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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