The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction

by Walter Benjamin
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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1230

Three problems in translating the title of this essay into English are revealing of its essential thesis. (At least two translations of the essay have appeared. The first, based on the earlier version, uses “reproducibility.” The second, more widely available in the collection Illuminations, 1968, is based on the second version of the essay and carries the title at the head of this article.) English “reproduction” is used for the German Reproduzierbarkeit, which actually means “reproducibility.” Benjamin points out in the first chapter that the reproduction of certain works of art had always been possible, but that there has now arrived an epoch (Zeitalter) of technical reproducibility, of a process which invests the work of art with a new and different nature. The difference is important and hangs together with the second mistranslation, in which seiner (“its,” that is, the work of art’s) is left out. The use of the possessive personal pronoun emphasizes that it is not reproducibility in general that is Benjamin’s concern, but rather the reproducibility of those specific artistic genres—photography and film—which are inconceivable without that reproducibility. Indeed, “mechanical reproduction” in general, as Benjamin points out, had begun to alter European civilization and art more than a century before, during the Industrial Revolution. The point, then, is that at a certain point of history works of art that are always already their own reproductions have come to be created.

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The third oddity in the translation, the reduction of technisch to “mechanical,” leads back to the same point. Mechanical reproduction, such as printing and lithography, had failed to change the nature of art or reduce its aura. There was still an original behind all the reproductions. “Technical” reproduction, on the other hand, with its echoes of “technological,” refers to a whole different attitude toward the making of art. Film reproduces events and emotions which have never existed. Montage, slow motion, and other techniques alter one’s perception of reality, change a drab world into an exciting one:Our taverns and our metropolitan streets, our offices and furnished rooms, our railroad stations and our factories appeared to have us locked up hopelessly. Then came film and burst this prison-world by the dynamite of the tenth of a second.

This is “technical,” not “mechanical,” reproducibility. “Mechanical” would make it appear that Benjamin is concerned with what happens when art is produced by machines. Though the camera is a machine, this fact is not what interests Benjamin. Technisch, with its origins in the Greek word techne, meaning “craft” or “skill,” shows Benjamin’s belief that photography will bring about a rejection of the romantic notion of art as the work of genius, and hence will reduce art’s aura.

Benjamin’s utopian notion of moving pictures was influenced by his knowledge of the films of experimental socialist filmmakers such as Sergey Eisenstein, Dziga Vertov, and his personal acquaintance Asya Lacis. Benjamin’s friend Bertolt Brecht, whose revolutionary playwriting techniques Benjamin had analyzed in another essay, “Was ist das episches Theater?” (1939; “What Is Epic Theater?” 1968), had also shown considerable enthusiasm for filmmaking as a way of influencing the proletariat. In fact, Benjamin’s entire essay—with the important exception of the concept of aura, which Brecht detested—seems to be summarized in Brecht’s remark that film “can be used better than almost anything else to supersede the old kind of untechnical, anti-technical ’glowing art,’ with its religious links. The socialization of these means is vital for art.” Brecht’s idea of film...

(The entire section contains 1230 words.)

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