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The Work of Art in the Age of its Mechanical Reproduction

In this essay Benjamin describes the changes in the definition and function of art, along with its mode of production and reception that were brought along with the development of reproduction technologies, including photography. He also argues for a politicized art as a reply to the “aestheticizing of politics, as practiced by Fascism” that he quite sinisterly describes in the Epilogue.

Art in the past served a cult value, which is based on its uniqueness given by rituals. Aura is a term used to describe this function; this authority that is given by a work’s presence in time and space is abolished by technical reproduction, although backward movement still exists. As cult value no longer is valid, art can serve exhibition value; in place of rituals that were previously the social function of art, are now politics.

Film, the art form of which the existence is based on mechanical reproduction, has revolutionary potential; its actor’s non-linear performance and indirect encounter with the audience creates a somewhat objective perspective, that of a critic. While acknowledging the possibility of counterrevolutionary movement such as the cult of movie stars as set up by the movie-making capitalists, Benjamin further elaborates on film’s revolutionary potential as an optic tool that extends our perception and a medium that can easily engage the mass, allowing distraction instead of contemplation.

  • The grounds on which film can be considered revolutionary is not because it served an active role in the Communist propaganda (as the Epilogue portrays a counter-example, “the violation of an apparatus which is pressed into the production of ritual values”), but rather because it provided a new possibility of perceiving the world. Is this frame of analysis valid? If so, what would be the revolutionary medium/technology/place/etc of the current time? What type of reality does the new perception reveal?
  • Chapter X, which mentions the fading distinction between writer and reader before applying that relationship to the film, can be read as a stress on the importance of media literacy, or accessibility. But retrospectively, I have mixed feelings on whether literacy is progress, or an agent of change. What is your take on this, especially relating to your area of interest?

Citation

Benjamin, Walter. The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.

-Achim

5 thoughts on “The Work of Art in the Age of its Mechanical Reproduction

  1. Achim Koh Post author

    Thank you all for the thoughtful comments.

    The discussion yesterday, especially on how aura is not dead- including Michael’s ironic example of the art capital, if I may call it so, instituting an aura of photographic prints, put something on the tip of my tongue I was not able to articulate yesterday; it still is a vague thought, but here goes.

    The article is, at least for me, a bit ambiguous on what the revolutionary potential of mechanical reproduction (and the art based on it, film) is. After reading this week’s other articles, it seems more reasonable to reflect on Marx’s ‘ecosystem'(quoting Harvey) of the material basis and regard the potential as a change in technology drastic enough to cause a shake (a temporal one, I might add) to the existing equilibrium of elements- including the oppressive class structure reflected in the authoritative art culture. But I found Benjamin’s language (and the interpretations I found on his article) to be rather declarative, like a manifesto; it first almost sounded like prophecy, announcing the death of ritual values and the revolution that will be made possible through art. But again, after our discussion, I feel more inclined to interpret the article’s goal as pointing out the implications that the new technology brings about, and suggest a desirable direction (rather than declaring it will happen so).

    My ambiguous confusion on the potential seems to have been reproduced in my question about literacy. Literacy could designate a spectrum of things- from the creative use and critical understanding of what lays behind a certain medium, to just being familiar with and able to use it. Benjamin mentions the Russian workers’ ability to describe their work in writing, as well as the possibility to “lay claim to being filmed.” At the same time he seems to suggest that the new mode of production and consumption that film brings about is in itself subversive. While there is a distance between a technology bringing subversive qualities and a technology actually subverting the social structure, the different layers that impacts of a new technology have is an interesting topic to think about, which I think I should spend more time on.

  2. Robert Robinson

    I don’t have anything extra awesome to add to this conversation, but I want to thank all of you for posting here. I was trying to reconcile his earlier conversation about aura with the somewhat apocalyptic epilogue, and I have a bit more clarity after reading Achim’s initial post and your responses.

  3. Anna Alexis Larsson

    It’s really interesting to read this alongside these other texts about time and technologies that changed people’s experiences of time and space. It made me notice the distinction between art’s previous (general, workshop) reproducibility and the technologies that he suggests suit the industrial transformations of their time, notably lithography and photography. I read, in his quote from Valery that one day images will be plumbed in like water or fuel to houses, a sensory utility bringing the same measure of changes to daily life as electricity. Thompson’s discussion of the impact of mechanical watches and clocks, and Schivelbusch’s discussion of the standardization of public time through the railway tables, brought to my reading of Benjamin’s essay an awareness of the context of change that Benjamin was trying to point out, which seems to be first found in Marx. After all, it’s Marx who makes a big to-do about finding history in what seems like second-nature and given, such as the embodied experience of time and its relation to labor. Likewise, the distinction that Marx notes between the production of labor that is recognized as such in the region of its craft and its transformation into a commodity once it is no longer linked to a region, can be seen as reflected in Benjamin’s assertion, on p. 223 of my copy, that “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.” I had previously only read this in relation to his concept of the cult, and the ritualistic origins of art, but not I get the sense that he’s doing a Marxian reading of the sensorium of his day and its relation to mass culture and the commodity. So, just as the clock and the railway table induced changes in labor, laws, expectations, and so on, now we have the question of how mechanical reproducibility, that is “art technologies,” impacts the relation of cultural thought to the many sensations of public life.

  4. Sakina Laksimi Morrow

    This is a bit off topic with regards to the provocation you have presented. When I was reading this I was actually really stimulated with Benjamin’s explanation of the shift in the purpose of art from a relegio-ritualistic purpose to a politics of contemporary perception and thinking. This connected really well to the concept of “aura” and “authenticity” that was so revered in the realm of art. I remember reading this several years ago and lamenting the loss of these things. Seeing it through renewed eyes I began to think of the oppressive, hierarchal and elitist implications of art in its ritualistic form/purpose. It was primarily inaccessible to the masses, and “taste” itself was thus relegated to the wealthy. As such, in one way, film as art was subversive. This reminded me somewhat of Warhol and his “factory”. The aesthetics of his art performed a similar function in that he put into conversation mass production, popular culture and consumer culture with art. He subverted what art meant and who it was meant for. To some extent.

  5. Teresa Ober

    The notion of literacy, with respect to both the traditional written medium and also forms of media, not limited to film, the internet, video games, etc., is an important one. While literacy can take many forms, proper training in the recognition and understanding of symbols, whether discrete letters or familiar objects, can provide one who is literate with a potential wealth of information. In practicing literacy, we in turn, internalize our language and symbol systems. Without literacy, it is possible, that we would be bereft of a structured system of thought, and moreover, a system by which we can communicate our internal thoughts with others. Benjamin’s discussion of changes in art and film, especially focusing on Dadaism within a cultural context, brings to light how we internalize familiar symbol systems, and how shocking results can be when familiar symbols are reshaped, altered or presented in a sort of contrarian or ironic manner. While literacy can cue us in the use of symbols for the sake of expression, they can also prepare us to be critical in how we examine these modes of expression. Perhaps the effectiveness of the Fascist propaganda described by Benjamin in the early to mid part of the 20th century is in part attributable to the lack of media literacy of those who were exposed to such media and embraced it. Without proper literacy, how does one know whether or not they are unintentionally participating in a covert belief system?

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