I have been reading the essays of the late critic, Walter Benjamin, most famous for his 1936 piece, The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproduction (an earlier translation of this essay is available here). Wikipedia notes of this essay that it has been,
…influential across the humanities, especially in the fields of cultural studies, media theory, architectural theory and art history. Written at a time when Adolf Hitler was already Chancellor of Germany, it was produced, Benjamin wrote, in the effort to describe a theory of art that would be “useful for the formulation of revolutionary demands in the politics of art.” He argued that, in the absence of any traditional, ritualistic value, art in the age of mechanical reproduction would inherently be based on the practice of politics.
While Benjamin writes of the authenticity of a work of art and how a reproduction lacks this (and how this affects the experience of the viewer), it came to me that some forms of art – novels in particular, but also the book in which his essays are reproduced – are meant for mass reproduction. Without the technology of mass reproduction, printed material was limited in its influence and reach. This in turn limited literacy itself.
Benjamin also mentions the lithograph as a technology that reproduced art, both of which are related to the printing revolution. He doesn’t mention its contemporary technology, steel engraving, which was developed at the same time. Lithography is a chemical process, while engraving is mechanical.
But what I think he ignores is that neither was intended to reproduce a piece of art, but rather to create a unique piece that could be reproduced with integrity (for example, illustrations in a book, but engraving was also used extensively for printing money). The artists who perfected these forms meant for their work to be copied and printed. Only when the plate or stone wore out from use, and finer details become smudged or lost, would the piece begin to lose its authenticity.
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. This unique existence of the work of art determined the history to which it was subject throughout the time of its existence. This includes the changes which it may have suffered in physical condition over the years as well as the various changes in its ownership. The traces of the first can be revealed only by chemical or physical analyses which it is impossible to perform on a reproduction; changes of ownership are subject to a tradition which must be traced from the situation of the original.
Benjamin was not merely commenting on art, but on politics and society. He opens with a somewhat mixed Marxist analysis, rambling a bit before making the point that modern reproduction takes art from its original use as religious and ritual items to the realm of the political. Mechanical reproduction removes art from its role, and in doing so changes the viewer’s aesthetic appreciation of it. In the essay, he gives the example of a photograph of a cathedral, which removes the viewer from the emotional and religious experience of being in the actual building.
I’m not sure what he would think of today’s technology: the ability to Photoshop an image and produce an entirely new – and often surreal – image which represents something never actually seen (or at least seen in actuality, with those modifications).
He pondered most on the impact and development of film. He recognized the potential for film to create personality cults:
The film responds to the shriveling of the aura 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 unique aura of the person but the “spell of the personality,” the phony spell of a commodity. So long as the movie-makers’ capital sets the fashion, as a rule no other revolutionary merit can be accredited to today’s film than the promotion of a revolutionary criticism of traditional concepts of art.
This personality-building potential was later transferred to TV, where today it thrives in excess. Talentless, untrained, inexperienced and often unintelligent people can become stars in their own right by participating in “reality” TV.
Benjamin also comments on a phenomenon that is even more exaggerated today through social media: the minute analysis of comments or gestures. Political sides use this endlessly for ad honinem attacks on one another’s members:
As compared with painting, filmed behavior lends itself more readily to analysis because of its incomparably more precise statements of the situation. In comparison with the stage scene, the filmed behavior item lends itself more readily to analysis because it can be isolated more easily.
Benjamin’s comments have some resonance today, but I think his view on film’s potential and its expressiveness was limited. As I read it, he saw it as a means to reproduce stage productions in another medium, rather than to create its own stories and imagery. New technology has allowed us to visualize entirely imaginary worlds in ways that almost make them as real as our own.
Plus, he keeps referring back to the artistic trends and styles of the 1930s – the surrealists and Dadaists – as measuring sticks. But styles and tastes change, and the cultural impact they had in their day has been muted to a historical curiosity today. No one is shocked by them, no one measures anything by them now. Perhaps his most salient (to me) point is:
Duhamel calls the movie “a pastime for helots, a diversion for uneducated, wretched, worn-out creatures who are consumed by their worries a spectacle which requires no concentration and presupposes no intelligence which kindles no light in the heart and awakens no hope other than the ridiculous one of someday becoming a ‘star’ in Los Angeles.” Clearly, this is at bottom the same ancient lament that the masses seek distraction whereas art demands concentration from the spectator. That is a commonplace.
Benjamin’s essay is a historical curiosity itself and I think his perspectives on politics read as dated and even quaint today. But I will re-read it to look for what I may have missed.