The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction

by Walter Benjamin
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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 817

“The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” is a longish essay, divided—in its 1955 version—into fifteen chapters plus a foreword and an afterword. Walter Benjamin’s argument progresses from a general discussion of the changes wrought by technological development on the production of art to a more specific discussion of photography and film as singularly modern genres which alter the viewer’s relationship to art in general.

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The changes Benjamin made in the second version of the essay do not constitute a major rethinking of his thesis; rather, they help to define the chief elements of his message and to place it within the context of European politics. In this context it is important to remember that Benjamin wrote the essay while in exile. For example, in making what had been the first chapter into a foreword and what had been the last chapter into a postscript, Benjamin placed his statements on art within the larger context of remarks on Fascism and war. The foreword shows Benjamin’s “redemptive aesthetics,” and in it he claims that the concepts he will develop are “completely useless for the purposes of Fascism. They are, on the other hand, useful for the formulation of revolutionary demands in the politics of art.” The afterword returns to this larger political question by contrasting reproducible art with the Fascist art form known as war. Fascism aestheticizes war, while Communism politicizes art. Thus, Benjamin has drawn a closed circle around his essay by twice formulating, with variations, a single contrast between Communism and Fascism.

The first five chapters of “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” give an extremely compressed history of art in terms of its ever-increasing reproducibility. This history will lead to the point, made later in the essay, that with the invention of photography and film, artworks have reached a point at which they are inseparable from the concept of their being reproduced. This inseparability can be understood in a practical sense: As opposed to most other art forms, films are so costly that their whole production process is ruled from start to finish by the condition that they be reproducible for mass consumption. Yet, in chapter 9, Benjamin also explores film’s reproducibility in a formal sense: The actor’s method changes from that of creating a role to that of presenting himself. Characters are composed in films from heterogeneous effects and are a pastiche of performances that may occur at widely spaced moments and in widely varying situations. For the film viewer, the fullness and distance (aura) of a stage appearance are replaced by a flickering thinness and the merciless investigation of reality by the camera. Similarly, Benjamin declares that the public’s reception of a film is that of the camera. “The audience takes the position of the camera; its approach is that of testing” (chapter 8). Years of theater and film-going had taught Benjamin the difference between a theater audience, which sits in reverent silence, afraid even to cough during a performance, and a film audience, which feels free to exchange quiet comments and critiques during the showing.

This new critical attitude toward art on the part of the public, which the foreword and afterword show to be the real object of Benjamin’s analysis, contrasts sharply with the traditional status of artworks. The “aura” of a work both derived from and was responsible for its religious status. (With the nineteenth century notion of art for art’s sake, the work of art retained its traditional authority, although the source of that authority was different.) Aura, which Peter Burger has defined as the work’s unapproachability, depends upon the art object’s...

(The entire section contains 988 words.)

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