Walter Benjamin’s “Work of Art in the Age of Reproducibility” Pt. 2

Some more excerpts I find of note, I have posted Vertov’s “Man with a Movie Camera” because I think it illustrates some points Benjamin makes near the end of this section:

The reception of works of art varies in character, but in general two polar types stand out: one accentuates the artwork’s cult value; the other, its exhibition value…Cult value as such tends today, it would seem, to keep the artwork out of sight: certain statues of gods are accessible only to the priest in the cella; certain images of the Madonna remain covered nearly all year round; certain sculptures on medieval cathedrals are not visible to the viewer at ground level. With the emancipation of specific artistic practices from the service of ritual, the opportunities for exhibiting their products increase. (257)

The scope for exhibiting the work of art has increased so enormously with the various methods of technologically reproducing it that, as happened in prehistoric times, a quantitative shift between the two poles of the artwork has led to a qualitative transformation in its nature. Just as the work of art in prehistoric times, through the absolute emphasis placed on its cult value, became first and foremost an instrument of magic which only later came to be recognized as a work of art, so today, through the absolute emphasis placed on its exhibition value, the work of art becomes a construct [Gebilde] with quite new functions. Among these, the one we are conscious of—the artistic function—may subsequently be seen as incidental. This much is certain: today, photography and film are the most serviceable vehicles of this new understanding. (257)

In photography, exhibition value begins to drive back cult value on all fronts. But cult value does not give way without resistance. It falls back to a last entrenchment: the human countenance…In the cult of remembrance of dead or absent loved ones, the cult value of the image finds its last refuge. In the fleeting expression of a human face, the aura beckons from early photographs for the last time. This is what gives them their melancholy and incomparable beauty. But as the human being withdraws from the photographic image, exhibition value for the first time shows its superiority to cult value…Atget…around 1900, took photographs of deserted Paris streets. It has been justly said that he photographed them like scenes of crimes. A crime scene, too, is deserted; it is photographed for the purpose of establishing evidence. With Atget, photographic records begin to be evidence in the historical trial [Prozess]. This constitutes their hidden political significance. They demand a specific kind of reception. Free-floating contemplation is no longer appropriate to them. They unsettle the viewer; he feels challenged to find a particular way to approach them…The directives given by captions to those looking at images in illustrated magazines soon become even more precise and commanding in films, where the way each single image is understood appears prescribed by the sequence of all the preceding images. (257-258)

The film actor lacks the opportunity of the stage actor to adjust to the audience during his performance, since he does not present his performance to the audience in person. This permits the audience to take the position of a critic, without experiencing any personal contact with the actor. The audience’s empathy with the actor is really an empathy with the camera. Consequently, the audience takes the position of the camera; its approach is that of testing. This is not an approach compatible with cult value. (259-260)

What matters is that the actor is performing for a piece of equipment—or in the case of sound film, for two pieces of equipment…for the first time—and this is the effect of film—the human being is placed in a position where he must operate with his whole living person, while forgoing its aura. For the aura is bound to his presence in the here and now. There is no facsimile of the aura…What distinguishes the shot in the film studio, however, is that the camera is substituted for the audience. As a result, the aura surrounding the actor is dispelled—and, with it, the aura of the figure he portrays…In particular, lighting and its installation require the representation of an action—which on the screen appears as swift, unified sequence—to be filmed in a series of separate takes, which may be spread over hours in the studio…Nothing shows more graphically that art has escaped the realm of “beautiful semblance,” which for so long was regarded as the only sphere in which it could thrive. (260-261)

The film actor’s feeling of estrangement in the face of the apparatus…is basically of the same kind as the estrangement felt before one’s appearance [Erscheinung] in a mirror.But now the mirror image [Bild] has become detachable from the person mirrored, and is transportable…While he stands before the apparatus, the screen actor knows that in the end he is confronting the public, the consumers who constitute the market…Film responds to the shriveling of the aura by artificially building up the “personality” outside the studio. The cult of the movie star, fostered by the money of the film industry, preserves that magic of the personality which has long been no more than the putrid magic of its own commodity character. So long as moviemakers’ capital sets the fashion, as a rule the only revolutionary merit that can be ascribed to today’s cinema is the promotion of a revolutionary criticism of traditional concepts of art. We do not deny that in some cases today’s films can also foster revolutionary criticism of social conditions, even of property relations…a person might even see himself becoming part of a work of art: think of Vertov’s Three Songs of Lenin or Ivens’ Borinage. Any person today can lay claim to being filmed…Some of the actors taking part in Russian films are not actors in our sense but people who portray themselves—and primarily in their own work process. In western Europe today, the capitalist exploitation of film obstructs the human being’s legitimate claim to being reproduced. Under these circumstances, the film industry has an overriding interest in stimulating the involvement of the masses through illusionary displays and ambiguous speculations. (261-262)


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