t? to dissolve, there was a shift away from

t?

 

“The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” is among Walter
Benjamin’s best work. Benjamin wrote this essay while in exile in Paris from
Germany in 1936 in response to the political turmoil in Europe with the rise of
Fascism. He became involved with Marxist theory through his exposure to the
works of Georg Lukács and his friendship with Asja Lazis.1In
this essay Benjamin examines the impact of technology on art and its reception
in modern mass society. He does so from a Marxist perspective and investigates
the possible political implications arising from the impact of technology on
art.

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Benjamin begins by discussing the links between technology and emerging
art forms. Technology has enabled the mass reproduction of art in the modern
age. He points out that art has always been reproducible – from the Greeks and
their technical reproduction of art by founding and stamping, to 19th
century lithography. However, this is different, art is being reproduced with
increased intensity. Paul Valery captures the impact of technology on art and
how it is received by society in the following sentence:

 

‘Just as water, gas and electricity are brought into our houses from far
off to satisfy our needs in response to a minimal effort, so we shall be
supplied with visual or auditory images, which will appear and disappear at a
simple movement of the hand, hardly more than a sign’2

 

Not only did technology result in the mass reproduction of art, it also
enabled the creation of new art forms such as photography and film. Benjamin
argues that the existence of film had brought into question the concept of art
itself. 3

 

Up until this point art was reserved for the bourgeois class. It was
totally elitist as it was pretty much inaccessible to the working class. As the
art market opened up and the relationship between the creative artist and the cultivated
artistic consumer began to dissolve, there was a shift away from the norms of
naturalism and representationalism.4
Technology enabled the democratization of art and was a form of modernization that
actually benefited the working class.5
The mass reproduction of art such as film and photography rendered art easily
accessible and affordable. Art now meets the beholder half way: “The cathedral
leaves its locale to be received in the studio of a lover of art; the choral
production performed in an auditorium or in the open air resounds in the
drawing room.” 6 This
is evidentially a positive change according to Benjamin because as a Marxist he
believed that art should be accessible to all members of society. However, he
does discuss the negative aspects of the emergence of new art forms as a result
of technology.

 

Benjamin argues that as a result of technology enabling the mass
reproduction of art, the art work’s aura is lost. He describes aura as the
“unique phenomenon of a distance” between the viewer and the work of art. A
work of art’s uniqueness comes from its presence in a particular time and
space. An objects aura is closely linked to tradition, the history of an object
and the changing of hands of its ownership throughout the years. Without this
tradition and the presence of art in a particular time and space, there is
nothing authentic about art. He sees the technological reproduction of art as a
“tremendous shattering of tradition” 7
Evidentially authenticity is not reproducible and therefore the reproduced art
is lacking in aura. Benjamin is convinced that the technological reproduction
of art and this loss of aura means that the quality of art is always
depreciated. The meaning of aura becomes clearer with the use of an example. “A
Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte” by Georges Seurat is in my
opinion totally underwhelming when reproduced in a film or a photograph.
However, viewing this work of art in person is a completely different
experience. Neither its size nor its complexity are translated through its
technological reproduction, and the aura that is attached to it is lost through
the lens. Benjamin sees the desire of contemporary mass for things to be
spatially and humanly closer as one of the cause of said loss of aura.

 

Benjamin explores further the tradition associated with art. The
original function of art was closely linked to ritual. Art was perceived to be
something sacred, a means of religious worship particularly in the Renaissance
period. However, technology has completely altered the function of art, ritual
and tradition are defunct. Consider for example the case of film:

 

“Mechanical reproduction is inherent in the very technique of film
production. This technique not only permits in the most direct way but
virtually causes mass distribution. It enforces distribution because the
production of a film is so expensive that an individual who, for instance,
might afford to buy a painting no longer can afford to buy a film.”8

 

Benjamin contends that technology not only
results in new art being created and reproduced, but also causes the reception
of art to be altered. He homes in on film as an art form and its reception to
illustrate his point of view. In Benjamin’s eyes film does not come close to
theatre in terms of the audience’s experience. He sees the camera as diluting
the quality of the experience for several reasons. Firstly, the stage actor is
denied the opportunity to interact with and adjust to the audience as he
performs for the camera. According to Benjamin an actor’s aura and the aura of
his character is linked to his presence, without his presence this aura is lost
in its reproduction and the quality of the experience is diluted significantly.
Filmmakers replace aura with a cult of the star, “an artificial build-up of the
“personality” outside of the studio. Secondly, the film actor does not have the
ability to identify himself with the character of his role whereas the stage
actor does. This is a result of the nature of film, a series of separately filmed
performances which are edited and put together. The actor’s performance feels
disjointed. There is a loss of cohesion of experience that one does receive
when at the theatre. Benjamin remarks that a stage actor’s performance can
often be forced and false at times. He gives the example of an actor’s failed
attempting to convey shock. The director has a gun fired behind the actor to
spur the desired reaction.  In

1 H. Ridley, ‘Towards
a New Marxist Aesthetic’, ( Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press, 1982.) pp.168-183
Here: p. 169.

2 W. Benjamin (ed. By H.
Arendt) ‘Illuminations’ (London: 1992.)
pp. 211-244 Here p. 212.

3 H. Ridley, ‘Towards a New Marxist Aesthetic’, (
Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press, 1982) pp. 168-183 Here: p. 178.

4 J.K. D. Peukert, ‘The Weimar Republic.’ The Crisis of Classical
Modernity’, (London: Allen Lane, 1991.) pp. 147-173 Here: p. 166.

5 J.K. D. Peukert, ‘The Weimar Republic.’ The Crisis of Classical
Modernity’, (London: Allen Lane, 1991.) pp. 147-173 Here: p. 149.

6 W. Benjamin (ed. By H.
Arendt) ‘Illuminations’ (London: 1992.)
pp. 211-244 Here p. 212.

7 W. Benjamin (ed. By H.
Arendt) ‘Illuminations’ (London: 1992.)
pp. 211-244 Here: p. 213.

8 W. Benjamin (ed. By H.
Arendt) ‘Illuminations’ (London: 1992.)
pp. 211-244 Here: Note 7.