Walter Benjamin, "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproducibility" (1937)

            II.  A reproduction is not equivalent to the original work of art.

"The presence of the original is the prerequisite to the concept of authenticity" (526.2); "The authenticity of a thing is the essence of all that is transmissible from its beginning, ranging from its substantive duration to its testimony to the history which it has experienced" (527.1).  Call what is eliminated in mechanical reproduction the "aura."  Mechanical, process reproduction can enlarge or slow down or make things appear outside their original context, including from the domain of tradition (527).  Film's positive social significance is bound up with its "destructive liquidation of the traditional value of the cultural heritage" (527). 

            III.  Perception is historical, and our perception is changing.  A thing's aura is bound up with distance, and what the masses today demand is a reduction of distance (528).  "If, while resting on a summer afternoon, you follow with your eyes a mountain range on a horizon or a branch which casts its shadow over you, you experience the aura of those mountains, of that branch."

IV.  Mechanical reproduction liberates art from religious ritual.  The traditional religious function of art continues to resonate even in the modern (from the [e.g., 15th century Italian] Renaissance) secular cult of beauty, which finally reacted against religion by making a religion of art (l'art pour l'art, art for art's sake).  Reproduction for the masses, defacing the value of the original, causes art to "begin to be based on another practice—politics" (529.2).

V.  There is a spectrum of values that function in art, from its value in the religious cult [worshiping group, not the popular sense of the term] to its "exhibition value"—taken to the level of an absolute, e.g., in the use of photography and film (529). 

VI.  The cult value of art retires into the human face—photographs pursue.  The beauty of a melancholy face cannot be treated in the way of mass culture.  And photographs attract a contemplative regard.  But captions enter the scene beneath the photographs, giving directives to viewers. 

IX.  Actors learn to perform for the camera, not an audience in a theater; they shoot scenes in fragmented ways, rather than performing them with the rhythm of the work of art.

X.  Actors, anxiously, become mass commodities who make no revolutionary challenge to social conditions.  Everyone becomes an expert (critic), and every one has access to the role of, e.g., writer.  A capitalistic "film industry is trying hard to spur the interest of the masses through illusion-promoting spectacles . . . ."

            XI.  The film camera is invasive; only in the product does one see the scene free of the equipment involved in shooting the scene.

            XII.  Historically, a painting has been viewed by individuals or by a few a time, each responding to the work individually (perhaps responding in a reactionary way to a Picasso painting).  A movie is seen by the masses, who influence each other's reception [interpretation and evaluation], perhaps responding to a Chaplin film in a progressive way—involving a "direct intimate fusion of visual and emotional enjoyment with the orientation of the expert" (i.e., as though the audience are all qualified to be expert critics).

            XIII.  Film makes possible new analysis of human behavior, highlighting details that would be lost in the theater.  Film has new resources for drawing attention to a "Freudian slip."  This illustrates "the mutual penetration of art and science."  Our normal way of paying little attention to a host of minor daily activities can be overturned in film which can direct our attention to aspects of common activities that are normally overlooked.

            Epilogue.  The masses are increasingly becoming the proletariat (the immiserated, industrial working class, oppressed by those who dominate the system of property).  All Fascism does for the masses is to give them the opportunity to express themselves.  Fascism introduces aesthetics into politics, and war is the result.  War fascinates with its "beauty."  War mobilizes resources away from social needs.  This is the extreme of art for art's sake.  The self-alienation of humankind "has reached such a state that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order" (537-38).


[How true was this when it was written in the early 20th century?  How true now?  Compare with Plato's critique of art devoted merely to making an immediate impression on the lower side of an audience.]



return to top | previous page | next page






Click to close