The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction by Walter Benjamin

Benjamin, Walter. “The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction.” Illuminations: Essays and reflections. Hannah Arendt, ed., Harry Zohn, trans. New York: Schocken, 1969. pp. 217-252.

For Benjamin film can provoke/train the masses, and this is his answer to Adorno & Horkheimer (in some sense) about the masses being totally subsumbed by the system.

Recaps (quickly) that Marx saw Capitalism as increasingly exploiting the proletariat, but also creating the conditions that would abolish capitalism. But, he suggests, Marx (or those who came after) who have thesis about “the art of the proletariat after its assumption of power or about the art of a classless society” aren’t as useful as those who look at “the formation of revolutionary demands in the politics of art.” Traces the history of art-as-reproducible (Mechanical reproduction of a work of art is something new).  Starts with Greeks doing stamps, then to woodcuts, then to engraving, then to lithography (when transition to mass culture was achieved because content was daily life AND lots could be printed) to photography, and then to sound film. The most significant impact is exhibited in two areas, and it’s these two areas we should look at “the reproduction of works of art and the art of the film.” (220) Reproductions lack the markers of the original’s creation within a space and time (including physical history, changes in ownership). “The presence of the original is the prerequisite to the concept of authenticity.”  (220) BUT – “process reproduction”  (like photography) can actually show things the “original” can’t.  “Technical reproduction can put the copy of the original into situations which would be out of reach for the original itself.”  (220)  IE: things move out of the cathedral or the museum & into the home.

AURA:  the “authority” of the object, the historical grounding, the notion that the object came from a specific place & passed through specific hands, etc.  However “the technique of reproduction detaches the reproduced object from the domain of tradition.  By making many reproductions it substitutes a plurality of copies for a unique existence.  And in permitting the reproduction to meet the beholder or listener in his own particular situation, it reactivates the object reproduced.” (221)

“During long periods of history, the mode of human sense perception changes with humanity’s entire mode of existence.” (222) IE one read things differently, slight lines, ‘ear’, etc. “And if changes in the medium of contemporary perception can be comprehended as decay of the aura, it is possible to show its social causes.” (222)

“The uniqueness of a work of art is inseparable from its being imbedded in the fabric of tradition.  This tradition itself is thoroughly alive and extremely changeable.” (223) He notes the first art was in service to religious ritual, and art’s “aura” is never free of ritual function.  This is art’s “use function” – even if the ‘ritual’ is a secularized one of the “cult of beauty” or “l’art pour l’art”.   HOWEVER “for the first time in world history, mechanical reproduction emancipates the work of art from its parasitical dependence on ritual.  To an ever greater degree the work of art reproduced becomes the work of art designed for reproducibility. … the instant the criterion of authenticity ceases to be applicable to artistic production, the total function of art is reversed.  Instead of being based on ritual, it begins to be based on another practice – politics. (224)

“With the different methods of technical reproduction of a work of art, its fitness for exhibition increased to such an extent that the quantitative shift between its two poles turned into a qualitative transformation of its nature …. by the absolute emphasis on its exhibition value the work of art becomes a creation with entirely new functions, among which the one we are conscious of, the artistic function, later may be recognized as incidental.  This much is certain: today photography and the film are the most serviceable exemplifications of this new function.”  (225)  Talks about the way photographs moved from portrait to documentation of historical events as emptying out the “cult” (ie: religious / iconographic) status from photographs).  With Atget’s photographs there is a “hidden political significance” because it has an agenda that is more than preservation.   Captions become signposts to tell the reader the significance they can’t understand without them.  (and basically every frame preceding a certain sequence in a film acts as a caption to it)

“The audience’s identification with the actor is really an identification with the camera.  Consequently the audience takes the position of the camera; its approach is that of testing.  This is not the approach to which cult values may be exposed.”  (228-229) “for the first time – and this is the effect of the film – man has to operate with his whole living person, yet forgoing its aura.  For aura is tied to his presence; there can be no replica of it. ” (229)  Also, the film is an assemblage of discontinuous moments, and can even be made up of unintentional moments (like if an actor doesn’t flinch well enough at a fake gunshot, they can bring him back on the set and film him without warning him that the gunshot is coming to get the right feeling).

“Nothing more strikingly shows that art has left the realm of the “beautiful semblance” which, so far, had been taken to be the only sphere where art could thrive.” (230)

point 1) the ‘star’ of the film has no way of engaging with the public during the film, but does so outside of it, thus you get cult of personalities – and as long as the studio bankrolls you’ll get personalities only concerned with the studio’s money

point 2) with widespread “extension of the press” you don’t have the death of the author but instead the opportunity to transition from reader to author on the part of ANY & EVERY reader.  AGENCY!

point 3) in film, when you have actor playing themselves you’ve got the same thing.

Because the film excels in erasing its own devices it’s totally different than theater. “Thus, for contemporary man the representation of reality by the film is incomparably more significant than that of the painter, since it offers, precisely because of the thoroughgoing permeation of reality with mechanical equipment, an aspect of reality which is free of all equipment.  And that is what one is entitled to ask from a work of art.”  (234)

“Mechanical reproduction of art changes the reaction of the masses toward art.” (234) “Painting simply is in no position to present an object for simultaneous collective experience, as it was possible for architecture at all times, for the epic poem in the past, and for the movie today.  (234-35) Film is much better at showing psychology because it allows for precise “statements of the situation” (235)  There is a “mutual penetration of art and science.” (236) So it has both artistic value AND scientific value (these used to be separated).  This is one of the “revolutionary functions of the film.” (236)

In Section 14 he suggests that film is the legacy of Dadism – “Dadaism attempted to create by pictorial – and literary – means the effects which the public today seeks in the film.” (237) These effects are the destruction of aura and “distraction” or the production of outrage.  Dadaist art “hit the spectator like a bullet, it happened to him, thus acquiring a tactile quality.  It promoted a demand for the film, the distracting element of which is alos primarily tactile, being based on changes of place and focus which periodically assail the spectator.” (238)  The spectator doesn’t have agency here, but they do have form – they are no longer contemplative, or wrapped up in the art, but instead assaulted by it.  It has a materiality that can confront them, and this is particularly useful because it shifts just from the spectral/visual into the embodied. “For the tasks which face the human apparatus of perception at the turning points of history cannot be solved by optical means, that is by contemplation, alone.  They are mastered gradually by habit, under the guidance of tactile appropriation.” (240) Even the ‘distracted person’ can form habits, and it is the role of film to inform those habits. Tactility here is about being able to be materially affected.

In the Epilogue Benjamin points out how this tactility can, in some cases, go wrong: in any attempt to “render politics aesthetic culminate in one thing: war.” (241)  He goes on to say that the destructiveness of war is proof society “has not been mature enough to incorporate technology as its organ, that technology has not been sufficiently developed to cope with the elemental forces of society. The horrible features of imperialistic warfare are attributable to the discrepancy between the tremendous means of production and their inadequate utilization in the process of production…” (242)  This is a kind of tactility that has run amuck.  Yet I think for Benjamin there is still hope in the production of film to be able to assault those who consume it with something that will prompt them to change their habits.  It is still a top down scheme of production, but a hopeful one.


About kathrynpagel

Working on my PhD in Japanese literature, visual studies, and new media.
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