Walter Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction

Walter Benjamin states that the transformation of the superstructure has caused in all areas of culture a change in conditions of production and then goes on to present a number of concepts that if introduced into the theory of art would be useful for the formation of revolutionary demands in the politics of art.

In principle a work of art has always been reproducible, as replicas could be made. Still, mechanical reproduction represents something new, as firstly the reproduction process is more independent from the original than manual reproduction. Secondly, technical reproduction can put a copy of the original into situations, which would otherwise be out of reach for the original itself, for instance a concert can be reproduced in our room. However, Benjamin believes that even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be.

The presence of the original is indispensable to the concept of authenticity, as authenticity is, according to Benjamin, linked to the essence of all that is transmissible from the object since its beginning and includes all the history that it has experienced. The reproduction, as offered for instance by a photograph, differs from the image seen by the naked eye. Uniqueness and permanence is linked to the second and transitoriness and reproducibility to the first. However, Benjamin does not see this a mere difference between the original and its reproductions, he argues that the “aura” of objects is destroyed by reproducing them.

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A poster of Mona Lisa has less “cultural value” than the original at the Louvre, is it the same for a DVD copy and the actual film, a book and its .pdf version, why? How important is it for a work of art to be unique and authentic? We have come across these terms again in other texts, people keep returning to the concept of authenticity and seem to consider it to be highly important. However, at a time when almost everything can be reproduced, can we agree with the idea that the original is in some sense more valuable and reproduction in a way destroys it, as it takes something from it?

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~ by Joanna Ioannidou on March 1, 2009.

7 Responses to “Walter Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”

  1. Well, if you’d own the original Mona Lisa by Leonardo – that would make a difference, wouldn’t it? But I am not sure that reproductions take anything away from that, quite on the contrary.
    However, what I can’t get out of the summery: what is Benjamin’s attitude to the development he describes? Is the loss of the aura something he deplores? And what about this age of mechanical reproduction? Isn’t that title announcing a historical change (one that is indeed linked to the loss of the aura)? How are photography and film situated within this age of mechanical reproduction? What else changes?

  2. Indeed: The experience of art has gone through an enormous shift. The experience of authenticity, as the most important aspect of art, is dependending on ritual/ the secularized ritual of the cult of beauty. Modern art, Benjamin says, emancipated from this value. Instead, the new value that mechanical reproduction brings is one of ‘exhibition’. Fotography and film are the clearest examples of this turn:

    “From a photographic negative, for example, one can make any number of prints; to ask for the “authentic” print makes no sense.”(V)

    The other change that mechanical reproduction has brought is its communication with the masses. Masses influence individual experiences and responses. Instead of being absorbed by a work of art individually, the masses make you aware of your optical and mainly tactile habits by a ‘controlled distraction’.

    @ joanna: We should indeed rethink the concept of authenticity in an age of mechanical reproduction 😉 And that we are becoming used to consider even reproductions as authentic. We could then relate your question immediately to Baudrillard idea of simulacrum. Authenticity is not any longer related to an original, rather to what we perceive as true. But it would be an even greater challenge to think beyond the idea of authenticity versus reproduction.

  3. That was the point I had wished to make actually, that even though I got from the text that Benjamin was seeing the loss of an aura as a negative thing, I think that through reproduction the “value” of the original is elevated.

    Indeed, although Nina already answered this question, the whole idea of reproduction, creates a big swift in art. Not only in relation to the work of art (that is not seen in relation to its cult significance but in relation to its exhibitional value) but also in relation to the audience. Benjamin refers to the popular idea of art requiring a concentrated audience, to which he objects as he says that even the distracted mass can absorb the work of art (to prove this he uses the example of architecture).

    There is also an interesting reference to the distinction between author and public that Benjamin claims will lose its basic character, that we can easily relate to the idea of new media blurring the lines between “producer” and “receiver”.

  4. I don’t think Benjamin found this loss of aura lamentable. Concerning the value of mechanical reproduction of art works, He claims that reproduction means the “liquidation of the traditional value of the cultural heritage,” which will yield “equality” by an “adjustment of reality to the masses” instead of to the aristocracy and therefore it “emancipates” art, permitting the audience (in case of film) “to take the position of the critic.”
    Illuminative in this respect could be his thesis that the loss of aura is more than compensated by the increased open-ness/availability (Benjamin uses the term exhibition value). (So there is no net loss. Actually a gain.)

  5. it is a very interesting form of irony in a way… the more replications a work of art has the more value the original holds. once again an excellent example of cultural capital. a piece of art work – not replicated – is much less likely to hold cultural capital – as fewer people will see it – as opposed to something mass produced which more will see, therefore will elevate it in status in the process.

    another interesting aspect to consider – a sort of in between if you will. a rather popular artist in the states – Thomas Kinkade – does paintings of buildings and scenery with weird lighting effects. prints of his art work are abundant, however, there is a new level between original and replication. he also offers – or at least at one point did – replications of his art work where he paints in the lights by hand. it is not a full replication, nor is it a full original. does it perhaps provide a form of original in an attainable form for the masses? thus should it make the prints more or less popular?

  6. What about this bigger reach of art?
    Benjamin describes how film is able to reach the masses and makes everybody in the audience a critic. But as the actor is performing in front of the camera, the audience takes up this position making them critics of the quality of the acting or skills of the actor. It is an absent-minded, passive form of criticism (not very critical at all).
    The reaction of the mass audience is also determined by the setting in that they influence each other, making them less reactionary, more progressive is what Benjamin writes.
    There also seems to be a neccesity of aura still in the film business. As the films and actors do not have it, there needs to be an additional sense of aura created by making actors into personalities.
    This means that there is a change in the audience of either an original or an artwork without an aura, as the formar is usually experienced by less people, and less at a time, and the latter is experienced by a mass audience, which changes the reaction towards it.

  7. In terms of the loss of aura, I believe Klaas is right in saying that Benjamin didn’t think of this as a negative thing per se. What I find especially interesting is the political dimension of this article. Benjamin actually argues that the concepts connected with tradional works of art that possess aura, concepts like creativity and genius, eternal value and mystery, are easily manipulated for fascist aims. Even though Fascism can use reproducible art forms like film because of the mass audience it addresses, Benjamin seems less scared of this prospect, largely because he believes in the new concepts that are formulated in this age of mechanical reproduction and the way film trains the audience in a receptive but still critical attitude.

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