Walter Benjamin – The work of Art & the Age of Mechanical Reproduction

walter benjamin

I have slowly been working my way through a cannon of texts… today I read Walter Benjamin’s The Work Of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (1936) and below is an assemblages of quotes from that text which stood out to me on first reading – a patchwork of ideas if you like, from which I will now take a few steps back in order to contemplate how the come together as a whole.

In principle a work of art has always been reproducible.

Mechanical reproduction of a work of art, however, represents something new.

For the first time in the process of pictorial reproduction, photography freed the hand of the most important artistic functions which henceforth devolved only upon the eye looking into a lens.

[However] Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be.

The presence of the original is the prerequisite to the concept of authenticity.

[Yet] Confronted with its manual reproduction, which was usually branded as a forgery, the original preserved all its authority; not so vis-à-vis technical reproduction. The reason is twofold. First, process reproduction is more independent of the original than manual reproduction… Secondly, technical reproduction can put the copy of the original into situations which would be out of reach for the original itself.

The authenticity of a thing is the essence of all that is transmissible from its beginning, ranging from its substantive duration to its testimony to the history which it has experienced… And what is really jeopardized when the historical testimony is affected is the authority of the object.
One might subsume the eliminated element in the term “aura” and go on to say: that which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art.

One might generalize by saying: the technique of reproduction detaches the reproduced object from the domain of tradition.
By making many reproductions it substitutes a plurality of copies for a unique existence. bAnd in permitting the reproduction to meet the beholder or listener in his own particular situation, it reactivates the object reproduced. These two processes lead to a tremendous shattering of tradition which is the obverse of the contemporary crisis and renewal of mankind.

Both processes are intimately connected with the contemporary mass movements… Its social significance, particularly in its most positive form, is inconceivable without its destructive, cathartic aspect, that is, the liquidation of the traditional value of the cultural heritage.

To pry an object from its shell, to destroy its aura, is the mark of a perception whose “sense of the universal equality of things” has increased to such a degree that it extracts it even from a unique object by means of reproduction.

The adjustment of reality to the masses and of the masses to reality is a process of unlimited scope, as much for thinking as for perception.

The uniqueness of a work of art is inseparable from its being imbedded in the fabric of tradition. This tradition itself is thoroughly alive and extremely changeable.

It is significant that the existence of the work of art with reference to its aura is never entirely separated from its ritual function. In other words, the unique value of the “authentic” work of art has its basis in ritual, the location of its original use value.

This ritualistic basis, however remote, is still recognizable as secularized ritual even in the most profane forms of the cult of beauty. The secular cult of beauty…

..for the first time in world history, mechanical reproduction emancipates the work of art from its parasitical dependence on ritual. To an ever greater degree the work of art reproduced becomes the work of art designed for reproducibility.
But the instant the criterion of authenticity ceases to be applicable to artistic production, the total function of art is reversed. Instead of being based on ritual, it begins to be based on another practice – politics.

When the age of mechanical reproduction separated art from its basis in cult, the semblance of its autonomy disappeared forever.

For centuries a small number of writers were confronted by many thousands of readers. This changed toward the end of the last century.
Thus, the distinction between author and public is about to lose its basic character. The difference becomes merely functional; it may vary from case to case. At any moment the reader is ready to turn into a writer.The greater the decrease in the social significance of an art form, the sharper the distinction between criticism and enjoyment by the public. The conventional is uncritically enjoyed, and the truly new is criticized with aversion.

The decisive reason for this is that individual reactions are predetermined by the mass audience response they are about to produce… The moment these responses become manifest they control each other.

One of the foremost tasks of art has always been the creation of a demand which could be fully satisfied only later. The history of every art form shows critical epochs in which a certain art form aspires to effects which could be fully obtained only with a changed technical standard, that is to say, in a new art form.

In the decline of middle-class society, contemplation became a school for asocial behavior; it was countered by distraction as a variant of social conduct.

The mass is a matrix from which all traditional behavior toward works of art issues today in a new form. Quantity has been transmuted into quality. The greatly increased mass of participants has produced a change in the mode of participation.

Distraction as provided by art presents a covert control of the extent to which new tasks have become soluble by apperception. Since, moreover, individuals are tempted to avoid such tasks, art will tackle the most difficult and most important ones where it is able to mobilize the masses.

The growing proletarianization of modern man and the increasing formation of masses are two aspects of the same process. Fascism attempts to organize the newly created proletarian masses without affecting the property structure which the masses strive to eliminate.The logical result of Fascism is the introduction of aesthetics into political life.

All efforts to render politics aesthetic culminate in one thing: war.

The technological formula may be stated as follows: Only war makes it possible to mobilize all of today’s technical resources while maintaining the property system.

If the natural utilization of productive forces is impeded by the property system, the increase in technical devices, in speed, and in the sources of energy will press for an unnatural utilization, and this is found in war. The destructiveness of war furnishes proof that society has not been mature enough to incorporate technology as its organ, that technology has not been sufficiently developed to cope with the elemental forces of society.

Its selfalienation has reached such a degree that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order.

 

If you want to go through this paper the full text can be found here

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