Walter Benjamin’s “Work of Art in the Age of Reproducibility” Pt. 1

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Part one of some excerpts of note from this fascinating piece.  I have been focusing on Benjamin for the last week…I guess he is required reading for a lot of Germans/Austrians, which is funny because Weber State University doesn’t have one class that teaches his works.  I love reading him though, and his take on art and history are incredibly interesting and important:

The Work of Art in the Age of Reproducibility

Theses defining the developmental tendencies of art can therefore contribute to the political struggle in ways that it would be a mistake to underestimate.  They neutralize a number of traditional concepts—such as creativity and genius, eternal value and mystery—which, used in an uncontrolled way…allow factual material to be manipulated in the interests of fascism.

In principle, the work of art has always been reproducible…But the technological reproducibility of artworks is something new…[P]hotography freed the hand from the most important artistic tasks in the process of pictorial reproduction—tasks that now devolved solely upon the eye looking into a lens…Around 1900, technological reproduction not only had reached a standard that permitted it to reproduce all known works of art, profoundly modifying their effect, but it also captured a place of its own among the artistic processes. (252)

In even the most perfect reproduction, one thing is lacking: the here and now of the work of art—its unique existence in a particular place.  It is this unique existence—and nothing else—that bears the mark of the history to which the work has been subject…The here and now of the original underlies the concept of its authenticity…The whole sphere of authenticity eludes technological—and of course, not only technological—reproducibility…[T]echnological reproduction is more independent of the original than is manual reproduction…[I]n photography it can bring out aspects of the original that are accessible only to the lens (which is adjustable and can easily change viewpoint) but not to the human eye; or it can use certain processes, such as enlargement or slow-motion, to record images which escape natural optics altogether…[T]echnological reproduction can place the copy of the original in situations which the original itself cannot attain…[I]t enables the original to meet the recipient halfway…The situations into which the product of technological reproduction can be brought may leave the artwork’s other properties untouched, but they certainly devalue the here and now of the artwork…[T]his process touches on a highly sensitive core…That core is its authenticity.  The authenticity of a thing is the quintessence of all that is transmissible in it from its origin on, ranging from its physical duration to the historical testimony relating to it.

One might encompass the eliminated element within the concept of the aura, and go on to say: what withers in the age of the technological reproducibility of the work of art is the latter’s aura…It might be stated as a general formula that the technology of reproduction detaches the reproduced object from the sphere of tradition.  By replicating the work many times over, it substitutes a mass existence for a unique existence.  And in permitting the reproduction to reach the recipient in his or her own situation, it actualizes that which is reproduced.  These two processes lead to a massive upheaval in the domain of objects handed down from the past—a shattering of tradition which is the reverse side of the present crisis and renewal of humanity…

Just as the entire mode of existence of human collectives changes over long historical periods, so too does their mode of perception.  The way in which human perception is organized—the medium in which it occurs—is conditioned not only by nature but by history…[I]f changes in the medium of present-day perception can be understood as a decay of the aura, it is possible to demonstrate the social determinants of that decay.

The concept of the aura which was proposed above with reference to historical objects can be usefully illustrated with reference to an aura of natural objects.  We define the aura of the latter as the unique apparition of a distance, however near it may be.  To follow with the eye—while resting on a summer afternoon—a mountain range on the horizon or a branch that casts a shadow on the beholder is to breathe the aura of those mountains, of that branch.  In the light of this description, we can readily grasp the social basis of the aura’s present decay.  It rests on two circumstances, both linked to the increasing significance of the masses in contemporary life.  Namely: the desire of the present-day masses to “get closer” to things spatially and humanly, and their equally passionate concern for overcoming each thing’s uniqueness by assimilating it as a reproduction…The stripping of the veil from the object, the destruction of the aura, is the signature of a perception whose “sense for sameness in the world” has so increased that, by means of reproduction, it extracts sameness even from what is unique…The alignment of reality with the masses and of the masses with reality is a process of immeasurable importance for both thinking and perception.  (254 – 256)

The uniqueness of the work of art is identical to its embeddedness in the context of tradition.  Of course, this tradition itself is thoroughly alive and extremely changeable…Originally the embeddedness of an artwork in the context of tradition found expression in a cult…[T]he earliest artworks originated in the service of rituals…it is highly significant that the artwork’s auratic mode of existence is never entirely severed from its ritual function…the unique value of the “authentic” work of art has its basis in ritual, the source of its original use value…The secular worship of beauty which developed during the Renaissance and prevailed for three centuries, clearly displayed that ritualistic basis in its subsequent decline…with the advent of the first truly revolutionary means of reproduction, art felt the approach of that crisis which a century later has become unmistakable, it reacted with the doctrine of l’art pour l’art—that is, with a theology of art. 

For the first time in world history, technological reproducibility emancipates the work of art from its parasitic subservience to ritual.  To an ever-increasing degree, the work reproduced becomes the reproduction of a work designed for reproducibility…But as soon as the criterion of authenticity ceases to be applied to artistic production, the whole social function of art is revolutionized.  Instead of being founded on ritual, it is based on a different practice: politics. (256 – 257)

(Part 2 to follow.  I have an interview with Dr. Siegfried Mattl in nine hours.)

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