the work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction walter benjamin 1936 n.
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The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction Walter Benjamin (1936) . Preface: PRODUCTION. Benjamin was concerned with the impact on art of the mass technologies of reproduction (photography, film): implications on the theory of art

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preface production

Benjamin was concerned with the impact on art of the mass

technologies of reproduction (photography, film):

  • implications on the theory of art
  • implications on the existing politics of art (Fascist, socialist)
  • the revolutionary demands on the politics of art
  • “Aura” of an object, its uniqueness is threatened
  • the manipulations of art in the hands of Fascists (current tendencies)
  • the nature of the art of proletariat and art as weapon in class struggle
i reproducibility

Reproducibility varies with different historical periods:

  • Founding and stamping (uniqueness not threatened; limited uses)
  • Engraving, etching (images, maps, music)
  • Woodcut graphic art (mechanical reproduction of text & images)
  • Printing as mechanical reproduction of writing
  • Lithography
  • Photography
  • Film

ever increasing ease of pictorial reproduction enacted a qualitative

shift around 1900 technical reproduction reached standard that not

only permitted reproduction but cause the most profound change in

impact upon the public

ii authenticity
  • concern that changes are bringing about the disappearance of the authenticity, uniqueness, the ‘aura’ of the object
  • “aura” = customary historical role played by works of art, their

‘ritual function’ in the legitimation of traditional social formations


  • with reproduction the historical testimony is affected, so is the authority of the object
  • with reproduction the authenticity is interfered with (natural objects aren’t vulnerable) (but what about “frankenfoods”?)

raises questions about the purpose of art

iii perception massification

How human sense perception is organized depends on the

historical circumstances and the decay of the aura can be

explained by social causes:

  • significance of the masses in contemporary life and the desire of the masses to bring things ‘closer’ spatially and humanly and therefore overcoming the uniqueness of every reality by accepting its reproduction (the railway mania, tourist snapshots)
  • perception whose sense of the universal equality of things increased to such a degree that it extracts it even from a unique object by means of reproduction is perception
  • field of perception mirrors the field of organization of social life (cf. the increasing importance of statistics)
iv tradition

Tradition is an interpretive framework for an auratic object but tradition is alive and


Example: Aura of an ancient statue of Venus in classical Greece and in medieval Europe,

Renaissance distinct historical interpretations of the object: ritual vs. art

History of the Aura:

  • “authentic” work of art has its basis in ritual, its original use value
  • Medieval interpretations also based in ritualistic interpretation
  • Secular cult of beauty developed during the Renaissance and the three following centuries (ritualistic basis in its decline but art remains auratic)
  • 19th century: l’art pour l’art = theology of art (negative theology in the idea of “pure” art denied social function of art or categorizing it by subject matter)
  • 19th century: reproduced work of art designed for reproducibility; authenticity ceases to be applicable to artistic production and the total function of art is reversed (instead of being based on ritual it begins to be based on practice-politics
  • 20th century:massification
v cult value vs exhibition value

Two polar types to value of the works of art and the ability to reproduce objects through

different methods of technical reproduction:

Cult value decreases

work of art created as an instrument of magic

artistic production begins with ceremonial objects destined to serve in a cult

their existence mattered, not their being on view (Altamira cave paintings)

with the ability to reproduce objects, they would have to be hidden in order to maintain their cult value

absolute emphasis on the cult value with limited reproducibility in prehistoric times

Exhibition value increases

fitness for exhibition function increases with the different methods of technical reproduction

portraits, frescoes, prints; film, photography most serviceable exemplifications of

massification, displacement of cult value, art assumes entirely new functions in circulation

vi exhibition value to cult of remembrance

Exhibition value in photography displaces cult value:

vestiges of cult value in early photography (cult of remembrance of loved ones, absent or dead)

Atget (1900) Parisian cityscapes

picture magazines (captions are introduced as directives to looking at pictures)

explicit in film where the meaning of each single picture appears to be prescribed by the sequence of the preceding ones

vii natural artistic contradictions of film and art

19th century disputes about artistic value of painting vs. photography: Is photography art?

mechanical reproduction separated art from its basis in cult

invention of photography transformed art forever

early 20th century disputes on the nature of film

film = a step further in the process of representation close to reality

“What art has been granted a dream more poetical and more real at the same time!” (Séverin-Mars, in Benjamin, p.227)

access to the sacred, supernatural or sterile copying of the exterior world obstructed the beginnings of film, but it has “Ability to express by natural means and with persuasiveness all that is fairylike, marvelous, supernatural.” (Werfel; in B., p. 228)

:: film is auratic, but its exhibition value is stronger than art

viii mediated performance

Artistic performance of stage actor

personal appearance presented to a public

actor connects with audience, responds and adjusts

audience has direct access to performance

Artistic performance of screen actor

actor’s performance is mediated through positional views of a camera, constantly changing

audience takes position of critic without experiencing personal contact with the actor

identification with actor is identification with the camera

position of camera = position of audience => testing (of work) approach :: not adapted to cult values

ix the decay of the aura art bound by technology

Artistic performance of screen actor

actor acts for mechanical contrivance

actor operates with his whole living person yet forgoing its aura (aura is tied to presence -

there can be no replica of it)

art is subject to and founded in mechanical reproduction (greatest effects in acting obtained by as little acting as possible)

actor as stage prop; actor’s work split in series of mountable episodes; staged event on the set evolves on the screen as a rapid and unified scene; jumps, montages; artificiality)

art has left the realm of the “beautiful semblance” which had been taken to be the only sphere

where art could thrive

x the author the public the marketplace

Resulting in loss of aura of the person:

feeling of strangeness before one’s own image in the mirror

reflected image becomes separable, transportable from a person -- before the public / consumers / the market / beyond the reach of individual

shrivelling of aura with an artificial build-up of the “personality” outside the studio (the cult of the movie star fostered by film industry) does not preserve the unique aura of the person but the “spell of personality” (“the phony spell of a commodity)

But ease of replication has other advantages:

today’s films also promote revolutionary criticism of social conditions, even of the distribution of property

possibility of participation - to be reproduced (example of newsreel that gives everyone opportunity to be an extra; participation in a work of art))

in literary marketplace, readers gain access to authorship; distinction bw author and public

xi representation of reality art film

Mechanical equipment and reproducibility have changed the nature of reality and has created new ways of accessing it (deeper, more analytically)

Equipment-free aspect of reality becomes difficult to reproduce the height of artifice (“orchid in the land of technology”)

~ magician vs. surgeon

magician maintains natural distance bw patient and himself vs. surgeon penetrating into the patient’s body

~ painter vs. cameraman

tremendous difference in the pictures they obtain: representation of reality vs. permeation of

reality with mechanical equipment

for contemporary man, the representation of reality by the film is incomparably more

significant than that of the painter because it offers a new aspect of reality shaped by equipment

xii progressive reaction social significance of art

Mechanical reproduction of art changes the reaction of the masses toward art:

“Progressive” (=positive) reaction toward a Chaplin movie (by the masses)

“Reactionary” (=incomprehension) attitude toward a Picasso painting (by the masses)

Popular culture works with hegemonic forces because it is shaped by mass audience response in a feedback loop (lack of appreciation of the truly innovative and purposeful art)

Mass audience and collective simultaneous experience enabled by film, not possible even in publicly displayed paintings in galleries and salons

Masses could not organize themselves and control themselves in their reception -- film

enables that

xiii increasing of optical acoustical perception deepening of apperception

Film enriched our field of perception (~Freudian theory of psychoanalysis)

through the testing capacity of equipment increased involvement:

Analyzable things increased through the spectrum of optical and acoustical perception but also

distancing from reality (abstraction of perception)

Close-ups, hidden details, rapid movement of camera extends comprehension, unexpected field

of action (travelling)

camera introduces us to unconscious optics as does psychoanalysis to unconscious impulses

xiv the shock effect dada film

Dadaists attempted to emphasize the uselessness for contemplative immersion -- destroyed on purpose the aura of their creations (moral shock effect)

Film initiates perception that is involuntary (physical shock effect)

Painting vs. moving images (contemplation vs. perception which is unconscious, incidental, unreflective but also provides insight into expanded space with close-ups, extended motion with slow motion bursting the prison-world of perception and launching us on “adventurous travelling”)

“I can no longer think what I want to think. My thoughts have been replaced by moving

images.”(Duhamel 1930; in Benjamin, p. 238)

xv reception in the state of distraction architecture the epic

Distraction of spectacle (consumed by masses in a state of unreflection) vs. Concentration of art (absorption and identification) but What about architecture?

First manifestations of the new mode of perception was spectacle which requires no concentration and presupposes no intelligence (commonplace explanation: the masses seek distraction whereas art seeks concentration from the spectator :: moral evaluation of film)

Architecture as prototypical art has traditionally been consumed by a collectivity in a state of distraction; lasting form (unlike historical forms of art such as panel painting); reception of architecture involves tactile and optical side (by habit and noticing the object in incidental fashion)

Film enables apperception (critical analysis, solving of tasks) if individuals choose to see it in

the state of awareness. Art will tackle such tasks if it is able to mobilize the masses. Today, it

does so in the film. Film is the true exercise of art today (in 1930s).

epilogue the politics aesthetic the morality of art

Proletarianization in modernity parallels increasing formation of masses (F / C response):

Fascism (uses to render politics aesthetic )

  • organizes the newly created proletarian masses without affecting the property structure
  • fascism gives the masses not their right but chance to express themselves
  • increasing introduction of aesthetics into political life (the Führer cult, apparatus in the service of production of ritual values)
  • war engages movement of masses & technical resources while respecting traditional property system
  • Fascist apotheosis of war is the ultimate rendering of politics aesthetic & artistic gratification of a sense perception changed by technology (Futurists celebrate war: see excerpt, p. 241) :: l’art pour l’art (self-alienation of art through which it can elevate its own destruction as aesthetic pleasure of the first order)

Communism (politicizes art)

  • art has no purpose in totalitarian regimes except to organize rituals of public life