The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction
"The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (or Reproducibility)" (German: Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit, originally published in Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung), is a 1936 essay by German cultural critic Walter Benjamin that has been influential across the humanities, especially in the fields of cultural studies, media theory, architectural theory and art history. Written at a time when Adolf Hitler was already Chancellor of Germany, 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." He argued that, in the absence of any traditional, ritualistic value, art in the age of mechanical reproduction would inherently be based on the practice of politics.
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.).
The essay opens with a quote by Paul Valéry from Pièces sur L’Art (specifically from "La conquête de l'ubiquité", "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 phenomenon, 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.
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."
- Brian Elliott, Benjamin for Architects, Routledge, London, 2011.
- Scannell, Paddy (2003) "Benjamin Contextualized: On 'The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction'" Canonic Texts, p. 74–89, in Katz et al. (eds.). Polity Press, Cambridge. ISBN 9780745629346 p. 55
- "L'œuvre d'art à l'époque de sa reproduction méchanisée" in Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung Jahrgang V, Félix Alcan, Paris, 1936, pp. 40–68.
- The content of Arendt's edition is not the same as its same-named German predecessor; see her Editor's note at the end of Illuminations.
- Walter Benjamin (1968). In Hannah Arendt. "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction", Illuminations. London: Fontana. pp. 214–218. ISBN 9781407085500.
- George Friedman, The Political Philosophy of the Frankfurt School. Cornell University Press, New York, 1988.
- John Berger, Ways of Seeing. Penguin Books, London, 1972, pp. 32–34.
- Complete text of the essay, translated
- Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung (1932-1941) - Download the original text in French, "L'œuvre d'art à l'époque de sa reproduction méchanisée", in the Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung Jahrgang V, Félix Alcan, Paris, 1936, pp. 40–68 (23MB)
- Complete text in German (German)
- Partial text of the essay, with commentary by Detlev Schöttker (German)