Walter BenjaminBorn in 1892, Walter was a German cultural critic of Jewish descent who turned to Marxism in the 1930s. When Hitler rose to power, Benjamin committed suicide rather than fall into Nazi hands. He died in the year 1940, but it was not until fifteen years later that he became famous when a two-volume set of his writings was published. He wrote "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" in 1936. (In 1936, Stalin had just started his purges in Russia and Hitler made the Hitler Youth mandatory) For further information see Walter Benjamin.
The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction
For a Marxist, problems are caused by the ownership of property. Fascism (in Benjamin's context, Nazism) attaches value to the state. As more value is placed on the masses, more value is placed on the state because it can still support so many people while retaining the idea of ownership. What happens when you emphasize ownership at the state level? War. This is Benjamin's polemic against Hitler. For Benjamin, art's new emphasis on the masses is a good thing, but only if it is used to deny property.
AnalysisWhile there is much that I disagree with Benjamin about, he has incredible insight. That said, this whole essay is dominated by his Marxism. Art should be propaganda for the cause, and religion is a drug used to dull the masses. I'm going to disagree with him at a basic level because I don't think salvation is going to come through a man-made revolution. I believe salvation comes through Christ.
I don't have many answers for this essay, but Benjamin does raise two helpful questions:
- Does the reproduction of images devalue art, and if so, is that a good thing or bad thing?
- Does film destroy the connection between the actor and audience, and if so, is that a good thing or a bad thing?
I read "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" in Illuminations by Walter Benjamin. I am indebted to the introductory material at the beginning of the book.