Much futile thought had been devoted earlier, wrote Walter Benjamin in his rightly celebrated essay Artwork in the age of mechanical reproducibility, to the question of whether photography is an art. ‘The primary question—whether the very invention of photography had not transformed the entire nature of art,’ however, he adds, ‘was not raised.’ ‘Film theoreticians were set, before long, to ask the same ill-considered question with regard to the film,’ he observes, ahead of adding a wry comment: ‘But the difficulties which photography caused traditional aesthetics were mere child’s play as compared to those raised by the film.’
What withers away in the age of mechanical reproducibility, in Benjamin’s view, is the aura (associated with magic, rituals and cult value) of the work of art. By making many reproductions the mechanical age substitutes a plurality of copies for a unique existence. And in permitting the reproduction to meet the beholder or the listener in his own particular situation, or meeting her halfway, it reactivates the object reproduced. These two processes—change in reproductive technology and mode of perception—lead, according to Benjamin, ‘to a tremendous shattering of tradition which is the obverse of the contemporary crisis and renewal of mankind’.
As aura gets thinner, exhibition value grows fatter. A new cult is attempted by powers that are to arrest or divert the call of the wild. “The film responds to the shrivelling of the aura,” Benjamin notes, “with an artificial build up of the ‘personality’ outside the studio. The cult of the movie star, fostered by the money of the film industry, preserves not the aura of the person, but ‘the spell of the personality’, the phoney spell of a commodity.”
What is the upshot, then? “So long as the movie-maker’s capital calls the tune,” Benjamin admits, “it is possible that in some cases films can also promote revolutionary criticism of social conditions, even of the distribution of property.” As a rule, as theorizes Benjamin, “no other revolutionary merit can be accredited to today’s film than the promotion of a revolutionary criticism of traditional concepts of art.”
Mechanical reproduction of artworks, in turn, changes the reaction of the masses toward art. In the churches and monasteries of the Middle Ages and at the princely courts up to the end of the eighteenth century, Benjamin observes, a collective reception of painting did not occur simultaneously, but by graduated and hierarchized mediation. For him, the change that has come about is an expression of the particular conflict in which painting was implicated by the mechanical reproducibility of works of art represented by painting.
Benjamin contrasts painting and film as art-forms only to find that they are worlds apart at the moment of reception. Painting invites the spectator to contemplation; before them the spectator can abandon himself to his associations. Before movie frames, however, he cannot do so. No sooner his eye grasped a scene than it is already changed. It cannot be arrested. The spectator’s process of association in view of these images is indeed interrupted by their constant, sudden change. This constitutes the shock effect of the film, which like all shocks, should be cushioned by a heightened presence of mind, remarks Benjamin.
Reception in a state of distraction, which was increasing noticeably in all fields of art by the 1930s and could be seen as symptomatic of profound changes in apperception, contended Benjamin. This state finds in the film its true means of exercise. The film with its shock effect meets this mode of reception halfway. Films make the cult value recede into background not only by putting the public in the position of the critic, but also by the fact that at the movies this position requires no attention. ‘The public,’ for Benjamin, ‘is an examiner, but an absent-minded one.’
For the first time in world history, argues Benjamin, mechanical reproducibility emancipates the work of art from its parasitical dependence on ritual. ‘To an ever greater degree,’ our theorist remarks, ‘the work of art reproduced becomes the work of art designed for reproducibility.’ From a photographic negative, for instance, one can make any number of prints; to ask for the ‘authentic’ print makes no sense.
But the instant the criterion of authenticity ceases to be applicable to artistic production, argues Benjamin, the total function of art is reversed. ‘Instead of being based on ritual, it begins to be based on another practice—politics.’ With the advent of the first truly revolutionary means of reproduction, photography, simultaneously with the rise of socialism, art sensed the approaching crisis which would become evident a century later. Art theory, at the time, reacted with the doctrine of l’art pour l’art, that is, a theology of art. This gave rise to what might be called a negative theology in the form of the idea of pure art, which not only denied any social function of art but also any categorizing by subject matter. In poetry, Benjamin adds parenthetically, Mallarmé was the first to take this position.
The consummation of the attempt to resurrect the lost aura, the sacred hidden in l’art pour l’art is to be seen resurfacing, at any rate partly, in the most profane forms of the cult of beauty. ‘The secular cult of beauty, developed during the Renaissance and prevailing for three centuries,’ remarks Benjamin, ‘clearly showed that ritualistic basis in its decline and the first deep crisis which befell it.’ That was, by the way, the apotheosis of high capitalism.
Traditional forces understood the crisis as one of politicisation, thus of degradation, of the arts. They responded by a reversing their perception, by putting the art of politics itself one notch up, upgrading it to the realm of aesthetics. ‘The logical result of fascism,’ Benjamin contends, ‘is the introduction of aesthetics into political life.’ The masses want to eliminate the traditional economic structure, or property relations. Fascism seeks to preserve these by way of offering them expression, by inflecting the film industry into the production of new ritual values, by inculcating the cults of violence, of the Führer, of the nation-empire, in a word, of the cult of the war. In late capitalism, things have moved a little further down the road. The self-alienation of man, of mankind that is, has reached today such a degree of that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order. ‘All efforts to render politics aesthetic culminate in one thing: war.’ That is to say, war is structural to theories of art built on the concept of beauty and untrammelled beauty alone
Moreover, for fascism or late capitalism, which glorifies war for its technical beauty, actually finds such cries as l’art pour l’art quite functional. ‘War and war only can set a goal for mass movements on the largest scale while respecting the traditional property system. This is the political formula of the situation.’ The technical formula is still more biting: ‘Only war makes it possible to mobilize all of today’s technical resources while maintaining the property system.’ This retrograde view has to be noted as the product of a discrepancy between the technical development of man and underdevelopment of his political organization. This discrepancy, as it appears, makes exploitation of the working masses with increasing intensity. But ultimately it ultimately helps to create conditions which would make it possible to get rid of the capitalist system itself. But that is story in the long run.
In the medium run, however, revolutions in art-forms that take place in late capitalism (i.e. of the 20th and 21st centuries) unmistakeably indicate that a certain number of concepts in the art theory—such as creativity and genius, eternal value and mystery—have become outmoded. Uncritical (and in the present era rendered almost impossible to be criticized) application of such concepts in the era of late capitalism, whatever might have been their use value in earlier epochs, has by now become totally counterproductive, and worse leads to processing of data in the Fascist sense.
- Walter Benjamin, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,’ in Illuminations, trans. Harry Zohn, reprint (Hammersmith: Fontana, 1992).
- Walter Benjamin, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility: Third Version,’ in Selected Writings, vol. 4: 1938-1940, eds. H. Eiland and M.W. Jennings (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006), pp. 251-83.
- Walter Benjamin, Das Kunstwerk in Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproducierbarkeit: Drei Studien zur Kunstsocilogie (Fankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag, 2003).