The uniqueness of Walter Benjamin’s criticism lies in its combination of religious mysticism, philosophy, and politics. Benjamin came to the last category, in the form of Marxism, relatively late in his short life. His politicization can be seen as a symptomatic reaction to the alienation of intellectuals within the Weimar Republic and to the rabid anti-Semitism of the German Right, which would force him first to leave Germany and eventually to take his own life. Marxism remained a kind of protective shell for the unworldly Benjamin, rather than becoming his bone and muscle. He thus had no problem writing simultaneously in two opposing modes, on Brecht’s theater of the concrete and on Franz Kafka’s metaphysical world in “Franz Kafka” (1943; “Franz Kafka—On the Tenth Anniversary of His Death,” 1968).
Yet precisely this balancing act between Jewishness and Marxism, between mysticism and materialism, defines the achievement of “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” as well as of Benjamin’s other essays. It allows the essay to turn away from the Marxists’ focus on the ideological content of works of art to the more elusive question of the influence of historical conditions on the form of artworks and vice versa. Benjamin’s criticism in general has had a profound influence on later Marxist cultural critics such as Fredric Jameson. Benjamin’s essay fails when measured against its own attempts to foretell the future. As a history of art it is too sketchy and compressed to be counted a success. Yet Benjamin’s failures are always more interesting and important than other people’s successes.
Interestingly, the importance of Benjamin’s essay lies not in the realm of art history but in the realm of Marxist cultural theory. In spite of its utopianism and mysticism, or rather because of its utopianism and mysticism, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” has the same liberating effect upon Marxist criticism as Benjamin had hoped film art would exercise upon the masses’ perception of social reality. Marx, as Maynard Solomon notes, had revealed the “petrifaction of human relations in the ’things’ of class society. Benjamin tried to show us how to break the spell.”