Form and Content
“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.
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...
(The entire section is 817 words.)