Monday, August 12, 2013

The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction by Walter Benjamin / Chasing Sophie

Walter Benjamin

Walter Benjamin

Born 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

In this essay, Benjamin argues that film and photography's ability to reproduce images has shifted art's focus from religion to politics. While we've been able to reproduce images before, film and photography are better at it. When a painting is reproduced, its value is depreciated (at least to some extent). As art becomes cheaper and easier to own, people become consumed with owning, with having art here instead of seeking it out. As art has become cheaper, it can no longer be tied to religion as worship because worship generally happens in a specific, sacred place (temple, church, etc.). Art now serves propaganda, most obviously in film and photography.

In film for instance, the camera establishes a disconnect, a distance, between the actor and the audience. The actor is not able to adjust to his audience, nor is his audience able to provide him with feedback during the work. Instead of being a dialogue, film is an object. Whereas before you had to get people to come and appreciate your performance, you can now create a film that is forever a work of art. Anybody can be an actor. Not only can everyone act, everyone acts and criticizes together. Whereas most paintings can only be experienced by a few people at a time, film is made to be experienced as a group which affects the reaction and reception of the film. Also, because of its successive frames, film encourages us to receive rather than to contemplate (like a painting would).

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.


While 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:
  1. Does the reproduction of images devalue art, and if so, is that a good thing or bad thing?
  2. 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.

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