The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction
"The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" (written in 1935 as "Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit", published in French 1936 as "L'œuvre d'art à l'époque de sa reproduction mécanisée"), 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 (1933–1945) 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.
The essay was published in three editions: (i) the original, German edition in 1935 (published posthumously in Benjamin's Gesammelte Schriften, Suhrkamp, 1991); (ii) the French edition in 1936 ("L'œuvre d'art à l'époque de sa reproduction mécanisée"); 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.
In the Preface to the essay, Benjamin presents Marxist analyses of the construction of a capitalist society and of the place of art in such a 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 historical 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, and engraving, lithography and photography — to establish that artistic reproduction is not a modern human activity, and that modern means of artistic reproduction permit greater accuracy through mass production.
In the discussion of authenticity, of an artefact being in accordance with fact, Benjamin said 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." That the "sphere of authenticity is outside the technical [sphere]" of the production of an artefact; hence, the original work of art is independent of the copy. By changing the cultural context, the mechanical reproduction diminishes the original art work (original vs. copy); thus, the aura, the unique aesthetic authority of an artwork, is absent from the mechanically produced copy.
The social value of a work of art changes as a society change their value systems; thus the changes in artistic styles and in the cultural tastes of the public follow "the manner in which human sense-perception is organized [and] the [artistic] medium in which it is accomplished, [which are] determined not only by Nature, but by historical circumstances, as well." Despite the socio-cultural effects of mass-produced, reproduction-art upon the aura of 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. That the ritualization of the mechanical reproduction of art also emancipated "the work of art from its parasitical dependence on ritual", thereby increasing the social-value of exhibiting works of art, which practise progressed from the private sphere of life, the owner's enjoyment of the aesthetics of the artefacts (usually High Art), to the public sphere of life, wherein the public enjoy the same aesthetics in an art gallery.
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.
- 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.
- Hansen, Miriam Bratu (2008). "Benjamin's Aura", Critical Inquiry No. 34 (Winter 2008)
- 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)