“The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” was written in 1936 by Walter Benjamin, a German Jewish scholar living in exile in Paris. This essay discusses the evolution of mechanical production and its effects on art and cultural consumption in the 20th century.
He does admit that reproduction has always been present in art and craft making. However, as mechanical modes of representation became possible, he makes the distinction between process reproduction (often resulting in forgeries) and mechanized reproduction, an inherent quality of newer technologies like lithography, photography, and film. He criticizes (or relays the general critique) that mechanical reproduction lessens the value of the object that is reproduced, in which the reproduction withers its unique “aura”, the quality that makes it unique in the world.
“During long periods of history, the mode of human sense perception changes with
humanity’s entire mode of existence. The manner in which human sense perception is
organized, the medium in which it is accomplished, is determined not only by nature but
by historical circumstances as well.”
I took issue with this quote at first, but thinking about it a bit more, human cognition and perception must have been greatly affected by inventions like the camera, gramophone, and personal computer. Instead of committing the world to memory, humans rely on recording devices to remember places, sounds, and general facts. These recording devices are usually limited in capturing true human perception and experience, but then again, constructed memories are imperfect as well.
Benjamin is a Marxist, and his socio-political thoughts definitely influence his opinion of mechanized artistic reproduction:
“for the first time in world history, mechanical reproduction emancipates the work of art from its parasitical dependence on ritual. To an ever greater degree the work of art reproduced becomes the work of art designed for reproducibility…Instead of being based on ritual, it begins to be based on another practice–politics.”
“for the first time–and this is the effect of the film–man has to operate with his whole living person, yet forgoing its aura. For aura is tied to his presence; there can be no replica of it.”
On the difference between painting and film:
Thus, for contemporary man the representation of reality by the film is incomparably more significant than that of the painter, since it offers, precisely because of the thoroughgoing permeation of reality with mechanical equipment, an aspect of reality which is free of all equipment. And that is what one is entitled to ask from a work of art.”
I understand that film is a much more immersive experience than most paintings will ever be, no matter how large or how fantastic. But I find it interesting that Benjamin seems to be saying that film relays a version of reality to an audience that seems devoid of any medium (unlike a painting’s canvas, paint or brush strokes), precisely due to the medium of film itself.
I do agree with his opinion on painting as a medium for public consumption:
“Painting simply is in no position to present an object for simultaneous collective
experience, as it was possible for architecture at all times, for the epic poem in the past,
and for the movie today.”
He brings up another interesting facet of technological progress, where it facilitates the realization of ideas that previously seemed absurd, or “ahead of their time”:
Dadaism attempted to create by pictorial–and literary–means the effects which the public today seeks in the film…What they intended and achieved was a relentless
destruction of the aura of their creations, which they branded as reproductions with the
very means of production.
I also think some of Benjamin’s ideas about film apply to new media as well, if not more:
“The mass is a matrix from which all traditional behavior toward works of art issues today in a new form. Quantity has been transmuted into quality. The greatly increased mass of
participants has produced a change in the mode of participation.”
And, perhaps fittingly since he is writing this essay during the rise of the Third Reich, he ends his discussion of the effects of mechanized production on art, with it on war. Interestingly, he doesn’t address the role of film as propaganda tool in the Third Reich. Due film’s realistic nature (which Benjamin admires), it was an incredibly effective tool in glorifying the Third Reich and its fascist mission.