Re-reading “The Work of Art in an Age of Mechanical Reproduction”
by Walter Benjamin
“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.