The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction
The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (1935, Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit), by Walter Benjamin, is an essay of cultural criticism which proposes that the aura of a work of art is devalued by mechanical reproduction. The subject and themes of the essay have much influenced the fields of art history and architectural theory, and of cultural studies and media theory.
During the Nazi régime (1933–45) in Germany, Benjamin wrote the essay to produce a theory of art that is “useful for the formulation of revolutionary demands in the politics of art” in mass culture; that, in the age of mechanical reproduction, and the absence of traditional and ritualistic value, the production of art would be inherently based upon the praxis of politics.
Three editions of The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction were published: (i) the original, German edition in 1935; (ii) the French edition in 1936; and (iii) the revised German edition in 1939, from which derive the contemporary English translations of the essay.
The themes of The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (1935) are initially presented in a quotation from the essay “The Conquest of Ubiquity” (1928), by Paul Valéry, which establishes that the works of art developed in the past are different from contemporary works of art; that the understanding and treatment of art and of artistic technique must progressively develop in order to understand a work of art in the modern context.
Our fine arts were developed, their types and uses were established, in times very different from the present, by men whose power of action upon things was insignificant in comparison with ours. But the amazing growth of our techniques, the adaptability and precision they have attained, the ideas and habits they are creating, make it a certainty that profound changes are impending in the ancient craft of the Beautiful. In all the arts there is a physical component which can no longer be considered or treated as it used to be, which cannot remain unaffected by our modern knowledge and power. For the last twenty years neither matter nor space nor time has been what it was from time immemorial. We must expect great innovations to transform the entire technique of the arts, thereby affecting artistic invention itself and perhaps even bringing about an amazing change in our very notion of art.
The Preface presents Marxist analyses of the construction of society and of the place of art in a capitalist society; and explains the socio-economic conditions to extrapolate future developments of capitalism, which, ultimately, result in the exploitation of the proletariat, and produce the social conditions that would abolish capitalism.
Benjamin reviews the development of the means of the mechanical reproduction of art — an artist manually copying the work of a master artist; the industrial arts of the foundry and the stamp mill in Ancient Greece; woodcut relief-printing, etching, engraving, lithography, and photography — to establish that artistic reproduction is not a modern human activity, and that the modern means of artistic reproduction permit greater accuracy throughout the process of mass production.
Benjamin discusses the concept of authenticity, of being in accordance with fact, noting that “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.” In the artwork proper, Benjamin argues, the “sphere of authenticity is outside the technical [sphere]” of producing the art work; hence, the original work of art is independent of the copy. The action of mechanical reproduction diminishes the original art work by changing the cultural context (original vs. copy); thus, the aura, the unique aesthetic authority, of an artwork is absent from the mechanically produced copy. Benjamin’s concept of the aura of a work of art derived from the work of Ludwig Klages.
That the social value of a work of art changes as society change their value systems, which accounts for the changes in artistic style and in the cultural taste of the public; “the manner in which human sense-perception is organized, the [artistic] medium in which it is accomplished, is determined not only by Nature, but by historical circumstances as well.”
Despite the socio-cultural effects of reproduction-art upon the original work of art, Benjamin said that “the uniqueness of a work of art is inseparable from its being embedded in the fabric of tradition”, which separates the original work of art from the reproduction. He also discusses the ritualization of art-reproduction and the emancipation of “the work of art from its parasitical dependence on ritual.” That the social-value of the exhibition of art progressed from the private sphere to the public sphere of life; historically, works of art were for the private viewing and aesthetic enjoyment of the owner of the artefacts (usually High Art); contemporarily, works of art are exhibited in a public gallery, to provide the enjoyment of aesthetic pleasure to a greater number of people.
In the essay, Benjamin questions the notion of art, linking the construction of its meaning and value with the historical conditions of the production, distribution, and reception of art. Benjamin cites the rise of mechanical reproducibility as a transformative force that establishes the meaning of art in that time, and discusses the political stakes of such a shift. The withering away of what Benjamin calls “the aura” with the advent of mechanical reproduction is explored in the silkscreen art of Andy Warhol, which challenge the distinction between an everyday object and a work of high art. While Warhol’s work demonstrates the possibilities for insight into the materiality of things that Benjamin raises, it also illuminates the increasing sublimation of the aura of an artwork, by consumerism and capitalism; the silkscreen art raises questions as to whether or not Benjamin’s hopes for democratic and revolutionary potential in the destruction of the aura can be realized in a mass consumer age.
For Benjamin, the aura is the temporal location (embeddneness) of a thing in a specific time and space: “The uniqueness of a work of art is inseparable from its being imbedded in the fabric of tradition.” A work of art is given authority, conferred authenticity, and deemed original through the historical contextualization provided for it within museums. The aura is a property of distance from the observer, which requires active pursuit by contemplation, yet precludes its ever being fully understood; thus, the sublime aura gains authority by virtue of the transcendental realm it claims to represent.
The mystifying aura is freighted with religious connotation; deriving force from ritual and ceremony, elaborate circumscription, and arcane knowledge. Before the methods of mass reproduction, a work of art was a unique object or performance that could only be experienced by the viewer or the audience at the artwork's location. The rituals of pilgrimage and contemplation were a form of worship that acknowledged the cult value of the work of art, and the unique communion, between artist and work of art promoted the artist to led to genius; and cult value, a product of the unique artwork's existence, gave it value as an objet d'art.
Benjamin said that the mechanical reproduction voids the aura of a work of art, by eliminating the traditions of production defined by copies. Art forms such as film and photography exist purely in the realm of reproduction, so that an original artwork is indistinguishable from its copies and any authenticity that it claims is arbitrary and illegitimate. Mass-distributed artistic reproductions are incorporated to the contexts of the observer, meeting "the beholder or listener in his own particular situation", instead of retaining their distance, their aura. The value of art is now determined by modern spectators, and taken beyond traditional meaning and context; the museum. Art is designed for easy reproducibility, a shift in production that lends itself to political forms of artwork that anticipate a addressing multiple audiences. Robbed of cult value, reproduced art is appreciable for its exhibition value. A work of art retain its cult status because the audience gives credence to the concepts of "creativity and genius, eternal value and mystery", which also are prerequisite concepts for the "processing of data in the Fascist sense". As a result, the atomization of the experience of art, caused by mass reproduction, facilitates the repudiation of those concepts, and leads to receptive conditions antithetic to fascism.
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The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction much influenced the intellectualism of the Frankfurt School, especially the aesthetic and political analyses of Theodor W. Adorno, Max Horkheimer, and Herbert Marcuse.
In the late 20th century, in the television program Ways of Seeing (1972), John Berger drew from the themes of Walter Benjamin’s essay, and explained the contemporary representations of social-class and racial-caste in the production of art. That the modern means of artistic production and of artistic reproduction have destroyed the aesthetic, cultural, and political authority of art: “For the first time ever, images of art have become ephemeral, ubiquitous, insubstantial, available, valueless, free”, for lacking the aura of the original work of art.
- Aestheticization of politics
- Art for art's sake, the aesthetic doctrine Benjamin criticizes in this essay
- Elliott, Brian. Benjamin for Architects, Routledge, London, 2011.
- Scannell, Paddy. (2003) “Benjamin Contextualized: On ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ ”, in Canonic Texts in Media Research: Are There Any? Should There Be? How About These?, Katz et al. (Eds.) Polity Press, Cambridge. ISBN 9780745629346. pp. 74–89.
- Notes on Walter Benjamin, "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction", a commentary by Gareth Griffiths, Aalto University, 2011.[permanent dead link]
- Paul Valéry, La Conquête de l’ubiquité (1928)
- Walter Benjamin (1968). Hannah Arendt, ed. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”, Illuminations. London: Fontana. pp. 214–18. ISBN 9781407085500.
- Merquior, J.G. (1986). Western Marxism, London: Palladin, p. 119.
- Hansen, Miriam Bratu (2008). “Benjamin’s Aura”, Critical Inquiry No. 34 (Winter 2008)
- Friedman, George. The Political Philosophy of the Frankfurt School. Cornell University Press, New York, 1988. p. 000.
- Berger, John. 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 (in German)
- Partial text of the essay, with commentary by Detlev Schöttker (in German)