The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction
From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction is a 1936 essay by German cultural critic Walter Benjamin, which has been influential in the fields of cultural studies and media theory. It was produced, Benjamin wrote, in the effort to describe a theory of art that would be "useful for the formulation of revolutionary demands in the politics of art". In the absence of any traditional, ritualistic value, art in the age of mechanical reproduction would inherently be based on the practice of politics. It is the most frequently cited of Benjamin's essays.
The essay was written for a small circle of academics to position art in the sphere of mass media, and first published in French (1936, translated by Pierre Klossowski). In German, it was first published in Benjamin's collected work (1955), and subsequently in the two-volume Illuminationen: Ausgewahlte Schriften (Illuminations: Selected Writings, 1961.) In English, it was first published in Hannah Arendt's English-language selection, Illuminations (1968, translated by Harry Zohn.).
John Berger drew on ideas from the essay for Ways of Seeing, his four-part television series, and subsequent book, for the BBC first broadcast in 1972. Berger's point, which he made far more explicitly than did Benjamin, was that the modern means of production have destroyed the authority of art: "For the first time ever, images of art have become ephemeral, ubiquitous, insubstantial, available, valueless, free."
Translation of title
Although the essay is commonly referred to as "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction", a better translation of the original German title might be "The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility" (Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit).
The essay opens with a quote by Paul Valéry from Pièces Sur L’Art (The Conquest of Ubiquity) that argues that the art that was developed in the past differs from that of the present time and hence our understanding and treatment of it must develop in order to understand it in a modern context and develop new techniques. This opening statement sets the tone for Benjamin’s Marxist argument.
The preface introduces Marxist theory as applied to the construction of society and the position of art in the context of Capitalism. He explains the conditions to show what could be expected of capitalism in the future, resulting in exploiting the proletariat and ultimately making it possible to abolish capitalism itself.
The body examines the development of mechanical visual reproduction from copying a master’s work, Greek founding and stamping, woodcutting, etching, engraving, lithographs and photography demonstrating that technical reproduction is not a modern phenomena, yet modern methods allow for greater accuracy across mass production. This process was ultimately more distinguished by the tracing of designs on stone rather than incision on blocks of wood.
Benjamin discusses the concept of authenticity, particularly in application to reproduction. ‘Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be.’ He argues that the ‘sphere of authenticity is outside the technical’ so that the original artwork is independent of the copy, yet through the act of reproduction something is taken from the original by changing its context. He also introduces the idea of the ‘aura’ of a work and its absence in a reproduction.
He looks at the changes in society’s values over time, ‘the manner in which human sense perception is organised, the medium in which it is accomplished, is determined not only by nature but by historical circumstances as well.’ Benjamin goes on to describe shifts in taste and style in art history and how this interacts with his concept of aura.
Despite the effect of a reproduction on the original, Benjamin writes ‘The uniqueness of a work of art is inseparable from its being imbedded in the fabric of tradition.’ Which speaks to the separation of the original from the reproduction. He also discusses the ritualisation of reproduction and the emancipation of ‘the work of art from its parasitical dependence on ritual.’
The changing values of exhibition are analysed, from historic works which were for private viewing and religious works which were for limited viewing contrasting this with the publicity of modern art which has an emphasis on mass exhibition, coupled with the means to show it to much larger audiences than previously possible.
Benjamin used the word "aura" to refer to the sense of awe and reverence one presumably experienced in the presence of unique works of art. According to Benjamin, this aura inheres not in the object itself but rather in external attributes such as its known line of ownership, its restricted exhibition, its publicized authenticity, or its cultural value. Aura is thus indicative of art's traditional association with primitive, feudal, or bourgeois structures of power and its further association with magic and (religious or secular) ritual. With the advent of art's mechanical reproducibility, and the development of forms of art (such as film) in which there is no actual original, the experience of art could be freed from place and ritual and instead brought under the gaze and control of a mass audience, leading to a shattering of the aura. "For the first time in world history," Benjamin wrote, "mechanical reproduction emancipates the work of art from its parasitical dependence on ritual."
Politics of art
Other Frankfurt School writers, most notably Benjamin's friend Theodor Adorno, worried about the resulting "distracted" relation to art characteristic of mass consumption, and argued that in losing the aura, we had also lost a space for potentially revolutionary reflection and imagination. In contrast, Benjamin argued that the withering of the aura was a more complicated historical development, an ambiguous force that also had the potential for democratizing both access to cultural objects and a critical attitude toward them. "Instead of being based on ritual, [art] begins to be based on another practice - politics." For Benjamin, the politicization of art should be the goal of Communism; in contrast to Fascism which aestheticized politics for the purpose of social control.
Notes on mechanical reproducibility of artworks with regard to Baudelaire and Benjamin
- Mechanical arts
- Mass production
- Theodor Adorno
- Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit (Dritte Fassung), full text