republic.’ The Crisis of ClassicalModernity’, (London: Allen Lane, 1991.) pp. 147-173 Here: p.
166.5 J.K. D. Peukert, ‘The Weimar Republic.’ The Crisis of ClassicalModernity’, (London: Allen Lane, 1991.
) pp. 147-173 Here: p. 149.6 W.
Benjamin (ed. By H.Arendt) ‘Illuminations’ (London: 1992.)pp. 211-244 Here p. 212.
7 W. Benjamin (ed. By H.
Arendt) ‘Illuminations’ (London: 1992.)pp. 211-244 Here: p.
213.8 W. Benjamin (ed. By H.Arendt) ‘Illuminations’ (London: 1992.
)pp. 211-244 Here: Note 7.