“The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”
Walter Benjamin 1936
I will go through his 40page essay chronologically and sum the most important factors up.
Walter Benjamin starts of by explaining art history, its development due to new technologies like coinage, print, lithography etc. He gives a basic overview of how art was influenced by each step and therefore how it was before mechanical reproduction.
He goes on explaining how the modern technology and mass production have influenced art. He describes this as “loss of aura”. He believes that a piece of art especially lived and affected us because it was unique and therefore gave us the feeling of a “here and now”. This uniqueness vanished completely.
Then he talks about what where the word aura in terms of art means and where it comes from. The special feeling an art piece had came from the rituals, the cult- especially in religious ways- performed on them before they actually became a piece of art.
He acknowledges that this aura began to disappear before mechanical reproduction but he blames especially photography to have destroyed it. The perfect duplication and visual representation possibilities-which sometimes not even our eyes could capture - started to question the originality and physical uniqueness of for example a painting. The aura, which consists of the here and now and the uniqueness was therefore completely taken away. A good example here is the difference if you go to a concert or if you only listen to the Vinyl in your home. It changed not only the perception of art, but also the whole concept of what art is. To him, photography was the first step to a politicized art.
In the next part of the essay he talks about how the “new art” focused rather on its display value and how it compensated the loss of the aura through being an attraction, pulling people towards itself.
As an example he discusses the limitations and chances the new media, especially film and photography, have. Film works through the shock effect. In difference to a play on a stage, the scenes and environments change so quickly that the observer is nearly pulled into the film (or art). Whereas before art meant being manually created, devotion, silence, concentration, contemplation and work, it now means mechanical production, shock, distraction, easy consumption and being dragged towards it. Through that he also explains why and how new medias could attract human beings that easily and effectively, it dictates us how we perceive it.
By all these characteristics of art, even the relation between the artist and the viewer distinguishes a little. It is only the function of creating the art which differs the artist from the observer. The effect it will have is calculated before, something which is only possible through the new technology. For example, a painter creates a natural distance and the feeling that the art piece is untouchable, far away from another world, a camera however wants to do the opposite it wants to overwhelm us with the reality, which has a more immediate impact on us as observer.
He finishes the essay with the statement that mechanical reproduction not only changed art in its physical appearance, but also what art is and even more our expectations what it should do. The optical-subconscious reception grows stronger and that the loss of individuality in art is now contemplated by the intense effect on masses. Art is therefore enjoyed rather instructive- there is not much imagination- and critical, as the value of uniqueness has no influence anymore on how we perceive the piece.
Written by: Octavia Mettenheimer