The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction

by Walter Benjamin

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Key points and conclusion of "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction."

Summary:

Walter Benjamin's essay "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" argues that mass production diminishes the unique "aura" of art, changing its role in society. Key points include the shift from ritualistic to political functions of art and the democratization of art access. Benjamin concludes that reproduced art can challenge traditional power structures by making art more accessible and politicized.

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What are the main points in The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction?

The primary thesis of Benjamin's "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" is that mechanical reproduction has rendered art useless to fascism. Benjamin explicitly claims that reproduction has eradicated "a number of outmoded concepts, such as creativity and genius, eternal value and mystery—concepts whose uncontrolled (and at present almost uncontrollable) application would lead to a processing of data in the Fascist sense." To support this claim, Benjamin presents a thorough and complicated argument that grounds itself in the examination of certain concepts. These concepts are as follows: 1) the "aura" of the artwork, 2) art's origins as a "cult of ritual," and 3) the relation of the masses to works of art.

According to Benjamin, the "aura" of a work of art resides in "its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be," and the historical authority this presence grants to the object. The erasure of the aura (the artwork's unique presence in space and time is elided by mechanical reproduction) results in a freeing from tradition, which leads into Benjamin's arguments about the "cult" nature of art.

Benjamin claims that "originally the contextual integration of art in tradition found its expression in the cult," and he then goes on to identify different types of artistic cults, such as the cult of religion and the cult of beauty. Whether the cult is religious or secular, Benjamin argues, "the unique value of the 'authentic' work of art has its basis in ritual, the location of its original use value." For Benjamin, erasing the aura is key to freeing art from "its parasitical dependence on ritual," which is important because art then becomes "based on another practice—politics." This shift from ritual to politics is the lynch pin of Benjamin's argument and leads into the last major topic of his essay, which is the relation of the masses to the artwork.

While Benjamin does talk about literature, he spends most of his time discussing film and how it, more than any other form of art, embodies the changes he is discussing. He frequently compares film to other art forms, such as painting and live theater performances, arguing throughout that the amount of technology involved in creating a film—and the ways this technology mediates the relationship between the audience, the artist, and the art object—creates a distinctly new understanding of art. This new understanding of art is grounded in the idea that "the greater the decrease in the social significance of an art form, the sharper the distinction between criticism and enjoyment by the public" (Benjamin).

Benjamin ends his essay by returning to the idea of fascism and how fascist ideology "seeks to give them [the working-class masses] an expression while preserving property. The logical result of Fascism is the introduction of aesthetics into political life." Benjamin goes on to say that this sort of aesthetic distraction inevitably results in war and that the politicization of art (due, of course, to the eradication of the "aura") is the communist defense against fascism.

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Summarize the conclusion of "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction."

For Benjamin, art no longer has the aura it once had. Due largely to the increased secularization of society, the work of art is no longer thought of as a manifestation of spiritual values, as something that reveals timeless truths. In addition, the rapid development of technology in modern society has turned artworks into commodities, mass-produced commercial products that have no worth or meaning.

In this ever-changing society, aesthetic perception has changed dramatically. Now that the aura has been removed from works of art, other aspects of human life have become aestheticized, treated as if they were works of art. One such aspect is politics, which under Fascist regimes has been turned into an art form. One only has to think of the parades, the flags, the uniforms, the minutely-choreographed rallies that were a common feature of Fascist regimes to see the point that Benjamin is making here.

The aesthetic theory of "art for art's sake," so beloved of late-19th century aesthetes such as Oscar Wilde, has finally culminated in the aesthetics of Fascism. Separating art from the stream of life has cut off art from what is true and vital. This had made it more susceptible to becoming just another commodity to be bought and sold in capitalist society. As art no longer has any deep roots in the wider culture, it can be cynically distorted and coopted by various interest groups—capitalists, Fascists, and so on—to serve specific ends.

As art has become little more than a commodity in an age of mechanical reproduction, humankind has become alienated from itself, contemplating its own false image instead of what is true. Art no longer serves the purpose of showing us what is distinctively human. Because it has been commodified and mechanized, it has become a means to an end.

And Fascist regimes have been particularly adept at exploiting this unfortunate development, giving their nefarious activities an aesthetic facade. This means, among other things, that humankind's very annihilation, as embodied by Fascism, can be contemplated as an object of supreme aesthetic pleasure, as if it were a work of art.

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