Welcome back to Philosopher Fridays, where I tackle philosophers I find intriguing in very fragmented ways. In my last two entries, I tackled Walter Benjamin on history, story, and the messy ruins of any dialectical project. This week, I return to Benjamin once more to give a brief overview of his most famous essay: “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction“.
Written in 1936, “Art in the Age” is the rough culmination of Benjamin’s thoughts on the politics of art and the ruins of historicity, connecting the political, the economic, and the artistic in a cohesive critique. While there are many fascinating things to take from this essay about Marxist theory and the destructive nature of progress, what makes this essay stand out above other similar critiques is its romanticization of artistic authenticity, and what he perceives to be its ever quickening decay. In this post, I will be taking up just a very small piece of what makes this essay so fascinating, and extrapolating fairly loosely in my commentary. Please take this as the commentary of a layman, and not a Benjaminian scholar of even the most novice caliber.
I’ve written before about the power of seeing an original work of art in person. To see a copy of something great – a photograph or print of a great work of art, for example – simply isn’t the same as seeing the real thing. There’s something about the original, unadulterated by changes incurred in producing the copy, that is truly special, but it goes beyond merely the degradation of a copy. What’s different about it is also its uniqueness, its connection to its maker, to its context, and its age, which are all slightly metaphysical qualities. Benjamin calls this unique authenticity its aura.
The uniqueness of a work of art is inseparable from its being imbedded in the fabric of tradition. This tradition itself is throughly alive and extremely changeable. An ancient statue of Venus, for example, stood in a different traditional context with the Greeks, who made it an object of veneration, than with the clerics of the Middle Ages, who viewed it as an ominous idol. Both of them, however, were equally confronted with its uniqueness, that is, its aura. Originally the contextual integration of art in tradition found its expression in the cult. We know that the earliest art works originated in the service of a ritual–first the magical, then the religious kind. It is significant that the existence of the work of art with reference to its aura is never entirely separated from its ritual function. In other words, the unique values of the ‘authentic’ work of art has its basis in ritual, the location of its original use value (Section IV).
When you reproduce a work of art en masse, let’s say a painting, you don’t just alter the tones of the colors or flatten the texture, you change what it means. When printed on coasters, mouse pads, and t-shirts, a masterpiece is no longer the expression of an artist, but becomes like a brand identity as it is used to express the tastes of the owner of the coaster and t-shirt. And when lots of people do this with a piece of art, it begins to lose its meaning. Munch’s The Scream and Monet’s Water Lilies are diluted into college cliches as they become lodged in our mind’s as “dorm art.”
It just gets worse for Benjamin when art is designed with reproducibility – or rather, realistic reproduction – in mind. Photography, film, and musical recordings remove from us our reflective imagination:
…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. From a photographic negative, for example, one can make any number of prints; to ask for the ‘authentic’ print makes no sense. But the instant the criterion of authenticity ceases to be applicable to artistic production, the total function of art is reversed. Instead of being based on ritual, it begins to be based on another practice–politics (Section IV).
Beyond that, Benjamin claims that our connection to the art itself is necessarily mediated in such that there is no original, and whatever authenticity may have been involved in the creation of the reproducible art is effectively cut off. Motion pictures seem to bear the brunt of his critique:
The camera that presents the performance of the film actor to the public need not respect the performance as an integral whole. Guided by the cameraman, the camera continually changes its position with respect to the performance. The sequence of positional views which the editor composes from the material supplied him constitutes the completed film. It comprises certain factors of movement which are in reality those of the camera, not to mention special camera angle, close-ups, etc. (Section VIII).
To add to that, post-production in its modern form goes far beyond editing – there are color filters and sound effects and musical scores, not to mention intercut pick ups (shots filmed at a later date), computer graphics layered into the scene, and more.
While it is certainly possible to see this cumulative process as itself an art form of a collective (as I do – I love film), Benjamin’s point remains: no matter how much of your heart and soul you pour into your performance, your set pieces, your editing, your post-production, or what-have-you, the art-piece itself has no real connection to you or the part you’ve played in creating it, given that your piece of the puzzle can be irrevocable altered by another member of the collective. A brilliantly dramatic performance by an actor can be rendered a farce by a simple change in score. A wonderfully color-balanced scene is ruined by a smudge on the projector lens. A beautifully shot scene may be filled with a cringe-worthy script that even the most talented actor would fail to deliver. The actor, the prop-master, the director, the cameraman, the editor, etc. can never themselves impart the authenticity of artistic creation; for Benjamin, the cameraman could never be simply compared to the painter, who by himself creates the whole of the work of art (Section XI).
Although theatrical performance can also be parsed as collective efforts – the stage actor still has a script to follow, a director blocking her scenes, and more – this fragmentation seems to matter less on stage. An otherwise mediocre play can be made great by an actor who connects emotionally with her audience there in the moment, creating a holistic experience. Watching a live performance takes more active effort to grasp, because the viewer is more removed from the performance – there is only one angle, there are few special effects, and there is only one location. You cannot help but take an actively imaginative role as you watch, because the moment, once it is passed, can never be regained, it is a special moment between artist and viewer. Movies, on the other hand, in being both mediated and repeatable, are more passive, leaving us desirous of that connection.
In an answer to the lack of artistic aura, we mythologize the personalities of the actors outside of the films through the “cult of the movie star.” By doing this, we can, he explains, have the notion of the auratic original. To meet the actor is to see the holistic original we never quite get in the experience of a film. Because there is no direct connection without auratic cult and the work of art, our attentions are once again diluted. In chasing the celebrity, we seek the connection we would normally receive from the performance itself.
In the case of the artwork designed for its reproducibility: “The public is an examiner, but an absent minded one” (Section XV).
I’ve left out a great deal from this post; Benjamin goes on to speak of optics, of passive and active artistic appreciation, of capitalism, and even of revolution, but what strikes me as most interesting in this piece is his focus on the fragmentation of mechanically reproducible art. I’d like to simply disagree with him, because as I’ve said, I love film. I want to think that there’s an aura created in the making of a film that isn’t inherently different from other collective artistic endeavors. But I can’t bring myself to deny that there is a marked difference between watching a raw stage performance and seeing a brushed up, processed movie performance.
Ultimately, I think that we can retrain ourselves to take that active role in connecting with films to reclaim an aura tic experience if we choose, just as many people are able to sit passively at a play or in front of a painting and remain unmoved. But there’s still something here that’s both intriguing and compelling. After all, we do still go to museums and plays, and value that which is unique or handmade over that which is widely available and easily reproduced. Perhaps we’re all just being pretentious when we’re turned off by electronically altered music and photoshopped images, romanticizing the artisanal and the raw, but perhaps there’s a good reason to curmudgeonly resist the ever more rapidly merging of technology and art.
While I can’t say that this essay answers this dilemma all that clearly, it certainly raises some great questions that I still can’t overlook. I’ll likely be returning to it for some time.