The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction

by Walter Benjamin
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What are the basic points in The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction?

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The primary thesis of Benjamin's "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" is that mechanical reproduction has rendered art useless to fascism. Benjamin explicitly claims that reproduction has eradicated "a number of outmoded concepts, such as creativity and genius, eternal value and mystery—concepts whose uncontrolled (and at present almost uncontrollable) application would lead to a processing of data in the Fascist sense." To support this claim, Benjamin presents a thorough and complicated argument that grounds itself in the examination of certain concepts. These concepts are as follows: 1) the "aura" of the artwork, 2) art's origins as a "cult of ritual," and 3) the relation of the masses to works of art.

According to Benjamin, the "aura" of a work of art resides in "its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be," and the historical authority this presence grants to the object. The erasure of the aura (the artwork's unique presence in space and time is elided by mechanical reproduction) results in a freeing from tradition, which leads into Benjamin's arguments about the "cult" nature of art.

Benjamin claims that "originally the contextual integration of art in tradition found its expression in the cult," and he then goes on to identify different types of artistic cults, such as the cult of religion and the cult of beauty. Whether the cult is religious or secular, Benjamin argues, "the unique value of the 'authentic' work of art has its basis in ritual, the location of its original use value." For Benjamin, erasing the aura is key to freeing art from "its parasitical dependence on ritual," which is important because art then becomes "based on another practice—politics." This shift from ritual to politics is the lynch pin of Benjamin's argument and leads into the last major topic of his essay, which is the relation of the masses to the artwork.

While Benjamin does talk about literature, he spends most of his time discussing film and how it, more than any other form of art, embodies the changes he is discussing. He frequently compares film to other art forms, such as painting and live theater performances, arguing throughout that the amount of technology involved in creating a film—and the ways this technology mediates the relationship between the audience, the artist, and the art object—creates a distinctly new understanding of art. This new understanding of art is grounded in the idea that "the greater the decrease in the social significance of an art form, the sharper the distinction between criticism and enjoyment by the public" (Benjamin).

Benjamin ends his essay by returning to the idea of fascism and how fascist ideology "seeks to give them [the working-class masses] an expression while preserving property. The logical result of Fascism is the introduction of aesthetics into political life." Benjamin goes on to say that this sort of aesthetic distraction inevitably results in war and that the politicization of art (due, of course, to the eradication of the "aura") is the communist defense against fascism.

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