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 devaluation of a work of art is consequent to its mechanical reproduction. As such, the subject and themes of the essay have much influenced the fields of art history and cultural studies, of media theory and architectural theory.
Benjamin wrote the essay in the time of the Nazi régime (1933–45) in Germany, in effort to produce a theory of art that is “useful for the formulation of revolutionary demands in the politics of art” in mass culture, proposing 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.
Walter Benjamin published three versions of the essay; the original, German edition in 1935; the French edition in 1936; and the revised edition in 1939, from which derive the English translations of “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”.
The themes of “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (1935) are 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 — such as 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.” That, in the artwork proper, 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. That the action of mechanical reproduction diminishes the original art work, by changing the cultural context (original vs. copy); thus, the aura, the unique æsthetic 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 æsthetic 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 æsthetic pleasure to a greater number of people.
“The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” much influenced the intellectualism of the Frankfurt School, especially the æsthetic and political analyses of Theodor W. Adorno, Max Horkheimer, and Herbert Marcuse.
In the late 20th century, in the television programme 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 æsthetic, 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.
- Paul Valéry, Le Conquete de l’ubiquite (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 (German)
- Partial text of the essay, with commentary by Detlev Schöttker