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...

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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.

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 as a more “thinkable” medium than theater shows up clearly in “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.”

Brecht’s epic theater shared with the Russian filmmakers a fondness for the technique of montage. That is, in both genres the part was privileged above the whole, and there was no attempt at disguising the “madeness” of the work of art. Brecht’s goals of destroying linear plot and thus of breaking the emotional involvement of the spectators and with it the effect of Aristotelian catharsis are paralleled in Benjamin’s comments on the relative objectivity of the film viewer. Benjamin argues that film’s montage technique, which wrenches the viewer from scene to scene in rapid succession, breaks any hold the image may have over the viewer and allows a more critical attitude. Brecht’s goal of having the audience think critically about the work of art was also incorporated into Benjamin’s view that the film audience takes the position of the camera. All these points are summarized in Benjamin’s long metaphor of the difference between faith healer (traditional art) and surgeon (film art):The surgeon represents the polar opposite of the magician. . . . The magician maintains the natural distance between the patient and himself; though he reduces it very slightly by the laying on of hands, he greatly increases it by virtue of his authority. The surgeon does exactly the reverse; he greatly diminishes the distance between himself and the patient by penetrating into the patient’s body, and increases it but little by the caution with which his hand moves among the organs.

This distance again represents the concept of aura. Most film theorists would reject Benjamin’s rather naive notion that the camera is somehow less distanced and more objective than the painter’s brush. Film, like any other art, is staged; it is mimesis, it brings to mind rather than reproduces reality.

Accordingly, with the hindsight of history one is able to note the extreme discrepancy between Benjamin’s hopes for film and what really happened. The year of publication of the essay saw the premiere of Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph des Willens (Triumph of the Will), a milestone in film history that negates every one of Benjamin’s points. Rather than show “taverns and metropolitan streets,” Riefenstahl showed the Nazi rallies at Nuremberg, along with one sequence of the medieval, auristic sections of the city. Rather than show men and women in the process of work, Riefenstahl celebrated their passive consumption of the Fuhrer’s grand illusion. Rather than diminish the aura of its chief actor, Adolf Hitler, Riefenstahl raised it to unbelievable heights. Triumph of the Will, in recording the Nazis’ aestheticizing politics, was itself the politicized art which Benjamin had hoped the Communists would provide. Nor has the so-called dominant cinema showed any of the hoped-for tendencies. Emotional involvement, aura, and illusion are the heart and soul of most Hollywood films.

In the light of history, then, one can see what is missing from Benjamin’s analysis. He has proved himself to be a materialist, but not a dialectical materialist. He had written in the foreword that he was providing “theses about the developmental tendencies of art under present conditions of production.” For Karl Marx, conditions of production included the relationships that men enter into in order to produce material goods, including artworks. Benjamin seems here to believe that technological advancements can change the nature of art, without the ownership of the means of production first changing hands. He writes as though film’s ability to change art were inevitable and did not depend upon who was making art products for what purpose. Oddly, then, by theorizing the reduction of art’s aura Benjamin has himself endowed it with a power far beyond anything the Romantics could conceive of: the power to change history.

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