Frederic Jameson and Postmodernity, Part Three


Postmodernism and Consumer Society (1983)

Part Three

As a literary scholar, Frederic Jameson was trained in the generation of “close reading” and has used literary analysis combined with a neo-Marxism of Karl Marx and the idea of the unconscious of Sigmund Freud to “read” culture through the lens of an economic analysis of the unconscious of society. The theoretical position/s of Jameson are typical of his era, which is Postmodernism, and are therefore hybrid. For him, Postmodernism is the result of a shift in economic conditions when in turn shaped the cultural cognitive. In “Postmodernism and Consumer Society” Jameson carefully explained the connection between Postmodernity and capitalism which functions on the basis of a society that must consume to support the mode of production. In writing of Postmodernism, Jameson said,

It is also, at least in my use, a periodizing concept whose function is to correlate the emergence of new formal features in culture with the emergence of a new type of social life and a new economic order-what is often euphemistically called modernization, postindustrial or consumer society, the society of the media or the spectacle, or multinational capitalism. This new moment of capitalism can be dated from the postwar boom in the United States in the late 1940s and early ’50s or, in France, from the establishment of the Fifth Republic in 1958. The 1960s are in many ways the key transitional period, a period in which the new international order (neocolonialism, the Green Revolution, computerization and electronic information) is at one and the same time set in place and is swept and shaken by its own internal contradictions and by external resistance. I want here to sketch a few of the ways in which the new postmodernism expresses the inner truth of that newly emergent social order of late capitalism, but will haul to limit the description to only two of its significant features, which I will call pastiche and schizophrenia: they will give us a chance to sense the specificity of the postmodernist experience of space and time respectively.

In tracking the marks of late capitalism upon the human consciousness, Jameson used the culture industry as a place where economics and culture and human thought clashed and combined. He considered cinema to be the primary Postmodern art, “the last machine,” as Holis Frampton called it, a product of the most sophisticated form of industrial production. As a cultural form, film is permeated by marketing and lives and dies on its particular modes of production and distribution and the carefully calculated effects upon the audiences. Cinema involves what the theorist called “cognitive mapping” or the psychology of the “political unconscious.” “ Cognitive Mapping,” with Jameson, who was always conceded with the connection between film and politics, is a metaphor for processes of the political unconscious. In the Preface to Jameson’s The Geopolitical Aesthetic: Cinema and Space in the World Space (1992), Colin McCabe, who remarked that “cognitive mapping is the least articulated but also the most crucial of the Jameson categories,” explained the idea of “cognitive mapping as,

The term is taken from the geographer Kevin Lynch’s The Image of the City (1960) and is used by him to describe the phenomenon by which people make sense of their urban surroundings. Effectively, it works as an intersection of the people to function in the urban spaces through which they move. For Jameson, cognitive mapping is a way of understanding how the individual’s representation of his or her social world can escape the traditional critique of representation because the mapping is intimately related to practice–to the individual’s successful negotiation of urban space. Cognitive mapping in this sense is the metaphor for the processes of the political unconscious.

Film is a what he called a “conspiratorial text” with unconscious and collective effects that are concealed by bureaucratic impersonality of production and profit. But what is concealed? The particular fantasy that is projected by films must be collective and reassuring in order to contribute to a social totality. What occurs in postmodern film is Walter Benjamin’s allegory as articulated in his 1925 book, The Origin of German Tragic Drama or Origin of the German Mourning-Play (Ursprung des deutschen Trauerspiels). The goal of Benjamin’s analysis of Baroque drama in Germany was to find a theory for the Baroque which had always been castigated as a “fall” from the purity of Classical drama. As opposed to clear symbolism, Baroque drama presented allegory or an overabundance of symbols assembled from the ruins of Classicism. In the same way, Postmodernism pillaged the resources of a ruined and exhausted Modernism. This lack of an authentic time or historical period, this untimelessness of Postmodern time is called schizophrenia. As Jameson explained that,

..schizophrenic experience is an experience of isolated, disconnected, discontinuous material signifiers which fail to link up into a coherent sequence. The schizophrenic thus does not know personal identity in our sense, since our feeling of identity depends on our sense of the persistence of the “I” and the “me” over time. On the other hand, the schizophrenic will clearly have a far more intense experience of any given present of the world than we do, since our own present is always part of some larger set of projects which force us selectively to focus our perceptions.

Postmodern film and architecture was allegorized consumption of the past familiars that constructed an object-world composed of utopian wishes that allow the spectators to grasp their new (artificial and constructed) “being” in the world. Postmodern anxieties were soaked up at the movies and fantasy films became the solution that filled the cognitive and psychological vacuum. From what in this postmodern present were the audiences being distracted? Because traditional representation had become so tainted some form of representation had to be posited for the film audiences, raising the question of how would the present be represented? As an acknowledgement of the death of representation, the phenomenon of “Post” was a satisfactory solution to the problem, because allegory allowed random and isolated elements to function in fluid fashion and to form a schizoid constellation that was very Baroque, laden with plural and often entertaining feints towards “meaning.” In Postmodernism, new Post-generic films, therefore, were allegories of each other, abandoning the authenticity of the Modernist auteur.


The Westin Bonaventure, Los Angeles

Jameson considered that the Postmodern “time” was an extension of late modernism in which there has been a collapse of the distinction between the base and superstructure and film or cinema is representative of this third stage of capitalism, which is all-encompassing and global and inescapable. As he wrote in “Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism,”

What we must now affirm is that it is precisely this whole extraordinarily demoralising and depressing original new global space which is the “moment of truth” of postmodernism. What has been called the postmodernist “sublime” is only the moment in which this content has become most explicit, has moved the closest to the surface of consciousness as a coherent new type of space in its own right – even though a certain figural concealment or disguise is still at work here, most notably in the high-tech thematics in which the new spatial content is still dramatised and articulated. Yet the earlier features of the postmodern which were enumerated above can all now be seen as themselves partial (yet constitutive) aspects of the same general spatial object.

Film is both a mode of production and an art form, a form of creation and a commodity—the difference is impossible to distinguish and therefore the “movies” are linked to never-ending attempts on the part of the dominant class to reinforce ideologies that reified human beings. Film in the Postmodern era could never be modern or new; it can only be allegorical, endlessly attached to a past that never was. Postmodern allegory was an expression of the inability of the human object (o longer a subject) to locate him or herself in time. Jameson posited that one must locate oneself in a space that had not one point of focus but was plural and is dispersed without hierarchal arrangement, what he considered a loss of perspective or a sense of place. No where is this loss of perspective, this inability to “map” better manifested than in the Bonaventure Hotel in downtown Los Angeles, a building that Jameson described in great and theoretical detail. Jameson “diagnosed” the Bonaventure, designed by John Portman in 1974 and completed in 1976, and while the building lacks the façade of quotations used by Charles Moore and Michael Graves, the hotel lent itself well to the concept of cognitive mapping.


The Bonaventure Interior

As anyone who lives in Los Angeles knows, the Bonaventure is located in one of the spaghetti bowls of intersecting freeways and surface streets, making arriving at the site quite a feat in itself. Jameson notes the three separate entrances to the building which is a visually confusing cluster of five mirrored cylinders with the component parts visible only from the air. (Interestingly, Jameson himself miscounted the number of towers, stating that there are four.) Jameson wrote of the confusion for visitors who arrive at the hotel:

The entryways of the Bonaventure are, as its were, lateral and rather backdoor affairs: the gardens in the back admit you to the sixth floor of the towers, and even there you must walk down one flight to find the elevator by which you gain access to the lobby. Meanwhile, what one is still tempted to think of as the front entry on Figueroa, admits you, baggage and all, onto the second-story shopping balcony, from which you must take an escalator down to the main registration desk.

As if the entries and their presumed goals were not confusing enough, Jameson discussed the elevators which are both inside and outside, reflecting, so to speak, the mirrored surfaces of the buildings which attract and repeal the natural/cultural cityscape surrounding the hotel–outside become splashed onto the surface. According to the analysis of Jameson, the Bonadventue is all outside, all exterior, tight towers, clinging together into a conjoined unit, but the interior is subordinated to the allegorical ensemble of abstract shiny shapes. There is on focal point, no central level, the visitor is condemned to a futile wandering in search of a registration desk or a room down a rabbit warren of dark halls or rendered a passive onlooker from a vantage point that achieves no perspective and no horizon line. Without the old fashioned hierarchies of Modernist architecture, Postmodern architecture is playful and dysfunctional in its deconstruction of itself, mirroring, in a pun like fashion, the no-place of Late Capitalism.


The Bonaventure Exterior

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]

Postmodernism and the Past


Nostalgia and Retro Art

Postmodernism is a time period, beginning at a number of points, depending upon which criteria one is using. Noting the post-Duchampian works of Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, one could select 1955 as a starting point or at least a gateway year. This date would suit if one were arguing that Postmodernism is a reaction against Modernism for that is the year that the traditional concept of the avant-garde began to wane. The new artists rejected the “purity” of abstraction and the assumption of “originality” for a re-presentation of that which was already said, already available in society. One could also argue that the Neo-Dada artists’ use of popular culture was also anti-Modernist. “Postmodernity” referred to a cultural mindset that indicated a global society, the “flat earth” where all things are both equal and possible. Postmodernity is a culture of despair and cynicism where political movements are used to maintain power and social activism is a mere recreational activity.

From a historical, rather than an art world, point of view, Modernism came to an end with the post-war disillusionment at the spectacle of the Holocaust, Hiroshima, and the demonstration of inhumanity that defined the idealistic notion of “progress.” All hope of social reform was doomed with the world wide demonstrations of 1968: students in Paris and Mexico City and Chicago—all put down with police brutality sanctioned by a state determined to maintain the status quo. The Enlightenment was over. The result of this cultural disillusionment was decades of political unrest and uncertainty, expressed through a return to the past.

For many conservatives and traditionalists in the west, “the past” is a mythic country where rules were rules and boundaries were sacrosanct. The fact that this imagined history never existed does nothing to disturb its allure. Political and social conservatism emerged in Europe and America at precisely the same time as Postmodernism became the new trend in the art world—the 1980s. Postmodernism may have looked new because it was different, but it was an essentially conservative (non)movement in that it rejected “progress” as impossible. Postmodernism looked to an equally mythic past in art, a past composed of Old Masters, from Marcel Duchamp to Norman Rockwell, to whom the artists genuflected.

Compared to Modernism which always looked forward to the future while stubbornly clinging to the status quo, Postmodernism resisted the revolutions of the sixties through nostalgically revisiting the past. One of the more interesting studies of Postmodernism and the past was written in 1984 by Frederic Jameson. “The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism” is a summary of ideas about the Postmodern period that had been floating around for years, put forward succiently by Jameson. He noted the “waning” of Modernism and the avant-garde master works that were the result of a certain kind of ego: “the so-called centered subject.” Jameson explained, “The end of the bourgeois ego, or monad, no doubt brings with it the end of the psychopathologies of that ego — what I have been calling the waning of affect.”

With the order of the canon repudiated, the chaos of what Jameson called the “empirical, chaotic, and heterogeneous”—art forms, high and low, popular and commercial—without hierarchy. As Jameson wrote, “…aesthetic production today has become integrated into commodity production generally…” The lack of order and hierarchy during “Late Capitalism” extended to a “flattening” effect in which the border between the real and the simulacra was erased because once capitalism turns everything into a commodity, everything is equalized. The “flattening effect” is extended to emotions which can no longer be real and can only be simulated. Within the realm of capitalism, images make money or not and it makes no difference to the system whether the “art” commodity comes from Rachmoninoff or the Rolling Stones. The sub-text of Jameson’s work is one of regret at the passing of Modernism and a veiled condemnation of the Postmodern. The essay is elegiac, shot through with a sense of loss and longing for a legendary past.

Beyond the “waning” of the Modern and the “flattening” effect” of Postmodernism, Jameson used the concept of schizophrenia, borrowed from Jacques Lacan to explain the loss of meaning or “a breakdown in the signifying chain.” “Meaning effect,” as Jameson put it occurred with the movement from signifiers to the signified but once the connection between these links is broken, the signifiers begin, as Lacan put it, to “float,” a condition called schizophrenia. Without the anchoring of the chain of meaning, the ego cannot form and Jameson asserts that the Postmodern ego is ego-less or unformed and rootless in the face of a barrage of commercial and commodified images. As Jameson said, “…the cultural products of the postmodern era are utterly devoid of feeling, but rather that such feelings — which it may be better and more accurate, following J.-F. Lyotard, to call “intensities” — are now free-floating and impersonal.”

Left without a distinct or unifying “movement,” either in music or literature or the visual arts, Postmodernism was a non-style that occupied a period of about twenty years until 2001. Postmodernism had a number of identifiable characteristics, some of which were noted by Jameson: pastiche and parody. Postmodern art appropriated plurality through the realm of quotation in the new situation of historicism which gives access to all styles, all of which are of equal validity. The Postmodern situation is one of belatedness, similar to the condition of Mannerism coming after the High Renaissance. The Mannerist artists and architects pillaged the vocabulary of their predecessors, often employing elements out of context or exaggerating classicism to the point of parody or mockery.

Jameson explained the condition of the Postmodern as “Modernist styles thereby become postmodernist codes.” Jameson insisted that the “great collective project” (of Modernism) was over and that the language of Modernism was no longer “available.” Without a direct referent, parody is impossible and a “strange new thing pastiche slowly comes to take its place. Pastiche is, like parody, the imitation of a peculiar or unique, idiosyncratic style, the wearing of a linguistic mask, speech in a dead language.” To put it another way, styles became commodified and lost their place in history and therefore their grip on reality. Jameson borrowed “…Plato’s conception of the “simulacrum,” the identical copy for which no original has ever existed. Appropriately enough, the culture of the simulacrum comes to life in a society where exchange value has been Generalized to the point at which the very memory of use value is effaced, a society of which Guy Debord has observed, in an extraordinary phrase, that in it “the image has become the final form of commodity reification.'”

As profound social and political changes disrupted Europe and America, the Postmodern decades were cut loose from history. A new generation of revolutionaries rejected the world of their parents and demanded a new order. The social movements of the sixties were in many ways classic revolutionary maneuvers which demand the older generation fulfill their promises: liberty and equality for all. Both generations felt betrayed and the result was what Margaret Mead called “the generation gap.” Faced with this frightening chasm, the reflexive position was that of nostalgia. As Jameson said, “Nostalgia films restructure the whole issue of pastiche and project it onto a collective and social level, where the desperate attempt to appropriate a missing past…the nostalgia film was never a matter of some old-fashioned “representation” of historical content, but instead approached the “past” through stylistic connotation, conveying “pastness” by the glossy qualities of the image, and “1930s-ness” or “1950s-ness” by the attributes of fashion…”

Frederic Jameson, termed these films “nostalgia films” created out of collages of drifting memories of past times and of past films pasted together into a pastiche. Depending heavily upon the adult audience’s cultural memory of Hollywood, movies such as Star Wars, Grease, Chinatown, and Body Heat became the leading examples of a trend of cinematic intertexuality that would become the foundation of later works, such as L. A. Confidential. These films of the seventies did not recreate the past, nor do they recreate the “look” of the films of the forties or fifties. They are not “historical” films. Chinatown and Body Heat were mash-ups of actual history and fragments of earlier films that the audience could recognize.

It is this ability to identity through a cultural memory that made those “nostalgia” film work for the audience. American Graffiti and Star Wars were pastiches in that the films bundled together shared collective memories of teen films of the fifties and American Bandstand and Saturday afternoon matinees of science fiction serials and Cold War paranoia movies. Found styles are left intact enough so as to be recognizable but are sufficiently manipulated to suggest a pseudo new aesthetic. There is no effort to assimilate the parts into a formal unity. Star Wars combined fairy tales, myths, cowboy movies, actual footage from the Second World War in a cacophony of references strung along the trail of what is a hero’s journey retold as a road story.

The late Craig Owens appropriated Walter Benjamin’s discussion of allegory from his The Orign of German Tragic Drama, relegating Benjamin to a footnote. “The Allegorical Impulse: Toward a Theory of Postmodernism” was written in two parts and published in October. Owens understood allegory as a sort of reference to the past or a direct quotation from history and he suggested that the so-called “museum paintings” of Édouard Manet were examples of allegory. But bringing forward Manet, a prophet of Modernism, tended to confuse the issue and thirty years it is clear that Postmodernism in the art world was poorly understood in 1980. The concept of allegory—an impure excessive symbol—is better suited to Postmodern architecture, photography and film than to Realist art in the nineteenth century.

Walter Benjamin wrote of an obscure art form: the German tragic drama, a Baroque intervention into the Classical. The Baroque had long been explained as a falling off of the Classical or as a fall from grace, and Benjamin wrote powerfully of the building of the Baroque allegory out of the ruins of the classical. “That which lies here in ruins, the highly significant fragment, the remnant, is, in fact, the fines material in baroque creation. For it is common practice in the literature of the baroque to pile upo fragments ceaselessly without any strict idea of a goal…The legacy of antiquity constitutes, item of item, the elements from which the new whole is mixed. Or rather: is constructed. For the perfect vision of this new phenomenon was the ruin.”

Postmodern art speaks in dead languages found in the ruins of Modernism. These “dead” languages still exist but are no longer in active use and yet these codes can still be disinterred and activated by the artist. Well into the twenty first century, we can now see clearly that the public is completely comfortable with the allegorical fusion of past and present and the dystopic future that is the anticipated apocalypse. The “new” ways of making art are sampling and mashups and outright stealing, because, if all things are equal than nothing has any monetary value. What Frederic Jameson could not have predicted in 1984 is the appearance of commodities, such as Facebook, that defy monetization, and the simulacra of money, such as derivatives, that can be gambled and real money is actually lost. The current condition demonstrates the prime characteristic of the Postmodern: irony.

Reprinted by Heathwood Press

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]




Characteristics of Pop Art


Before it was anything else, Pop Art was American…and white…and urban….and male…and middle class…and straight. Pop Art was about affluence, about money and all the things that the middle class white male could afford to buy and everything the man of affluence wanted to look at. Mainstream art history has tended to present Pop Art as if it were ungendered and unclassed and uncolored, while at the same time, stressing the “American-ness” of a movement that eliminated color, exploited the images of women and ignored the plight of the poor. The exception that proved the rule of Pop’s machismo was the now-celebrated “queer” artist, Andy Warhol, who had to got to the Left Coast to get his first show of Pop Art, his now famous soup cans, at the Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles.

Pop Art as Reification

The so-called “Classic Pop Movement” from 1961 to 1964 were precisely the peak years of the Civil Rights Movement, the years of highest violence against African-Americans. The “Freedom Riders” began their dangerous, life-threatening bus trips into the Deep South in 1961. In 1963 Martin Luther King led the March on Washington and wrote his famous Letter from a Birmingham Jail. And four little girls died in a Birmingham basement when their church was bombed in 1963. Except for Andy Warhol’s powerful Race Riot series, few Pop artists took notice. The important invention of the 20th century that changed the social construction, the political make-up and economic power of the Western world—the Pill—passed without notice on the part of a group of artmakers who were largely male.

Fifty years ago, it was possible to gaze innocently upon art and declare it “not political,” because it was “art.” Today, we look at Pop Art in a far more critical fashion. No one is naïve enough to claim that images are innocent; images mean more than the makers intended. If Pop Art was anything, it was a movement of excess and surplus and a plentitude of meaning, exceeding any attempt to control the signifiers. Therefore one of the major characteristics of Pop Art is the linkages between the New York artists and New York Advertising and the post-war consumer culture fueled by a government policy that shifted resources from one group, women, to another: white males. In its studiously muscular assertions of conventional masculinity, Pop Art managed to elide the increasing pressure on an oppressed population of homosexuals, both male and female.

While the female nudes of the San Francisco artist, Mel Ramos, were more modest than those of the New York artist, Tom Wesselman, both artists are typical in their equation of women with consumer goods. Women were presented as objects to be consumed. Always nude, always stripped of power or agency, always preening and presenting their open mouths, bared breasts, and pubic areas to the voyeuristic gaze of the avid male viewer, the women were pink and pornographic. Claes Oldenburg’s vision of Pop Art also displays a fixation on oral pleasure. Much of his early art recreates food, mostly American food, mostly junk food and mostly fast food—giant furry popsicles and looming hamburgers. Oldenburg’s art vacillated between the hard and erect, the phallic lipstick mounted on top of a tank pedestal, and the dysfunctionally flaccid toilet.

The focus on male performance only reflected American bellicose foreign policy which feminized its foes. The Soviet Union, as George Kennan expressed it, must be contained in its “flow” by the potency of the United States which courted this misguided empire with the superiority of democracy and capitalism. Pop Art was inherently conservative, reinforcing the dominant culture of the well-paid white male who had unexamined privileges withheld from women and people of color. For Roy Lichtenstein, couples are always heterosexual. Men disappoint women, not men; women die for the love of men, not women. His parodies of Romance comics for girls are the mirror image of his reification of war and violence found in post-war comics for boys. In popular literature, women seek romance and men seek combat, thus reinforcing gender roles—a particularly urgent task given the presence of women in the workplace, newly empowered by the Pill. Thus, in returning to representation, Pop Art was an unmediated revelation of the values of an affluent culture dedicated to the preservation of the power of the heterosexual white male.

Pop Art as a Changing of the Guard

Fifty years ago, typical accounts of Pop Art excluded the art produced in Europe and in Los Angeles. It took years to include the so-called “Pop artists” of the overlooked centers of popular culture. The reason for this neglect of important art is two fold: first, Pop Art in Los Angeles and Berlin or Paris differs from locale to locale. Pop Art was always an art of the local, the popular culture of a particular society. Post-war Los Angeles was a very different place from Berlin which was a very different place from Paris and so on. (These cities and their popular culture will be discussed in more detail in subsequent posts.) The second issue has to do with those who produce the discourse on Pop Art—art writers in New York. Because of their place in the art world, these writers constructed what were actually quite fractured accounts of Pop Art. Hidden beneath the master narrative of an art of popular culture was an Oedipal sub-text of a new generation beginning to challenge the old gatekeepers of art, headed by Clement Greenberg.

When one re-reads the early writers on Pop, it quickly becomes clear that the defining characteristics of Pop Art in New York were understood through a filter of the kind of art that Clement Greenberg had excluded in his definition of “Modernism.” Greenberg’s theory of the evolution of art towards a material and moral purity demanded that figuration and representation be eliminated from “fine art.” Beginning with Neo-Dada, there was a dramatic change in art: a return to the object through a new kind of literalism, an appropriation of the image of a common object without change or alteration. The cool, detached acceptance of the low and the ordinary by Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg signaled a new depersonalization in art, a rebuke to the stress on the artist’s personality seen in Abstract Expressionism.

Like the Neo-Dada artists, the Pop artists borrowed, quoted, and appropriated already available subject matter that was timely, topical, concerned with ordinary life. Unlike the Neo-Dada artists, the Pop artists were less inclined towards found objects and were more deliberatively selective of what they purloined. The artists sacrificed individuality creativity in favor of consuming advertising, mostly invented in the offices and studios of New York ad agencies. Pop Art reveled in banal imagery of commodification and consumerism and celebrated post-War affluence in America. Therefore, in contrast to Ab Ex’s European-based influences, Pop was a return to American art subject matter in America. Pop was cosmopolitan, especially concerned with the sophisticated urban environment of a New York culture of persuasion, and uses quotations, translations, imitations, visual double-takes in a witty and youthful fashion.

In 1957, the British artist, Richard Hamilton, defined Pop Art as “1. popular: designed for mass audience, 2. Transient: short-term solution, 3. Expendable: easily forgotten, 4. Low Cost, 5. Mass Produced, 6. Young: aimed at youth, 7. Witty 8. Sexy 9. Gimmacky 10. Glamorous and 11. Big Business.” In other words, Pop Art does not take itself seriously. American Pop Art in New York was concerned with reacting against gestural Abstract Expressionist painting and against Modernist spiritualization of art. Pop Art was anti-serious, anti-moralistic and anti-spiritual, challenging the traditional and historical ways of creating and making art. Pop Art was un-original and un-spontaneous and predicted Postmodernism in its penchant for borrowing, quoting and appropriating a once-disparaged low culture.

Formalist writers were stymied by the presence of representation and figuration, long thought vanquished from high art. Many observers were repelled by the vulgar sources favored by the artists. While some younger critics embraced Pop Art and adventurous dealers transformed Pop Art into a marketable commodity, the old guard art writers stood aside and refused to accept this new form of art as serious art at all. None was more opposed than Clement Greenberg whose worst nightmares were coming true. As early as 1939, Greenberg had campaigned against “kitsch,” the natural enemy of the avant-garde. Many subsequently linked Pop Art to kitsch, thinking popular culture, but kitsch, as Greenberg explained, is a debased form of high art: an Alexandre Cabanal reaction to Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres. That said, Pop Art in its built-in marketability was a form of temptation for artists who refused to risk their income or “stardom” in favor of difficult experimental art and the sheer popularity of Pop Art would draw the ire of Greenberg.

Reprinted in Homemade Esthetics: Observations on Art and Taste, Greenberg’s 1971 lecture, “Night Eight,” summed up his problems with Pop.

…Pop Art appealed to a lower, obvious order of literary of literary taste–making fun of advertising, making fun of pinup girls, making fun of labels on cans. and so forth—which is so easy to make fun of and we are all in on it anyhow…I think some of Pop Art is respectful academic art. It will probably last the same way the small pictures of Gérome or Bouguereau—and probably not was well as some of the small pictures of Meissonier—have lasted…(Pop Art) is nice small art and it is respectable, but it is not good enough to keep high art going…

Earlier in his remarks, Greenberg claimed that Pop Art was “academic” because it was from “the art school Cubist grid,” clearly defining Pop Art as “kitsch.” However, it is possible that because of his age—Greenberg was born in 1909—he could not see the sheer joy the artists took in popular culture. He assumed that the painters were making fun of the imagery. The conceptual basis of Pop was that the art was not serious, not intellectual, not a critique. By its very nature, Pop Art was an art of the status quo. On the other hand, Greenberg would have understood Pop Art within the structure of the dialectic. Pop Art was the linear answer to the painterliness of Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art was the figurative antithesis to the abstract thesis of Abstract Expressionism. Pop Art, as originally written, was a discursive repudiation of Clement Greenberg, the Father of American Art Criticism.

Pop Art as Mass Culture

As a lived condition of real artists, Pop Art was a less Oedipal reaction, not to art, but to the real world as it was coming into being on the cusp of the early sixties. When one looks at the white plaster sculptures of George Segal, Pop Art seems an art of the ordinary, examining the colorless and uncelebrated lives of “real life.” But Segal is an outlier, lumped, perhaps inaccurately, within the Pop movement because of a coincidence of time and place. Segal, unlike many of the Pop artists, commented upon contemporary events—the Holocaust, Kent State, homosexual rights. From the perspective of hindsight, some artists, from Segal to Marisol, lie uneasily within the precincts of Pop. It is helpful to think of Pop Art, not as a revival of 19th century Realism but as a thoroughly modern movement, an art of mass media; and specifically an art of the kind of media that, for the first time in history, could be omnipotent in everyday life because of a technology that had never existed before. The Pop Art of mass media had two main themes: desire, the kind of desire that can never be fulfilled, the kind of desire that is endlessly displaced and projected onto another consumer object through advertising, the kind of advertising that is a fantasy swallowed whole, the kind of advertising that is capable of selling anything, as long as the jingles are jaunty and the colors are jumping, because the spectacle offers the second theme: fulfillment.

Unlike Realism of Courbet, Pop Art was noticeably passive: it observed and it seized and re-gifted the object of its desire without comment, like Manet. But unlike Manet, Pop Art did not attempt a new style to signify the salient characteristics of the new era—the transient nature of modernité, instead, it simply reified the nature of post-war life—the elevation of an artificial manufactured culture of desire into high art. To quote Jean Baudrillard on simulacra, Pop Art was an art of the simulated—it was a simulation of something that is simulated from something that never existed. As a simulacra of a simulacra—Warhol’s Evis paintings—Pop Art reiterated an image of an image, gleefully recapitulating to its glorified artificiality—Warhol’s Marilyn paintings.

James Rosenquist was a rarity among Pop artists, an artist who critiqued aspects of the American society that fed his art. Like Lichtenstein replicated the Ben-Day dots of four color printing, Rosenquist used the creamy sensuous appearance of mass advertising of the fifties as the starting point for his version of Pop Art. Working like an editor enamored of montage, the artist sliced and diced found images like a bricoleur on a rampage. President Elect, painted in 1961 with the smiling picture of Kennedy, a luscious piece of cake offered to the open mouth of the public and the yellow car, completely changed in its meaning after November of 1963. After that date, one could not see a car juxtaposed with Kennedy without shuddering. Such are the dangers of using contemporary images—they can go beyond fashionable banality and sink to irrelevancy or they can rise to the historical occasion and remain potent and powerful like Warhol’s Death and Disaster series. President Elect became tragic two years after it was painted, a morning wall for a grieving public.

F-111 was Rosenquist’s most eloquent statement against the official foreign policy of America, the doctrine called MAD and the Viet Nam War. Only Robert Heineken, his contemporary who was never included in Pop Art, was as fearless in his denunciation of a highly contentious war. A large multi-paneled installation, F-111 was painted in 1964, years before the nation rose up in anger against the latest manifestation of the Cold War. Although for decades art writers and curators would stoutly deny the political content of this painting, Rosenquist was very frank in his intentions. The mock billboard was, as the artist said, “…flying through the flak of consumer society to question the collusion between the Vietnam death machine, consumerism, the media, and advertising.”

The painting was a consummate statement on mass culture, showing that mass advertising, mass popular art—advertising—can sell anything, even death through nuclear annihilation, even death in a remote rice paddy for purposes unknown. F-111 refers to a new and expensive fighter jet awaiting its Top Guns. Its tail and its tip are the beginning and end of the painting which is propelled along its four panels by tire tracks that roll past a little girl sheltered beneath the nose cone of a missile. Along the way, atomic blooms and an umbrella of Mutually Assured Destruction are way stations on a deadly journey ending in a close up of gut-like spaghetti. With its sophisticated manipulation of propaganda, advertising, the raw material for Pop Art, was an art of all things urban, successfully wiping out folk art and sweeping humble craft to the margins. In its time, even when reinforcing an old and tired patriarchal system, Pop Art represented all things shiny and new.

Pop Art as Mass Media

Fifty years later, the dust of history has settled on Pop Art. Some of the artists are dead–Warhol, Lichtenstein, Rosenquist, some are still alive and well and making art—Ruscha and Hockney, but the time of Pop Art has past. Some of the art has not worn well and exists only as a blue chip “example” of Pop Art, but the movement itself remains relevant. Pop Art in America presaged things to come: the fact that our social lives, our economic well-being, our very culture in the West would be based upon mass culture driven by mass advertising fueled by the technology of mass media that impels us to consume our way to happiness.

Many observers have linked Pop Art to the 1936 essay by Walter Benjamin, “A Work of Art in an Age of Reproduction,” and indeed there is much merit in this correspondence. Pop Art replicated the style of mass reproduction as it existed in the sixties, slick and clean lines, strong and sharp colors, subliminal mash-ups to form connections among objects of abundance and signs of affluence and insatiable desire. Not only did Pop Art reject the painterly surfaces and the high seriousness of Abstract Expression, it also rejected the shared sacrifice of the Second World Two and its patriotic rationing. Pop Art is a art of cheerful greed, targeted like advertising, toward those whom society rewards and ignored those whom society punishes. Pop Art reproduced the reproducibility of advertising. It was an art to be looked at, an art to be seen, an art to be enjoyed. Like the consumer goods it advertised, Pop Art was consumed, first by avid viewers and be acquisitive collectors and then, at last, by history.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]










Theodor Adorno and “The Culture Industry”





Dialectic of Enlightenment (1947) was born in the sun of Hollywood, beside the pools of Santa Monica, in the capital of mass culture designed to entertain and to (literally) stupefy the American public. It would seem that the focal point for such a book, popular culture, is a slender reed for such a weighty philosophical discourse, but the authors Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer were German refugees who understood all too well the power of mass media. Although in their early years in the Frankfurt School, or the Institute of Social Research, the scholars attached to this group were Marxist, they were not doctrinaire and were not orthodox. Led by Horkheimer, the philosophers sought a way to update Marxism and to get beyond the failure of social revolution and to understand why this uprising among the lower classes did not take place.

Part of the very notion of “Late Capitalism” is the concept that economic forces invade all relationships and all aspects of a lived social life. In other words, the economic model, fueled by the profit motive, is now in full control. In contrast to earlier modes of Capitalism (or Feudalism), which were limited in their effects, Late Capitalism is theoretically limitless, thanks in no small part of technology. It is modern technology that spreads the ideas of the dominant group currently in control of society through radio, film and published documents. Marx certainly anticipated the role of the commodity as creating “desire” but he could not have envisioned the extension of capitalist control through technology.

Even before the Frankfurt School was forced to leave German in 1933, it was clear that the modern world had gone beyond the old-fashioned version of Marxism and that other disciplines had to be brought to a new critique of a new culture. The culture of the 20th century was “administered” and the administration of this new society was facilitated by the “culture industry.” It was this unholy alliance between state and entertainment that had caught the attention of Adorno and Horkheimer and the Frankfurt School during the rise of Fascism in Germany. And now the exiled philosophers were at Ground Zero of the Culture Industry—Hollywood.

Theodor W. Adorno was born Theodor Adorno-Wiesengrund, his father’s (Jewish) name retained only as an initial. He took his Italian mother’s name, perhaps in honor of their mutual love of music, perhaps to highlight the non-Jewish half of his parentage, and almost certainly to veil the Jewish-ness of the Frankfurt School when the scholars moved to New York City. Just as Walter Benjamin was a poet as much as he was a philosopher, so too Adorno was as much a musician as he was a philosopher. Adorno wanted to become a professional pianist but lacked the talent necessary for such a career. He drifted into philosophy and, influenced by early twentieth century Neo-Kantianism, took up the task of making the theories of Karl Marx relevant to the new century. His philosophy was always about praxis, but, paradoxically, he refused to write in a way that could be easily understood or paraphrased. According to the authoritative scholar of the Frankfurt School, Martin Jay, his style of writing is so dense and so obscure that it has a name all its own: “Adorno Deutsch” that resists easy translation. However, Dialectic of Enlightenment, perhaps because it was co-written, is a fairly straightforward book to read and, because of its readability, the central notion of the Culture Industry has had a profound impact upon Neo-Marxist thinking and upon its cousin in critique, Critical Theory and upon modern thinkers from Jurgen Habermas to Guy Debrod.

Adorno, like his colleagues, had inherited the notion of the superiority of Germany’s Kultur, as opposed to commercialized Zivilisation of other nations, such as America. The role of Kulture in Germany was what might also be called “high culture,” which would be opposed to popular culture or the mass culture of the entertainment industry. High culture enlightens and lifts up, while low or popular culture flattens and homogenizes public “taste.” Decades later, Pierre Bourdieu would point out that “taste” is, in fact, a social divider, marking out high class “taste” from low class “taste.” Perhaps because of such a class divide, or perhaps because he had a background as a classical pianist, Adorno had a famously limited appreciation for popular culture.

He was an unrepentant snob and, even after living in the United States for years, he could not understand the value of jazz. Some have accused Adorno of being a racist for this blind spot, but it is more likely that he disliked the improvisational nature of this form of music that seemed so casual, without structure or compositional permanency. Having lived in Hollywood, Adorno watched Walt Disney appropriate Stravinsky and, after the War, he rejected any possibility of high “culture” and thought of culture as “neutral and ready-made” simply because it could be borrowed and reused for any purposes. Rather than being a living, growing creative enterprise, culture, by whatever name—high, low, popular—replicated itself. Nevertheless, Adorno maintained his task as “cultural critic” and produced a large body of works as a music critic.

The perspective of Dialectic of Enlightenment was also impacted by the role that mass entertainment played in the Weimar Republic and in the rise of the Nazis. In New York, the Frankfurt School could view the cunning and dangerous use of the apparatus of media on behalf of Nazi propaganda from a safe distance. During the Second World War, the scholars witnessed a full-scale effort in America to deploy mass entertainment and mass information to keep Americans patriotically involved in what would be a long and costly war. In 1943 Max Horkheimer had to leave New York and go to Los Angeles for his health. Here, he was joined by Theodor Adorno and the two Germans joined a large colony of émigrés and exiles in Hollywood. There they could watch the local “industry”—mass entertainment—at work. The resulting book Dialectic of Enlightenment contained the essay “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception,” a seminal study of contemporary mass media. The book, written by Adorno and Horkheimer just after the end of the war, is reflective of their Hollywood experiences. But the essays also recall their experiences as witnesses to the rise of fascism. The book was originally published by a Dutch publishing firm and was reissued in 1970, a year after Adorno’s death.

The Culture Industry, as the name implies, is part of the Industrial Revolution, a product of industrial technology. The industrial aspect had long since taken over the “cultural” aspects and, since the late nineteenth century, “culture” had been co-opted by a vast capitalist profit-making machine. The result was, for Adorno, a great loss to humanity. Unlike his friend Walter Benjamin, Adorno could not envision any possibility that technology could be used to either arouse or liberate the masses. Indeed in his time, culture was a captive of corporations that used music and dance, the performing arts, to make a profit. In order to make this profit, the culture proffered to the public had to appeal to the greatest number. The result was that “high” culture had to be supported by a small and wealthy and dedicated group of those who were educated enough to appreciate it. There was little profit in this elitist form of culture until the technology of the record player could be used to sell records to a wider audience.

Mass culture, or culture for the masses, was vastly more popular and profitable. Popular culture emerged from the lower classes, from the folk, from the middle classes, but these distinctions were lost under the homogenizing impact of the industry, which needed to level out differences to sell to the greatest number of buyers. The enterprises that manufacture and promote and sell “culture” on an “industrial” scale are capitalist in nature and, in the process of selling their product, they sell capitalism and capitalist ideology as well. For example, the creation of the “star” and the “cult” of worship around the star him or herself gives rise to the illusion among the worshipers that a rise to stardom is in her or his grasp. Thus the dull truth of class division and unequal opportunity is overlaid by unrealistic hope.

In her book on Adorno, Culture Industry Revisited: Theodor W. Adorno on Mass Culture, Deborah Cook begins with Plato’s Allegory of the Cave and states, “Adorno transformed, in broad but clear strokes, the ancient allegory of the cave into an explosive critique of the culture industry.” The idea is that people prefer the cave and its shadows to the reality outside in the bright sunlight, but the real question is why? Why do people prefer the commodity to class equality? Why do people while away hours in a darkened theater? Marx, long before Freud, understood that the commodity was a “symptom” of a desire for something else, and Adorno connected Marx and Freud through the Culture Industry, the cave of the masses. As Adorno wrote, “This dreamless art for the people fulfills the dreamy idealism which went too far for idealism in its critical form.” Parenthetically, it should be pointed out that the “psychology” of the culture industry differed between Germany and America. In Germany, the culture industry, especially under the Nazis, led the citizens into regressive pleasures and towards a narcissistic worship of the “Leader,” Adolf Hitler. In America, the culture industry distracts the view of the people away from economic and social issues and points them towards the pleasure of escapism through entertainment.

Whatever nationalistic differences an audience may share, the result is the same—indoctrination of the masses into a sameness that serves the needs of the masters. “The whole world is passed through the filter of the culture industry,” the authors stated. According to Adorno, the individual does not exist but has been reconfigured into a “social object” shaped for the administered world, ruled by capitalism. Earlier work by scholars of the Frankfurt School showed that the role of the father in a patriarchal society had been supplanted by the state, which in concert with the Culture Industry, now controlled the collective cultural psyche. It matters not whether the society is totalitarian or “non-totalitarian,” the result will be the same—a society under enchantment and trained to seek pleasure over confrontation with the authorities. The question is who is in control?

The forces which generate the economic engine behind the Culture Industry are not unknown but, to be more precise, are abstract. The Culture Industry is not ruled by people but by profit and the need to acquire a monopolistic position in order to acquire more profit. Marx’s metaphor of an “engine” is an apt one in that it conjures up a sense of a force that no one controls or commands. The Culture Industry is particularly efficient as definitionally it is a collaborative enterprise composes of many people all of whom want to earn a living, laboring away as cogs in a wheel, thinking they are being “artists” or that they merely want to entertain.

The real workings of culture are invisible to them, for the true purpose of any system is to preserve itself and the Culture Industry protects itself by calling up emotions that produce the pleasurable and manufacture and artificial desire for more pleasure. The industry, whether it is the movies or pornography, has the same result: reification. The individual is dissolved into abstract relations between, not people, but things. These “social things,” so to speak, these reified people can now be compartmentalized and labeled and thus controlled by the capitalist system that has need of their services. Capitalism appears to be “rational” and “logical” and claims to be “inevitable” but in order to function, psychological forces within humans must be both suppressed and deployed.

Culture becomes a commodity that provides pleasure-giving entertainment to the repressed masses that are allowed to express their regressive and childlike impulses and instincts through emotional music and exciting films. The result is the replacement of any social critique by the masses with spectacle. People, the audience, is thus, through spectacle, is trained into certain habits of thought and taught to think and act against their own best interests and to instead align themselves with the abstract powers of capitalism which themselves become reified into political slogans. Politics follows the lead of the movies. Adolf Hitler understood himself as a film star and his “director” Albert Speer created magnificent sets for his leader at Nuremberg. The essay also commented on the Führer’s use of a new instrument of propaganda, the radio:

The National Socialists knew that broadcasting gave their cause statue as the printing press did to the Reformation. The Führer’s metaphysical charisma, invented by the sociology of religion, turned out finally to be merely the omnipresence of his radio addresses, which demonically parodies that of the divine spirit.

While reading Dialectic of Enlightenment one begins to recognize the voice and the thoughts and the preoccupations of Adorno verses Horkheimer. Threaded throughout the essay on the culture industry are Adorno’s ideas on aesthetics. He wrote little about artists, who were once shielded from the market by their patrons, and more about the state of “art” itself in the culture industry. Although Adorno’s aesthetic viewpoint is more fully laid out in his books on music, he often mentioned the fact that art is no longer a privileged object but simply one more commodity in a world of consumerism. Influenced by Walter Benjamin’s concept of “aura,” Adorno felt that art retained some of its mystic only to the extent the relationship between art and the marketplace was disguised and kept form the art audience. Museums, as much as art galleries, are part of the larger cultural industry, one hawking art for profit and the other corralling the items for entertainment and exhibition value in an artificially “sacred” space.

Adorno did not live long enough to see the rise of the Internet and the subsequent rise of Information technology that, at this writing, is still (precariously and contentiously) in the hands of “the people.” He was well aware that the culture industry of his time did not all allow for a response, but now the one-sidedness of communication has changed. The watcher and answer back. Adorno would certainly have pointed out that however “democratic” the Web might seem, the main concern of the corporations has been how to monetize its potential profit.

As the world has been flooded with information or facts or knowledge, people have replicated the habits of thinking taught by the Culture Industry. Confrontation with information that one does not agree with causes “cognitive dissonance” for the viewer, and to protect each group from the minds of other groups, various economic forces have divided and have created separate spaces so that disparate entities can receive pleasure by hearing what they want to hear and seeing what they want to see. Adorno’s macro view of a totalitarian Culture Industry has been replace by the reality of many micro “cultures,” whether as cable television stations, newspapers with a certain slant, or Internet outlets on the Web.

According to Martin Jay’s The Dialectical Imagination, the book by Horkheimer and Adorno became an underground must-read that fueled anti-bourgeois students in the sixties. This connection, whether appropriate or not, whether or not the students understood the scholarship of the Frankfurt School, was perhaps the cause for the decades long opposition to its philosophy from the right wing. Adorno’s death is claimed, by many, to have been hastened by the assault of his rebelling students who chastised the old revolutionary for not being revolutionary enough. The repudiation of his students and their accusations that he had mistreated Walter Benjamin broke the heart of the scholar who had worked so hard to preserve the writer’s memory and works. Benjamin’s writings deeply affected the thinking of Adorno who, in many ways, carried on his earlier work on popular culture. Adorno never fully recovered psychology from the shock of being exposed the Counter Culture and he died in 1969.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]





Robert Rauschenberg and “The Flatbed Picture Plane”


Robert Rauschenberg had served in the Navy, as a nurse, during the Second World War, and, like many men of his generation, went to college on the G.I Bill. After studying in Paris and New York, he found himself at the famous Black Mountain College (1933-1957) in Asheville, North Carolina. The small secluded College boasted of an extraordinary faculty of famous artists, such as Jacob Lawrence, Elaine and Willelm deKooning, John Cage, and the refugee artists, Annieand Josef Albers from the Bauhaus. Albers despised Rauschenberg and would never talk about him in later years, but he taught the artist about the importance of materials. When he was a teacher in the Foundation year at the Bauhaus, Albers trained his students to create “combinations,” that is, works of art that were collages and assemblages, made of anything or combined from everything. Any kind of material could be used. Rauschenberg would later call his hybrid works “combines” in homage to his bad tempered teacher.

In 1951 Rauschenberg had gained enough self confidence to write excitedly to the New York art dealer, Betty Parsons, of a new body of work, the White Paintings. As Brandon Wayne Joseph recounted in Random Order, the young artist insisted that the paintings were so “exceptional” that they constituted “a state of emergency.” The artist also began to participate in performance art, working with John Cage, who, in turn, was inspired by one of Rauschenberg’s White Paintings. The way the shadows played on and changed the white surface reminded Cage of his interest in silence, a fascination that had been growing since the late 1940s. According to Cage, “The white paintings were airports for lights, shadows and particles.” Thus the white paintings are “performed” by the ambient environment and the presence of the viewer. Having explored the ideas of Zen, the concept of chance as acted out in the recently published English version of I Ching, a valuable association with Marcel Duchamp, Cage was prepared to understand the spiritual implications of the “silence” of Rauchenberg’s work. In the essay “Purposeful Purposelessness Meets Found Order,” the confrontation resulted in what Art Institute of Chicago’s music scholar, Peter Gena, described as

..the most famous event in the history of Black Mountain College. In 1952, John Cage organized what was later acknowledged as the first “happening.” Titled Theater Piece No 1, the mixed-media event was conceived one day after lunch and was presented, without rehearsals, scripts, or costumes, on the same evening in the dining hall. Cage constructed the 45-minute spectacle for selected colleagues who were each assigned two random segments of time in which to perform activities of their choice. Simultaneously, Charles Olsen and M. C. Richards read their poetry, Cunningham danced (followed around by a dog), David Tudor played Cage’s music on the piano, Rauschenberg hung some of his white paintings from the rafters and played wax cylinders on an old Edison horn recorder, and Cage lectured on Meister Eckhart and Zen.

Cage and Rauschenberg continued their collaborations in New York. Like their associate and Cage’s partner, Merce Cunningham, these Neo-Dada artists re-defined traditional art forms. Rauschenberg redefined “print” when he glued pieces of typewriter paper into a twenty foot long scroll and guided Cage when he drove his Model A Ford over the line of pages. The front tire was “inked” with black house paint poured in front of the tire and thus, when Cage, now the “printer” and the “press,” drove in a straight line, the tire left a “print” of the car’s “journey” along the scroll. Automobile Tire Print (1953) was made on a weekend on Fulton Street, which was deserted on those days. According to Rauschenberg, “it rained” and the glue did not hold, so he had to “salvage” the pages and piece them back together into what he thinks of as a Tibetan “prayer flag.”

By the time he had returned to New York City, Rauschenberg was forced to face the failure of his marriage and divorced his wife. His next partner was an artist he met at Black Mountain, Cy Twombly. Although Twombly later married an heiress to an Italian fortune, his heart was broken when Rauschenberg met a newcomer to New York, Jasper Johns. Johns and Rauschenberg quickly became a couple, impacting each other’s art. Both artists began to make works that were hybrid in quality—neither paintings nor sculptures but both. While at Black Mountain, Rauschenberg made several series of White, Black, and Red paintings. Charlene (1954), a huge collaged painting, is one of the last red paintings, combining an umbrella, found prints of famous works of art, comic strips, and other collaged objects. Charlene was poised between painting, collage and an Albers “combination.” Another object that dated back to Black Mountain was Bed (1955) made when Rauschenberg was so broke he could not afford canvas. Looking like a murder scene, Bed was literally a sheet, covered with a quilt, with a pillow at the top. The artist then splattered paint, like Jackson Pollock, on the bed and hung the “painting” on the wall, making it into a work of art.

The sardonic slap at Abstract Expressionism was a “gesture” on the part of a brash artist who was clearly challenging his elders. Although Rauschenberg claimed to mean no disrespect, his Erased de Kooning Drawing (1953) was but one of a line of provocative works which made fun of the Modernist claim of authenticity and originality. Rauschenberg “erased” the cult of the artist in his months long erasure project and demonstrated that any gesture could be copied in Factum I and Factum II (1957). As a further refusal of originality and inner experiences, Rauschenberg, possibly under the influence of Marcel Duchamp, picked up an important but neglected tradition, Dada. The Modernist tradition of painting could not fruitfully incorporate Dada into its meta-narrative of evolution, and Rauschenberg, as a member of the Neo-Dada underground, began living off the land of discards.

As a resident of the Lower East Side, Rauschenberg collected the city’s detritus and used it to create large combines, some of which could hang on the wall, some of which were intended as floor pieces, while others were confined in boxes. As the artist reported later, “I actually had a kind of house rule. If I walked completely around the block and didn’t find enough to work with, I could take one other block and walk around it in any direction–but that was it.” Probably due to his upbringing on a farm in Port Arthur, Texas, the artist was particularly fond of animals stuffed by a taxidermist. As a high school student, he was so sensitive to the fate of animals, he refused to dissect a frog in biology class. Indeed, Rauschenberg’s combines often incorporated animals, and the most famous being Monogram, a large floor combine, featuring an Afghan goat, far from home, perched on a failed canvas. The goat has a car tire around his middle, and, like many of Rauschenberg’s works of the Fifties, is painted (on its broken nose) in a mock Abstract Expressionist style of drip painting. The goat stands on a large collaged painting, which, recycled by the artist, now became a mocking “field,” complete with a tennis ball.

Man with White Shoes, Odalisk, and Interview, all of the early fifties, were assemblages that were free-standing and were based on Cornell-like tall boxes, acting as containers of random objects and as carriers of found images. In one of the finest essays on Rauschenberg’s art, in Other Criteria, art historian Leo Steinberg referred to the artist’s “flatbed picture plane,” meaning that he simply placed images on a flat surface as one would tack notices on a bulletin board. However gritty and random these images appeared, Rauschenberg’s combines could be “read” by the attentive viewer. Many of his appropriated pictures were reproductions of famous works of art, others were from degraded popular culture, suggesting an art world dialectic between creativity and appropriation. Although many of these combines concealed codes with queer content, art historians were silent about the gay subject matter of both Johns and Rauschenberg until recently.

Canyon (1959) tells a story of gay love: the Greek myth of Zeus and Ganymede, a young boy loved by the god who, disguised as an eagle, kidnapped the child. Perched on a ledge at the bottom of the painting is a stuffed eagle. Above the eagle is a photograph of Rauschenberg’s son as an infant, reaching up to the sky. Hanging from the bottom of the canvas is a pillow, divided in half with a rope, giving the pillow the look of human buttocks. Looking back on the definitive phase of Rauschenberg’s career, artist and critic, Brian O’Doherty, wrote of the artist’s “vernacular glance.”

“The vernacular glance doesn’t recognize categories of the beautiful and ugly. It just deals with what’s there. Easily surfeited, cynical about big occasions, the vernacular glance develops a taste for anything, often notices or creates the momentarily humorous, but doesn’t follow it up…Nor does it pause to remark on unusual juxtapositions, because the unusual is what it is geared to recognize, without thinking about it. It dispenses with hierarchies of importance, since they are constantly changing to where you are and what you need.”

Although O’Doherty described the “vernacular” as a means to topple Modernist hierarchies of “high” and “low,” the notion of “glance” implies a new way of seeing—a quick scanning that seized upon random elements. In looking at these works of the Fifties from the standpoint of the twenty-first century, Rauschenberg’s combines seem to predict the type of looking disciplined by the internet: a skimming of the screen, searching for key words. Rauschenberg’s combines, regardless of concealed content or not, were harbingers of things to come: hybrid, impure, painting-sculpture-objects-installation art based upon commercial and low art imagery found in one of the grittiest neighborhoods in New York. With hindsight, it is clear that Rauschenberg was making a stronger break with Modernism than his anti-art gestures would suggest. He deviated from the cherished ideology of Modernism, that the avant-garde is based in the kind of originality that was incomprehensible to the bourgeoisie.

Composed of fragments of low culture and reproductions of high culture, the artist’s collaged paintings were predictors of Postmodern strategies of appropriation and quotation. Rauschenberg’s works were perfectly legible and familiar because their bones are borrowed. With their constellations of ephemera, his works echo the “allegories” of Walter Benjamin and foretell the encyclopedic approach of Andy Warhol. There was nothing High Art about Rauschenberg’s work and when Leo Castelli exhibited Rauschenberg’s combines in 1958, the art world was aghast. Sadly, his debut at one of the great galleries of Pop Art would be the beginning of the end of his relationship with Jasper Johns. Castelli, who seemed to prefer the works of Johns over that of the older and more experienced artist, gave him the first show of his new gallery. The order of “preference” was too much for Rauschenberg and the two great artists soon went their separate ways. In his later years, Robert Rauschenberg spoke one or twice of the “affection” the two artists had for each other, but Johns, to this date, has remained discrete.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]

“The Origin of German Tragic Drama,” 1925, by Walter Benjamin


(The Origin of German Tragic Drama), 1925

by Walter Benjamin

Walter Benjamin’s Ursprung des deutschenTrauerspiels utilized a thought floated by Marx, that all art would become “allegorical” as a result of commodification and of its transformation into a fetishistic object. In this notoriously difficult book, Benjamin foregrounded allegory as the structural underpinning of the Baroque épistemé. Originally intended as his Habilitationsschrift, or an academic manuscript, submitted to the faculty of a German university as the necessary prelude for being accepted as a Privatdozent. Once accepted into the university fold, the Privatdozent has the right to lecture on whatever topic s/he desires. On the surface, the submission was exemplary. Benjamin had made all the right moves: he found a long neglected area of culture to investigate—German Baroque tragic drama—-and analyzed this obscure topic with exemplary and labyrinthine thoroughness.

However, after being passed among departments, this complex tome was summarily rejected by the traditional academics at the university in Frankfurt. The Ursprung was an uneasy but innovative work—ahead of its time in its willingness to combine exacting research with poetical interpretation. The major complaint against this book from its main reader was that it is impossible to study the spirit of an age, but forty years later, Michel Foucault would do just that in his Archaeology of Knowledge (1969) when he studied the notion that each era had its own system or theory of knowledge.

But beyond the question of how or whether “knowledge” was a social construct, there were larger problems with the Ursprung. In resurrecting an almost forgotten art form, Benjamin actually challenged the prevailing belief that the “Classical” was superior to the “Baroque.” It seems clear that he had read or was familiar with the work of the art historian, Heinrich Wölfflin: Renaissance und Barock (Renaissance and Baroque) (1888), and Die klassische Kunst (Classic Art) (1898, and Kunstgeschichtliche Grundbegriffe (Principles of Art History) (1915). Wölfflin treated the Baroque as a co-equal of Classical, as simply another style and not as a “decline” from the Classical. However, as the prompt rejection of Benjamin’s thought experiment on the Baroque would suggest, the ideas of Wölfflin were still not accepted among those favoring classicism as the epitome of any form of art.

For a century, Germans had preferred the “classical”, that which the poet Göethe had called “healthy” to the Baroque or the early version of the Romantic which was therefore “unhealthy.” The Baroque had long been considered to be a decadent version of the pure Classical and its obscure manifestations in Germany were of little interest to anyone, but Benjamin, who revisited this manifestation for his Habilitationsschrift. In a time when academics worked within disciplinary confines that were strictly limited and patrolled, Benjamin was writing an interdisciplinary work, crashing through the room divides between studies of German culture, art history and aesthetics. The writer looked through a prism that incorporated Jewish mysticism from the Kabbalah.

Of course art history is in many ways a Jewish discipline, a life-long Yeshiva school, where art is endlessly rewritten and debated. However, art history, like any other religion or belief system, has its rules and its areas of conventional wisdom. In his excellent introduction to the Ursprung, George Steiner noted that Benjamin’s manuscript found its way into the hands of Erwin Panofsky (1892-1968), author of Studies in Iconology in 1939. According to Steiner, Panofsky did not view Benjamin’s work favorably. Steiner posited that Benjamin could have found a home with the group of scholars in Hamburg, Panofsky and Ernst Cassirer, Neo-Kantians, and Aby Warburg, the cultural historian in what became the Warburg Institute.

But Benjamin was probably too eclectic in his methodology even for this group and the moment passed and Warburg was dead by 1929 and Panofsky in America by 1933. Benjamin gave up on academics and spent the rest of his life as a free lance writer and radio broadcaster. Here, in short articles and lectures on the radio, Benjamin could roam free, indulging his wide range of interests as a literary and cultural critic. “Criticism,” he said, “should do nothing else than uncover the secret predisposition of the work itself, complete its hidden intentions…”

For Benjamin, the power of interpretation was the power of the idea and he sought a synthesis between philosophical abstraction and aesthetic concreteness. Using the idea of the dialectic, he thought that the universal would be revealed through that which was particular or in comparing the overall structure to the insignificant detail. Benjamin sought the detail, an element thought unworthy of intellectual effort. In contrasting the Classical to the Baroque, Benjamin is able to isolate certain defining characteristics: the symbol is the characteristic property of the Classical mind and the allegory is the characteristic property of the Baroque way of thinking.

Allegory, like the Baroque, had been considered a decadent form of symbolism. Symbolism, in its purity, idealized and subdues the material object, totalizes its meaning and signification. The allegory, in contrast, is a sheer hemorrhage of significations that disrupt meaning and coherence. This surplus of signification called “écriture” by later French writers, contrasted the purity of speech (the Classical) to the impurity of writing (the Baroque).

For the modern reader The Origin of German Tragic Drama is a difficult slog and the best advice one can give to skip over the obscure theatrical productions that languish (deservedly) in obscurity and to seek the fragments of insight from Benjamin. The writer contrasted the Classical Hero in Greek tragedy who is silent in his suffering, in his tragic and unspeakable fate. In his inability of speak, this hero become superior to the gods and thus transcends not just the deities but also history itself. But the Baroque hero is mired in history that is natural and not timeless. This hero must be noble so that his fall will be from a high place, suggesting that his suffering is more of a social humiliation than a preordained tragedy from a fatal flaw. The Classical tragic hero wrestles with the inextricable workings of Fate but the Baroque hero is but one character amid a larger cast who—not gods—are his fellow actors.

Therefore, according to Benjamin, “tragic drama” is not “tragedy.” Tragedy is about mourning. Tragic drama is about melancholy. as Like Sigmund Freud in a paper, On Mourning and Melancholia, which had been delivered in 1917, Benjamin separated “mourning”—classical tragedy form “melancholia”—tragic drama. Indeed, Benjamin identified Hamlet, the Prince of Denmark, as melancholy. If the Classical is that which is timeless and transcendent, then its eternal life must be contrasted to the historicism and decay of the Baroque. If the Classical is that which is whole, complete, and self-sufficient, the Baroque is a mere collection of those left-behind details, fragments of a melancholy cult of decay. Benjamin forces the reader to examine these fragments, these “found objects” of the Baroque allegory.

Although Benjamin used the Hegelian notion of the dialectic to study an obscure and devalued topic, Baroque theater in Germany, Benjamin’s thinking was greatly influenced by Surrealist strategies for discovering the “marvelous.” The marvelous was a mental state that resulted from the isolation of the object, resulting in defamiliarization and the shock of defamiliarity on the part of the now-dazzled viewer. The frozen object is estranged from context and is freed to take on new meanings.

Like the Marvelous, the allegorical discourse is characterized by doubleness; the object is expressionless and yet possesses unbridled expression. The object is purged of mystified immanence and is capable of multiple uses. In its plurality, the frozen object can contain and radiate a bricoulage of elements, and because the allegory lays bare its devices (demystifies), the visual figure defeats symbolism. Symbolism, by its very nature, “disguises,” as Erwin Panofsky would say, but Allegory ostentatiously displays its construction. But its meaning is de-centered and refuses to submit to the totality of structure.

Benjamin connected allegory to the death of symbol and to the decline of aura in commodity production. He linked the atomizing of the objects to Baudelaire’s observation of commodity culture where objects become abstracted and acquire an arbitrary status. The commodity exists as fragment, ambiguous and ephemeral, and becomes fetish. The object become overwritten, a palimpsest bearing unconscious traces of its aura and authenticity, neither of which exist, except as trace. The object is reinvented as an emblem by Renaissance scholars and became the stylistic principle of Baroque art. Rather than symbol, the emblem is code, pictorial codes or “thing pictures” (dingbilder) or a rebus, as Freud would have expressed it. The allegorical form, however, is capable of capturing historical experience, which is why Postmodern Critical Theory would be so interested in Allegory.

Art, for the Critical Theorist, must be grounded in history. Aesthetics attempts to turn an object into radiance and to transform exaltation into transcendence. This process of aestheticizing the object idealizes the work but in a negative fashion, for the memory or history of the object is transfigured into a “sentimental glow”. Allegory, in contrast, is not radiant and extinguishes, along with light, the false glow of totality. Allegory admits that history is ruins and acknowledges the transitory nature of things. The allegory, lodged in history, is beyond (idealized) beauty. The allegorical form is petrified and frozen in the landscape of history, destroying aesthetics. The governing law of aesthetics is not totality but antinomy and the dialectic is used as a mechanism of reversal of extremes.

Allegory depends upon conventions, which may be cheapened and degraded. Allegory is a gathering, a collection of things, a combination of references that are assembled through a law that combines scatteredness and collectedness. The arrangement of these collections is slack. The most important allegorical figure is the fragment, which is imaged by an architectural ruin, ravaged by time. For Benjamin, it was important to acknowledge that history was a ruin, in a state of decay, for history could be appropriated and idealized or aestheticized.

The Origin of German Tragic Drama brings together a number of tendencies in Germany at the early stages of the Twentieth Century. Benjamin noted that Göethe, the Classicist, rejected allegory. In his epic essay, On Naïve and Sentimental Poetry, German poet, Friedrich Schiller was correct in understanding his friend, Göethe, as being “naïve” in that the older poet was immune from history and created art from an internal force. The “sentimental” artist, however, is more akin to Benjamin’s allegorical maker, who makes it very clear that an allegorical object is being put together through an act of bricolage.

It is important to note that the mechanics of the allegory are not concealed or, as Brecht would have it, “naturalized”. The assemblage that is allegory is always grounded in the truth. Schiller’s sentimental artist may have mourned the loss of innocence and may have suffered from alienation but this artist is deeply connected to the history of his/her period. Karl Marx pointed out that in an era of commodification, it would be the fate of art to become allegory. That is, art, in becoming commodified would loose its “halo” and in its unsacred condition could be appropriated and turned into a fetish.

Art as allegory is alienated art. The allegorist is thus both elegiac and satirical, but Benjamin foregrounds the condition of mourning and melancholy, pictured in ruins. And yet, like Charles Baudelaire, Benjamin is torn. He mourns the loss of the Old Paris, but like a Baudelarian flâneur, strolls through time and collects fragments or “remnants” and recombines them into an excess of writing. Benjamin’s writings were very metaphorical, as though he turned to the past to express the future. He understood Baudelaire’s metropolis as a manifestation of space within which new technologies were displayed as spectacle.

In an age of secular spectacle, fashion would be king and anything could be fashion, which is the ultimate form of “false consciousness” and cultural distraction. Benjamin is fascinated with death and that which is dead, the corpse. Once the object becomes a fetish and is alienated from social production and social use, it becomes fashion and is worshiped as a commodity. The fetish is inorganic as opposed the corpse, which is organic.

Feeling that European culture was in a condition of crisis, Benjamin’s gaze is Janus-like. He understood the past could only exist as ruins and that its fragments would only be displaced into the present as fetishes. The future was even more bleak and marked by a mourning for the past. The future could never be authentic; art could only be allegorical; and Baudelaire as the quintessential poet-critic exemplified the only stance of the artist that of an observer of the spectacle, alienated and enlivened only by cynical commentary. Although we can read his literary action as allegorist in The Arcades Project, the work of Benjamin was re-read by postmodern critics and philosophers as portents of Postmodernism.

The arbitrary and nostalgic piling on of historical traces torn from the fabric of time, decontextualized and overwritten by the present, while retaining the trace of the past would be the prime strategy of postmodernism. The Frankfurt School philosopher, Theodor Adorno, who survived Benjamin, would complete the setting of the stage for Postmodernism. Critical Theory would be developed in its contemporary form after the Second World War, in the wake of the Holocaust. “There is no document of civilization, which is not at the same time a document of barbarism,” Walter Benjamin prophetically remarked in his essay On the Concept of History of 1937.

Benjamin’s insight that a dislocated history could be nostalgically fetishized for the Nazi cause, that art would become allegory and could be fetishized as propaganda seemed both prophetic and tragic. All that he feared came true. Towards the end of what would turn out to be his only book, Walter Benjamin wrote,

Allegory goes away empty-handed. Evil as such, which it cherished as enduring profundity, exists only in allegory, is nothing other than allegory, and means something different from what it is. It means precisely the non-existence of what it presents. The absolute vices, as exemplified by tyrants and intriguers, are allegories. They are not real and that which they represent, they possess only in the subjective view of melancholy; they are this view, which is destroyed by its own offspring because they only signify its blindness.

And then he concluded,

In the ruins of great buildings the idea of the plan speaks more impressively than in lesser buildings…Others may shine resplendently as on the first day; this form preserves the image of beauty to the very last.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]


“The Work of Art in an Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” 1936, Part Two

Re-reading “The Work of Art in an Age of Mechanical Reproduction”

by Walter Benjamin

Part Two

“What is aura actually? A strange weave of space and time:

the unique appearance or semblance of distance, no matter how close it may be.

Decades after the death of Walter Benjamin, The Work of Art in its Age of Technological Reproducibility was often mis-read and misunderstood, but in its own time, this essay had a profound impact upon the thinking of Benjamin’s friend Theodor Adorno. Benjamin essentially raised the issues of both the (re)definition of art in an age of mass media and of the impact of art once it could be dispersed over the vastness of time and space. While Benjamin lived, art teetered on the precipice of a precipitous fall into popular culture, where it would be engulfed: simply an image among other images. Benjamin apparently realized—quite keenly—that the traditional work of art existed as “art” by virtue of its uniqueness and specificity and its sense of place and history.

Almost a decade after the death of his colleague, Adorno, working with Max Horkheimer, examined “The Culture Industry” in their book Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944). Adorno and Horkheimer were alerted by Benjamin of the unholy alliance between politics and art, but Benjamin’s larger project in his “Work of Art” essay was more subtle. Benjamin was interested in the new mode of perception ushered in by modern mechanical reproduction. In other words, his essay recalls the anxieties of the Ninth Century Iconoclasts that the image might replace the authenticity of the Divine with a simulacra and anticipates the predictions of Jean Baudrillard that the simulacra will be substituted for the real. The central question of the “Work of Art” essay is how do we see and how to we think now that we are exposed to reproductions which are inherently and definitionally not real but are simulacra?

Of singular importance to this question is the association between Benjamin and the Weimar film writer, Siegfried Kracauer (1889-1966). Kracauer, like Benjamin, had a Neo-Kantian background and was one of the intellectual pioneers in formulating a theory for film, a new art form and a new form of mass media. The Benjamin essay, therefore, needs to be understood from a dual perspective. First, Benjamin examined the idea of the substitution of the object for its reproduction and second, he was concerned with the new mode of cognition wrought by this new “Age.” As Kantians, both film writers, Kracauer and Benjamin, would have been concerned about the impact of a mechanical apparatus mediating reality—a mass social experience that Kant could not have anticipated when he posited his “Copernican Revolution.” The means of delivery had the potential of superceding content, a phenomenon best stated by Marshall McLuhan as “the medium is the message.”

Almost a hundred years ago, at the dawn of mass media, Benjamin was concerned with the idea of “origin” or authenticity in relation to “the work of art.” If the origin of art can be located or known, then authenticity can be assured. Authenticity is deeply connected with Benjamin’s ephemeral but powerful notion of “aura.” “Aura” in turn can be traced back to the remote origins of art embedded in objects deemed sacred by the tribe. “Aura” refers to that “quality” which defined “art”—its inaccessibility, its remoteness, its distance from the observer/worshiper. Art—or that special object set aside from normal social life—was always a cult object, viewed but never approached, venerated but never touched. However, reproductive technology was in the process of dispelling “aura” by making a cult object visible and available through an endless reproduction. As Benjamin wrote, “By replicating the work many times over, it substitutes a mass existence for a unique experience.”

Instead of taking a pilgrimage to view a sacred relic, the “pilgrim” of Benjamin’s time had only to turn the page of an art magazine to view a work of art. The reproduction provided a substitute for the “real thing” and gave the audience a sense, however fleeting, of accessibility if not ownership. Benjamin thought that the masses wanted to get closer to the object in their “concern for overcoming each thing’s uniqueness.” The precise “thing” that gave art its “aura” must be assimilated into a mass experience. Benjamin understood that in the age of “mechanical reproduction” “art” needed to be understood from another point of view, one that did not depend upon the inaccessibility or cult status of the object. He also understood that the entire apparatus of mass media reproduction, especially film, had a profound impact upon how people would perceive the world—through the mediating actions of images. These images would be ubiquitous and would bear messages of all kinds. Unlike the work of art, these images would be partial, fragmented, un-whole, and conveyed via montage, which sliced through time and space, deploying incomplete impressions. Nevertheless, such images could be powerful and impactful.

For wholeness and authenticity and completeness and, ultimately, “aura,” “technological reproduction” of an image must suffice and substitute for the human’s mysterious need for images. These notions of origin and authenticity and the vanishing point of aura also refer to the bourgeois ego, also on the point of vanishing into the commodity spell of capitalism. Since the time of “high capitalism,” the ego or one’s sense of individuality or uniqueness or one’s “aura,” if you will had become more and more of an illusion. Individuality had to be processed or expressed through commodities which substituted for uniqueness. The moment of the writing of this essay—1936 in Paris—was a time of crisis for the work of art and for the intellectual freedom of the consumer, perpetually under the spell of an increasingly technological society fueled by commodities. Thanks to technological reproducibility, art could be dislodged from its site of origin and from its place in history and could be magically transported into the present where it could be possessed or repossessed, used or misused. Under such a system, aura would wither and decline.

“Aura” was an odd topic for this most Jewish of Jewish writers to take up, for traditional Judaism forbad “graven images.” Art and its aura was a manifestly Christian tradition, but Benjamin understood art as having its origins in the rituals of the (prehistoric) cult—an object of veneration upon which human feelings of awe was projected. He defined “aura” as that which is generated by and from the work of art when it functioned as a cult object within ritual due to the distance between the relic and the worshiper. The psychological and physical space between the spectator and the relic created an aura that could be completely dispelled when the distance vanished. Mechanical Reproduction had the capability to bring that worshiped object down to earth, as it were, and place in within visual reach of the viewer.

“Auratic perception” could be defined as an atmosphere enveloping the object. The subject’s position is one of contemplation or repose, a mental absorption in the object, an “intent attentiveness.” But with the possibilities of reproductive technology, art was displaced from its position of distance and and could be captured and owned through mechanical reproduction. The gaze becomes a quick and casual look. Satisfaction comes, not from deep immersion in the “aura,” but in the acquisition of another commodity. In other words, the antique “attentiveness” was, in modern times, disrupted by the effects of mass reproduction of images, requiring little more than a passing glance.

Whereas both Karl Marx and Charles Baudelaire discussed the loss of the halo worn by those who had once made “art,” Max Weber used the term Entzauberung or “demystification,” or the loss of enchantment, in the world to explain the loss of “aura.” As Baudelaire wrote in his famous Petits poèmes en prose (1869):

Just now, as I was crossing the boulevard, and hopping in the mud, in quite a hurry, through the shifting chaos where death comes galloping from all sides at once, my halo slipped off my head, in one abrupt movement, into the mire of the macadam. I didn’t have the guts to pick it up. I considered it less disagreeable to lose my insignia than to break my bones. And anyways, I said to myself, misfortune is good for something. Now I can walk about incognito, commit foul acts, and indulge in debauchery like ordinary mortals. So here I am, just like you, as you can see!

Acutely aware that Baudelaire had previously written of art’s “decay,” Benjamin examined the possible role of the art object in a secularized and modernized culture. As Rob Halpern wrote in Modernist Cultures in 2009,

Rather than protest or mourn his loss, however, Baudelaire’s angel accepts his fallen condition “into the mire of the macadam.” By resigning himself in this way, the poem registers an awareness that the traditional artwork or poem could no longer claim a unique value, and that aesthetic authenticity – in this case, the elevated status of lyric poetry – had become incompatible with modern experience, whose transformation, Benjamin argues, was inseparable from the domination of life by the commodity, and the disfiguration of social relations by the dynamics of capitalist production.

Clearly, there is a line of thinking from Charles Baudelaire to Walter Benjamin and Theodor Adorno connecting capitalism and mass reproduction with the loss of the “halo” or “aura.” Some twenty years later, André Malraux would take up the idea of reproducing works of art in his book, Museum Without Walls. By then, art history books and reproduction of works of art was commonplace, but, in the Thirties, when this use of reproductive technology was in its infancy, and Benjamin was concerned about the fate of art. Indeed, it is possible to become sidetracked over the questions of reproduction and it is important to remember that Benjamin’s concerns were aesthetic—in a modern era, what is art?

Can art exist without “aura?” The question for Benjamin is where and when did the status of auratic art begin to decay? The atavistic, sacred, and mythic character of the cult object was transformed in the Renaissance, a period of secularization, as European societies increasing became less spiritual and more material. “Art” was displaced from ritual and replaced into a cult of beauty and thus became profaned by what was (the wrong kind of) a new kind of appreciation. In other words, the frescoes of Michelangelo might be admired for their sheer artistic beauty which could override the sacred message. In fact this clear threat could have been the cause for the aggressive censorship of The Last Judgment. The result for aesthetics was contradictory—on one hand, art was emancipated from its dependence upon ritual, but on the other hand, the work of art became a fetish with mystifying character due to its former role as a cult object. Benjamin asserted that, “mechanical reproduction of a work of art, however, represents something new.” But to be clear, Benjamin was not referring to “art-for-art’s-sake” but to the severance of the connection between art and distance. This “decay,” as it were, was a new condition for sacred objects (art).

For Benjamin the reproduction of works of art, which are unique, part of ritual and sacred practices, destroys the authority of art. Loss of authenticity or aura destroys the very “rootedness” of art. This “aura” Benjamin discusses is the result of distance which is decayed by the desire of the masses to bring things closer both in human and in spatial terms. This loss of distance between the viewer and the work of art and the replacement of aura with familiarity lead to the universal equality of things, or what Benjamin called the “cult of similarity.” On this point, his friend in the Frankfurt School, Theodor Adorno, will not only agree but will also appropriate some of his colleague’s insights. For Adorno, equality will lead to “identity thinking” and he will recommend the philosophical position of “negative dialectics” to counteract the deadly and totalitarian effects of demanding totalization of thinking.

Once the apparatus of mechanical reproduction is established, then art is produced for reproduction, fundamentally changing the character of art, which was once unique and original. Without uniqueness and originality and authenticity, art has no aura. Art is displaced from the cult and its cult value is replaced by its exhibitionary value. Once art is on film (reproduced) or is film (photography or movies) its aura “shrivels” and ”withers” to the extent that the distance is diminished. But Benjamin was concerned with the difference between the “first technology” or the desire to master nature and the “second technology,” or film, of which he said, ” The function of film is to train human beings in the apperceptions and reactions needed to deal with a vast apparatus whose role in their lives is expanding almost daily.”

Benjamin, however, had hope for mechanical reproduction. Like his colleague, Bertold Brecht, he hoped that cinema, as a mass media, could, and would be an instrument to awaken the masses. Film inherently tended to dissipate “aura” but Benjamin balanced losses against gains and the possibility of positive results. There is the possibility of a catharsis, of a clean slate, which starts by admitting the modern poverty of experience in a disenchanted world. New technology, used properly, could change the world. The Russian filmmaker, Sergei Eisenstein, had hoped that montage or editing would emancipate the thinking of his audience.

Benjamin understood that montage could work in another fashion: that editing and constructing a film role could build up an actor’s “aura,” an effect clearly seen in Triumph of Will—the “star power” of Hitler, who was framed in such a fashion to make him look like a god. Plainly, Benjamin understood the danger of the “close up” to produce another kind of aura—a more dangerous cult could arise. But he also had faith in the possibility that mass audiences could organize their own responses to film and thus, perhaps, emancipate themselves by using avenues of resistance and expression that “art” does not provide. He stated,

“Not only does the cult of the movie star which it fosters preserve the magic of the personality which has long been no more than the putrid magic of its commodity character, but its counterpart the cult of the audience, reinforces the corruption by which fascism is seeking to supplant the class consciousness of the masses.”

For Benjamin, the loss of aura was deeply tied to a more profound crisis, and the loss of the aura of art was but a symptom of this crisis. Borrowing from Marx and combining these insights with those of Freud, Benjamin dated the crisis from the end of the Great War to the end of the Weimer Republic, culminating in the seizure of power by the Nazis. This crisis was the shattering of tradition, a tradition that had guaranteed coherence, communicability and the transmissibility of experience—the accumulation of unconscious data called “memory.”

Erfahfung”, that assimilation of sensations, information, and events into an integrated experience had given way to “Erlebnis” or (modern) experience reduced to a series of atomized and unarticulated moments merely lived through. Baudelaire understood modern experience, and Benjamin who wrote extensively on Baudelaire, while he was in exile in Paris, oscillated between celebrating this new culture and mourning the loss of traditional culture. He was horrified by the new political barbarism he saw and was pained by the new poverty of experience, mediated by mass culture.

Indeed, in the early years of the Frankfurt School, the scholars did empirical studies which revealed that the masses were inherently passive and uninterested in rising up politically to help themselves through political revolution. Benjamin watched while the forces of fascism took hold of the passivity of the masses and mobilized them to the cause of keeping property relations unchanged. In other words, fascism gave the proletarian mobs the illusion of participating in shaping their own destiny while they remained powerless.

The Work of Art in an Age of Mechanical Reproduction is often reprinted in a truncated form and was, in effect, intellectually and anachronistically “rewritten” for the purposes of re-contextualizing the work of Benjamin in the contemporary context of the art world. Art historians who rediscovered Benjamin in the 1980s depoliticized his thinking. However, this essay was very much concerned with politics, particular the rise of fascism, which manipulates the masses through art forms. Benjamin begins this essay by stating that under the “present conditions of production” (mechanical), “outmoded concepts, such as creativity and genius, eternal value and mystery” can be used by Fascism, or they can be used for “the formulation of revolutionary demands of the politics of art.”

Benjamin understood that Fascism, like the Roman Empire before it, would attempt to provide bread and circuses to distract the masses. He also saw the danger that aesthetics and politics could be linked to war:

Fascism sees its salvation in giving these masses not their right, but instead a chance to express themselves. The masses have a right to change property relations; Fascism seeks to give them an expression while preserving property. The logical result of Fascism is the introduction of aesthetics into political life. The violation of the masses, which Fascism, with its Fuehrer cult, forces to their knees, has its counterpart in the violation of an apparatus, which is pressed into the production of ritual values.

All efforts to render politics aesthetic culminate in one thing: war…Only war makes it possible to mobilize all of today’s technical resources while maintaining the property system.

The “self-alienation” of society, Benjamin continues, “has reached such a degree that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order. This is the situation of politics, which Fascism is rendering aesthetic. Communism responds by politicizing art.”


Thus ends one of the most significant essays for the Postmodern Condition. However, the historical context of this essay was lost, as, when the work was finally translated, it was released in America during the high verses low culture debate. Certainly, Benjamin understood that once art was displaced from its auratic function, art could float from high to low, but his interest was more in what would later be termed “appropriation” or in what Clement Greenberg clearly saw was “kitsch” or the appearance or semblance of “art,” watered down for mass consumption. After the emergence of Pop Art in the 1960s, the work of Benjamin was recontextualized and distorted to fit into Pop’s use of ready-made imagery.

In part one of this section on the “Work of Art” essay, the question was asked if this meditation on that which has been lost by Walter Benjamin has any value today, one hundred years later. In the twenty-first century, we enjoy the fruits of mechanical reproduction and “technological reproducibility.” We are inundated with images, bombarded by media, from twenty-four hour cable to radio stations that never go off the air to the faux intimacy of the Internet. All “information” gets the same weight and accountability to the “facts” is often absent. Media has become a commodity which needs to be bought and sold, meaning that intellectuals and ideas, as Marx foretold, are part of capitalist transactions.

Most people know “art” only from mechanical reproductions, augmented by occasional visits to a museum or gallery. Television flattens the intellectual landscape by giving equal value to reality shows and Masterpiece Theater. The movie industry produces entertainment for the lowest common denominator (the teenage boy) and news “papers” are becoming extinct and morphing into apps. One wonders what Benjamin would have thought. It is possible he would have delighted in the openness of the World Wide Web and would have been thrilled at the emergence of the “Arab Spring” via cell phone and blogging, but he would have grieved at television being appropriated by corporate interests, which use the concept of “news” to manipulate and dominate the masses.

When his essays were translated into English in the 1980s and made available for a wider readership, the cultural context of his essay made it clear that the writer was struggling between what he could clearly see as a misuse of “culture” and the great liberating possibilities of bringing images and people together. Here is this benign field of entertainment the dominant ideology can be challenged and perhaps changed. Years later, greatly indebted to Benjamin’s ideas, Theodor Adorno would write of a dominate “culture industry” that served to support the prevailing belief system. Benjamin would not live to see how this culture industry came to dominate and shape “reality” or how the internet allowed the people to lay their hands on “the media.” If he were alive today, Benjamin would probably be on the internet, blogging away.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]


“The Work of Art in an Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” 1936, Part One

Re-reading The Work of Art in an Age of Mechanical Reproduction, 1936

by Walter Benjamin

Part One

Also know as The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility, this essay by Walter Benjamin has been published in three different versions. The definitive second, or “Ur,” version, as Benjamin stated, has been published most recently in the 2008 collection of essays, edited by Michael Jennings, et al. in a book titled after this famous essay. And this is a famous essay—rediscovered in the 1960s in the wake of the age of youthful discontent, and read and re-read until this day. The question is, almost one hundred years later, is this essay anything more than a predictor of what we already know?

Much has been made of the fact that, when it was originally published in 1936 by the exiled Frankfurt School, publishing in German in their new home in New York City, the essay was shortened. Or according to some, the essay was censored because the now famous last lines: Such is the aestheticizing of politics, as practiced by fascism. Communism replies by politicizing art. In his excellent 1997 account of Benjamin’s life, Walter Benjamin. An Intellectual Biography, Bernd Witt explained that the writer understood quite well the precarious position of the exiled Marxist Jews in a nation that, on a good day, was barely tolerant of Jews and terrified of the Communists.

Benjamin agreed to having the essay shortened. After all, the Frankfurt School was paying him a stipend and he needed the publication. In addition, Benjamin was a professional writer. Writers get edited; that is the nature of the work and not writer expects to have his or her work published in an untouched form. Those who make charges against Theodor Adorno, claiming he had personal issues with Benjamin, are factually off the mark and are naïve in assuming that his peer group considered any writer’s work as being sacrosanct.

Benjamin himself had stated that one of the reasons why he left Berlin was because he was having difficulties in getting his work published. Although he left the city very soon after the Nazis came into power, at the insistence of the wife of Theodor Adorno, Gretel Karplus, the repression of Jewish intellectuals, especially one of Marxist sensibilities, made his writing career hopeless. Witt quotes Benjamin as writing, “…The terror directed at any attitude or mode of expression that does not completely correspond to the official one has reached a virtually unsurpassable level…” And so, Benjamin was forced into exile and went in 1933 to Paris where the “Work of Art” essay was written.

This work is best understood as a dual project between Benjamin’s flâneur wanderings throughout Paris that produced the Arcades project and his observation of the Nazi use of mass media in Germany. Benjamin was uniquely positioned to understand how expertly Hitler utilized new technologies of communication, because, in an unusual move for a writer, he was an early radio personality from 1929. Witt points out that “As one of the pioneers in this new medium, he may have gained here the experiences that enabled him, in the great essays written in exile, to formulate a theory of non-auratic art.” According to Witt, Benjamin thought that he could provoke his listener to counter the “consumer mentality” of the listener’s passivity and that he hoped to create a model for the “people’s art.”

Benjamin acquired this notion of provoking the radio audience from his friend, theatrical producer, Bertold Brecht, who later spoke of the death of Walter Benjamin as the “first casualty of Hitler’s war on intellectuals.” Indeed, the two writers were very much in tune in their interpretation of Marxism, the ideological enemy of the Nazis. Neither were scholarly Marxists, like those of the Frankfurt School. Both were what might be called practical or activist Marxists who favored intervention by using popular culture to question conventional values.

For Brecht, the theater could still be an agent of revelation and transformation. The playwright sought to break through the illusion of realism projected from the stage by shaking the complacency of the audience who was passively soaking in ideology disguised as “the theater.” Brecht shattered with “Fourth Wall” or the subterfuge that the play was a reflection of reality. By calling attention to the inherent artificiality of mass entertainment, Brecht hoped to challenge the bourgeois dominance of the social discourse. Popular culture could be hijacked for the purpose of an ideological critique. Benjamin called Brecht’s techniques of estrangement “Epic Theater” and gave a radio lecture on the playwright and wrote an essay, “Epic Theater,” on his Marxist ideas about jolting bourgeoisie complacency.

Indeed the basis of Marxism is critique—an analysis of society used to break through False Consciousness—and mass media presented an unprecedented and novel opportunity to challenge the dominate ideology. Popular culture was a new way to indoctrinate the masses and the Nazis had seized the apparatus of communication and entertainment and turned the new mechanics of propaganda into a powerful weapon of indoctrination. The Work of Art in an Age of Mechanical Reproduction was written in 1936 in the wake of years of Nazi rallies, designed by Albert Speer and after the successful films of Leni Reifenstahl. Benjamin’s essay needs to be understood within this cultural context. Although the writer could not have foreseen the Holocaust, he was obviously aware that mass media presented both a danger and a promise. Thanks to the effectiveness of the use of film and radio and large gatherings the Nazis had lulled the population into acceptance of what would be a series of horrifying acts starting in 1937 on Kristallnacht.

For Benjamin, that continuing promise of Marxism could be found in mechanical reproduction. Here was a mode of production of information and knowledge that could reach the masses and present them with a social critique. Where Benjamin saw the hopeful possibilities of reproductive technologies, his friend, Theodor Adorno, an unapologetic snob, disagreed and saw mass culture as the final annihilation of “autonomous art”. Benjamin was less interested in whether or not popular culture was art. In contrast to Adorno, perhaps as the result of his interest in Jewish mysticism, Benjamin was greatly concerned with the loss of the “aura” of art and investigated a different aspect of artistic autonomy.

The concept of the “Aura” of the work of art was inspired by Benjamin’s experiences with the old sections of Paris, the Arcades, where he strolled, like a twentieth century Baudelaire. But unlike the poet, Benjamin was not reveling in the symptoms of modernité, he was searching for a past that was at the point of vanishing. It is here at the “vanishing point” that the past can be grasped before it becomes invisible and confined to the discourse of history. In the same way, the authentic work, surrounded in “aura” was vanishing, overwhelmed by a technology that was mechanical and ungovernable and indiscriminate. In many ways Benjamin foretold the “flattening” effect manifested so clearly in postmodernism—everything would have the same value through the miracle of total reproducibility and universal availability.

Part Two of this essay on Walter Benjamin will examine the concept of “aura.”

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]

The Philosophy of Walter Benjamin, Part Two

WALTER BENJAMIN (1892 -1940)

Life and Work: Part Two

Working for German publications, Walter Benjamin earned enough money to spend some months in Paris where, in 1927, he began his famous and unfinished Arcades Project. As one would imagine, he and his wife Dora divorced and in 1930 Benjamin published his Habilitation and a new essay, dedicated to his lover, Asja Lacis, One Way Street, in 1928. This essay is a montage about Paris after Baudelaire. Here Benjamin showed his knowledge of Russian films, which excelled in the use of modern editing techniques and we see the beginnings of his intuition that film was created a disembodied eye and a new way of perceiving. The short snippets of his impressions of Paris are laced with cryptic observations such as, “All disgust is originally disgust at touching” and “Warmth is ebbing from things.”

Benjamin’s heightened sense of the overlooked, the passed by, the trace made him open to the ideas of Surrealism. In an essay of the same year entitled Surrealism. The Last Snapshot of the European Intelligentsia, he wrote,

The Surrealists’ Paris, too, is a “little universe”. That is to say, in the larger one, the cosmos, things look no different. There, too, are crossroads where ghostly signals flash from the traffic, and inconceivable analogies and connections between events are the order of the day. It is the region from which the lyric poetry of Surrealism reports. And this must be noted if only to counter the obligatory misunderstanding of l’art pour l’art. For art’s sake was scarcely ever to be taken literally; it was almost always a flag under which sailed a cargo that could not be declared because it still lacked a name. This is the moment to embark on a work that would illuminate as has no other the crisis of the arts that we are witnessing: a history of esoteric poetry. Nor is it by any means fortuitous that no such work yet exists. For written as it demands to be written—that is, not as a collection to which particular “specialists” all contribute “what is most worth knowing” from their fields, but as the deeply grounded composition of an individual who, from inner compulsion, portrays less a historical evolution than a constantly renewed, primal upsurge of esoteric poetry— written in such a way it would be one of those scholarly confessions that can be counted in every century. The last page would have to show an X-ray picture of Surrealism.

During the 1920s, Benjamin considered on two different occasions the possibility of emigrating to Palestine but rejected the idea. One can only imagine “what if” he had gone to this safe place. He would have lived, yes, but what would he have written about, cut off from the cities that nourished him, Berlin and Paris? Benjamin remained in Europe and traveled back and forth between Berlin and Paris and made the transition from mysticism to materialism. As would be indicated by the variegated influences upon the writer, Benjamin was never an orthodox Marxist and shied away from the use of the dialectic. By the end of the decade, he was adrift as an home de lettres, a polite phrase for a literary career marked by written fragments and short reviews. It could be said that he did not find his true voice until he completed his decade of apprenticeship and entered into the 1930s.

The beginning of the decade of the Thirties was the end of the old and the beginning of the new for Walter Benjamin. Benjamin’s mature materialist work during the early 1930s was greatly impacted by Bertolt Brecht’s Marxist ideas of intervention with bourgeois complacency. His friends in the Frankfurt School, such as Theodor Adorno, were not happy with the impact of the “crude Marxism” of Brecht on Benjamin’s thinking. Benjamin wrote favorably of Brecht (who was not impressed with Benjamin) and elucidated the producer’s ideas in What is Epic Theater? (two versions) 1939. In addition, published after his death were Brecht’s “Threepenny Novel” and Conversations with Brecht. Written in Paris in 1934 (but never published in his lifetime), The Author as Producer is perhaps his most Brechtian expression of the role and function of the writer in modern times.

Benjamin was dedicated to writing an engaged form of cultural criticism that responded to the every shifting environment of Berlin and then Paris and was, therefore, more attuned to modern times than professors in the ivory tower. He was sensitive to the moods of his times and could veer easily among them, writing of smoking Hashish in Marsailles, 1932 and of The Destructive Character, 1931. The latter work is precinct: “The character knows only one watchword: make room; only one activity: clearing away. His need for fresh air and open space is stronger than any hatred.” Benjamin’s earlier writing, Critique of Violence, was related to his interests in Kant’s moral imperatives—morality had to be universal and logical and disinterested. He wrote in 1921 of legitimate and illegitimate uses of violence but a decade later, Benjamin notes the youthful unthinking destructiveness alive in his nation, a destructiveness that is all instinct and completely without moral foundation.

Benjamin was now acutely watchful of the political direction in Germany. He was aware that the rise of the Nazis would mean trouble for all intellectuals, especially Jews. Benjamin wasted no time in leaving Germany after Hitler came into power and went to his second home, Paris. Paris was very different city from Berlin; Berlin was one of the centers of modernity in mass media and mass culture, from film to advertising to radio, while Paris was a place more connected to the past—at least in terms of how Benjamin would later write of it. Although Paris, in its own way, was also modern, Benjamin seemed to have been sensitive to the history that haunted the City of Light, its streets, its structures, its arcades. Benjamin assumed the mantel of the poet Baudelaire and became a flâneur, roaming the city’s past. But it was here in this city that the writer was able to combine the rise of mass media and the resulting development of a new consciousness in Berlin with his sensitivity to the ghosts of Paris.

While in Paris, Benjamin wrote A Short History of Photography where his habitual way of thinking in terms of mysticism reemerges and he developed the famous concept of “aura,” which would reappear five years later in the 1936 essay, The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproduction. The “Artwork” essay is, like the essay on photography, almost epistemological, forays into the nature of photography and mass media in modern life. Aura is used in two very different fashions. For the “Artwork” article, aura is about the loss of “art” as it was once understood as a cult object, and in the “Photography” history, aura is about haunting. The ghost of Paris that inspired the idea of aura was the photographer Eugène Atget who had recently died. Like Baudelaire and like Benjamin, Atget had wandered the streets in Paris, capturing its unexpected corners and details with his big viewfinder camera. With Atget Paris seemed eternal and unchanging and uninhabited except for that which has passed and left its traces.

And then this refuge became a place of danger. From 1935, the Frankfurt School in exile in New York had been financially supporting Benjamin, who was loath to leave Europe. But time ran out and Hitler began the war longed for by the German people and the Wermacht rolled east. At first, it was the French who, at the outbreak of the War, indiscriminately rounded up all Germans and Austrians on September 3, 1939, and Benjamin was swept up and placed in the Internment Camp at Nevers. It seems clear that from that point on Benjamin lost his moorings and was emotionally shattered by this sudden turn to his fortunes. Once again, he had lost his place

In a brief 1988 essay, Walter Benjamin in the Internment Camp, Hans Sahl wrote movingly of the frail and fragile philosopher suddenly thrown into the “notorious Stade Colombe.” The two men waited on the stone steps and Benjamin, as Sahl reported, like a good Marxist tried to unmask the reality but his gift for seeing the whole through detail did not allow him to grasp “reality as a façade.” When they arrived in Nevers they became part of a remarkable temporary society described by Sahl. “Orderly” Germans organized groups and remade working society, complete with Benjamin, watched over by a young disciple, teaching an “advanced class” to devotees. Finally, the French PEN club arranged for the release of Benjamin but now he had only six weeks left before the Germans invaded France.

With France under the heel of the Germans, all Jews in France, refugees or natives, were now targets of an extermination machine. After being in Paris for only a few months, in the summer of 1940, the Nazis seized his prized library. For Benjamin, the quintessential wandering Jew, his books were his home. One of his loveliest essays is Unpacking My Library. A Talk about Book Collecting, in 1931. He begins, “I am unpacking my library. Yes I am.” He describes himself as a “collector” and ends with

“…a real collector, a collector as he ought to be—ownership is the most intimate relationship that one can have to objects. Not that they come alive in him; it is he who lives in them. So I have erected one of his dwellings, with books as the building stones, before you, and now he is going to disappear inside, as is only fitting.”

At the time of the seizure there were probably over 2000 volumes in his possession. All of Benjamin’s books were gone. For someone who was so deeply identified with his books, to be stripped of his library was the equivalent of his being stripped of his soul. The swift seizure of libraries and, indeed, all personal property of the Jews, was the beginning of stripping Jews, first of their social place, their jobs, and then of their private possessions. This process of isolation and dispossession and hopelessness, which overwhelmed the Jews would culminate in the Final Solution and the near extermination of a people.

The stolen possessions of Jews, most of whom perished long ago in concentration camps, continue to this day to surface as stolen property, masquerading as “works of art” in museums who are loathe to give up their possessions. Entire libraries were appropriated and dispersed, never to be recovered. For Walter Benjamin, a write and a thinker, the loss of his literary possessions was a crushing blow. When the Gestapo emptied his Paris apartment of his books, they only took away a small part of his collection. Half of the books had already been smuggled out of Paris, and most of the remaining collection was given to the Bibliotéque Nationale by Surrealist writer, Georges Bataille, to whom it was entrusted.

After Benjamin was interned in a French holding camp at Nevers, he was returned to the Nazis by the collaborationist Vichy government. He managed to obtain an emergency visa and joined a party of refugees, taking an unguarded road over the Pyrenees towards the Spanish border. Like many of the other refugees seeking asylum, Benjamin walked on foot from France to Spain…a latter day pilgrim. This and other routes had been taken to freedom by well-known cultural dissidents, but on the day Benjamin arrived, the Spanish decided to close the border. Although Spain was a fascist nation, Franco ensured that the country remain neutral during the Second World War.

Switzerland used its neutrality to become the banker to the fascists and to become the keepers of Jewish wealth, but Spain became a conduit to freedom for refugees, opening and closing the border capriciously. Seasoned refugees knew to sit and wait. Benjamin was sensitive and highly-strung and dislocated from his home, his work, and his library. Unlike his colleagues and friends, he did not want to go to America and had no great will to survive. He had carried with him fifteen tablets of morphine (enough to kill several people) and when turned away at Port-Bou, Spain took them all. He refused to have his stomach pumped out and died in agony September 26, 1940. Horrified at such a gruesome suicide, the Spanish government.

Benjamin had long been planning to kill himself. His death was simply a question of when. In 1931, he stayed on the island of Ibiza for three months writing a chronicle on his relationship to Berlin or a journey through his childhood. Benjamin’s book was a summation of his life, a preparation for death. It was here on this island that he began to plan his suicide. Even though he lived a few more years, it was clear that his time as a writer in Berlin was coming to a close and that his writing had reached a kind of apogee. In a touching letter to Gershom Scholem, an old and dear friend and colleague, he wrote of “the deep tiredness” he felt as he watched the slow seizure of power by the Nazis. Opportunities for intellectuals were vanishing, as was the way of life that had sparked his writing. Ironically, it was in the last years of his life, while he waited for death, that his most influential work was written on the nature of “auratic” art. It is possible that he could have survived yet another displacement to New York, but Benjamin was not as tough as his colleagues and, when Spain closed its gate, there seemed no compelling reason to resist his longing for death.

The Frankfurt School was horrified and depressed at the loss of their eccentric colleague. After Benjamin’s death, it was Theodor Adorno who struggled to preserve his friend’s works and insisted on keeping his reputation alive. Along with Hannah Arendt, another intellectual refugee in New York, he labored to collect and publish Benjamin’s writings. As early as 1942, publication of his works in German began. English translation of his works was to take four decades. Some important essays by Benjamin were published in Reflections and Illuminations, including Critique of Violence, 1921, The Arcades or Passagenbeit, The Author as Producer, 1934 and The Work of Art in an Age of Mechanical Reproduction, 1936, and A Short History of Photography, What is Epic Theater? 1939, and Some Motifs in Baudelaire, 1939. Of these essays, the “Artwork” essay is the most famous today and this writing will be discussed in the next post.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]


The Philosophy of Walter Benjamin, Part One

WALTER BENJAMIN (1892 -1940)

Life and Work: Part One

Like many Jewish intellectuals in Germany, Walter Benjamin considered himself “German”. His family was privileged and fully assimilated into the larger German society. It would be this stratum of German society that would be the most unguarded and the most threatened by the Nazis. Intellectuals thought of Hitler as a passing moment in the struggle of a desperate people to recover from and devastating and humiliating war and stood aside and let the masses have their say. All too soon, those who could have formulated intelligent dissent found themselves faced with impossible choices: dissent and go to a death camp, remain silent and become complicit, slip quietly into exile before it was too late. One way or the other, they would all be silenced.

As an intellectual and a Jew, Benjamin was doubly in danger. Assimilated and privileged Jews assumed that they were “Germans” first and Jews second. Indeed many Jews had converted or simply downplayed their religious identity. It was a shock when they learned that “German” had been redefined, not as a nationality, but as a “race” and that “race” was Aryan. The Nazis descended immediately upon the artists, the writers, the thinkers, and the Jews. The cream of German intellectuals left for other nations, becoming nomads and displaced persons. Most of these scholars and artists survived and even thrived in their new surroundings. Billy Wilder, film director, Erwin Panofsky, art historian, Marlena Dietrich, actor, Alfred Einstein, scientist—all contributed to American and world culture—and all would have died under Hitler.

Gentiles and dangerous literary figures, Bertolt Brecht and Thomas Mann, migrated from Germany and became unemployed writers in Hollywood. Brecht felt stranded in this sunny land of capitalism, while Mann was much more comfortable in his new home. As writers, both were separated from their native language and from the culture that had nurtured their creativity, as were all the refugees. The State Department of America, a bastion of anti-Semitism, was willing to grant refuge to only a handful of certain Jews of privilege, such as Theodor Adorno, who was half-Jewish. Head of the Frankfurt School, Max Horkheimer, arranged for Benjamin to get out of German-occupied France and obtained a visa to America for him. But Walter Benjamin was a reluctant exile.

Unexpectedly, an entire generation of German intellectuals would become refugees and their work would be suddenly be divided into segments of before and after their displacement. The oeuvre of Walter Benjamin is a case in point. Although there are continuities in his ideas and preoccupations, the writer’s output can be divided into three sections: his youthful post-student work, aimed at getting him a post in a German university, his free-lance literary writings as a cultural critic in Berlin and finally the work of his exile years in Paris.

When Benjamin was born, Germany was barely twenty years old, a very new and very young modern nation. That said, the new country acted in an anachronistic way, starting an imperialistic war on its neighbors. The cultural mindset that dragged a modern nation into an old fashioned war was discredited, and after the Great War, Germany was forced to look forward into the future. The result was the remarkable efflorescence of Weimar Germany. Benjamin was a student during the War and came of age in city of the edge of trying everything new and daring, a city plunging into modernity. For astute observers, Paris was displaced as the center of avant-garde innovation and Berlin took the lead in artistic experimentation.

Benjamin spent the years of the War translating Charles Baudelaire and studying German Romantic poets at the universities of Berlin and Munich. He received his doctoral degree for his work on German Romanticism. During his studies, he married and had a child and the young family returned to Berlin. In the immediate post-war years, Berlin was awash with the casualties of the War, from prostituted war widows to crippled veterans to the psychologically maimed. Although he was opposed to the Great War, Benjamin explored the nature of violence in one of his earliest works, A Critique of Violence, 1921. Benjamin’s later work would always be poetic, concerned with metaphor, and was deeply allusive and often elliptical in its references.

After the Institute for Social Research was founded in 1923, Benjamin made the acquaintance of Theodor Adorno. On one hand, he began reading Georg Lukács and on the other hand, Benjamin was publishing work on Baudelaire. However complex his intellectual interests, Benjamin was intent on becoming a university professor and continued his rather disjointed self-education by reading Lukács’ Marxist theories while writing the Trauerspeil on the Island of Capri in 1924. Although Benjamin is often associated with the Frankfurt School, which was distinctly Marxist at that time, he was not a professional scholar, teaching at a university. That said Benjamin shared with these philosophers an understanding of contemporary thought through a combination of neo-Kantianism from the Marburg School and Marxism.

In a recent book, 2011, The Messianic Reduction. Walter Benjamin and the Shape of Time, Peter Fenves fully discusses Benjamin’s philosophical roots and quotes the writer’s own words, “In particular and in ever-repeated reading, during my time as a student, I concerned myself with Plato and Kant, in connection with Husserl’s philosophy and the Marburg school.” However, the philosophers of the Frankfurt School, while also deeply steeped in Kant, were rigorously Marxist and more fully conversant with Marxist theories. In contrast, Benjamin’s more casual and personal “take” on Marxism was mediated through Kant’s concepts on morality and with Jewish mysticism, especially on the Kabbalah. Benjamin’s Marxism was personal and idiosyncratic and unorthodox.

During the first years of his literary career, in post-war Germany, Benjamin was not political but engaged in what he called “redemptive criticism.” When he turned to Marxism, it was because he approached Communism as a moral imperative that demanded certain political forms of action. But he was not systematically trained in Marxist though and arrived at his ideas through readings of his own selection. Georg Lukacs’ History and Class Consciousness, written in 1923 in the wake of the post-war political upheavals commented,

Capitalism, by contrast, is a revolutionary form par excellence. The fact that it must necessarily remain in ignorance of the objective economic limitations of its own system expresses itself as an internal, dialectical contradiction in its class consciousness. This means that formally the class-consciousness of the bourgeoisie is geared to economic consciousness. And indeed the highest degree of unconsciousness, the crassest, form of ‘false consciousness’ always manifests itself when the conscious mastery of economic phenomena appears to be at its greatest.

From the point of view of the relation of consciousness to society this contradiction is expressed as the irreconcilable antagonism between ideology and economic base. Its dialectics are grounded in the irreconcilable antagonism between the (capitalist) individual, i.e. the stereotyped individual of capitalism, and the ‘natural’ and inevitable process of development, i.e. the process not subject to consciousness. In consequence theory and practice are brought into irreconcilable opposition to each other. But the resulting dualism is anything but stable; in fact it constantly strives to harmonize principles that have been wrenched apart and thenceforth oscillate between a new ‘false’ synthesis and its subsequent cataclysmic disruption.

This internal dialectical contradiction in the class-consciousness of the bourgeoisie is further aggravated by the fact that the objective limits of capitalism do not remain purely negative. That is to say that capitalism does not merely set ‘natural’ laws in motion that provoke crises which it cannot comprehend. On the contrary, those limits acquire a historical embodiment with its own consciousness and its own actions: the proletariat.

Despite his erudition and sincerity, this book came under harsh criticism from Lenin and Lukács was forced to denounce his own work. But Benjamin’s politicization can be dated from his reading of this book by Lukács in 1924, and his work took a new direction. By the mid-twenties 1920s, Benjamin had shifted his literary ground. He had broken with his family, and due to the financial crisis of the Republic, lost their financial support, and was adrift and living, as most commentators express it, “hand to mouth,” writing reviews on the cultural life in Berlin. Suddenly thrust out of the middle class, Benjamin became aware of class distinctions and political issues. He might have found the work of the Hungarian Marxist congenial because Lukács also came from a neo-Kantian background. Although they had acquaintances inn common, Lukács and Benjamin may not have met, despite the fact that the Hungarian was a refugee in Berlin from 1931 to 1933.

After his failed attempt in 1926 to find a place in the university system with his rejected thesis, or Habilitationsschrift, Ursprung des deutschen Trauerspiels (The Origin of German Tragic Drama or “mourning play”),Benjamin became a free-lance journalist and translator. In pursuit of a woman with whom he had fallen in love, Asja Lacis, Benjamin took a trip to Moscow during the winter of 1926-17. The writer, an acute observer, combined an abject doomed unrequited love affair with an investigation of the workings of Communism. Like many such pilgrims to the Soviet Union, he was shorn of any illusions he may have harbored and seems to have been able to separate the totalitarian regime of Moscow from the theories of Marx in his later works.

In Part Two of this brief study of Walter Benjamin, I shall discuss his works of the 1930s, the last decade of his life.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]