Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” Article

Introduction

Walter Benjamin’s article, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, was written in the 20th Century. Having been published in 1936, the article documents how economic changes revolutionised the art industry. Although Benjamin’s article is short, the author addresses a variety of issues. The main aim of this essay is to present a critical and hypothetical analysis of Benjamin’s article, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. Apart from critical analysis of the article, this paper will focus on three facets of Benjamin’s work. The three concepts include the article’s context, the politicisation of art, and the development of aura.

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Benjamin’s key ideas-critical analysis

Benjamin maintains that authenticity fades the moment an artwork is reproduced. A reproduced piece lacks originality. In addition, even the original piece lacks authenticity and value after being copied. According to Benjamin, advances of a capitalist society were responsible for the reproducibility of art. However, political interests of the capitalist society in relation to revolutionised art can hardly be ignored. One can conclude that Benjamin relies on the Marxist style in presenting his argument in relation to the capitalist society and art. With reference to the Marxist style, capitalism changes the society significantly. For example, manufacturers have to change their production processes or diversify them to enable the production of new commodities. With capitalism, technology accounts for changes that revolutionise different sectors of the economy. Nevertheless, Benjamin uses the Marxist style in a way that it does not influence his key argument in relation to the reproducibility of art. Benjamin’s recognition of the Marxist style entails his disposition to appreciate willingness and integrity.

In addition, Benjamin appreciates some of the works of art that prevailed for the longest time possible. Some of these works include stamping, casting, engraving, and etching among others. However, he appreciates that photography quickened the reproduction of art and it contributed to the integration of vast details with minimum effort. In the course of this argument, Benjamin recognises the influence of reproducibility on art in its traditional form. Benjamin’s observation depicts the extents to which the reproduction society influences people’s perceptions. Benjamin succeeds in highlighting the photography’s influence on art. Although the author highlights how photography influences culture, he does not discuss the topic in details. He could have presented a wide applicability of his observations, but he chooses to divert his attention to the photography’s influence on art. However, the abrupt change of style as documented in the article’s introduction can be attributed to the author’s limited domain.

Benjamin further highlights that current trends in artwork distinguish these works from reproductions. According to Benjamin, photography is an original artistic form as it can reveal details that people can hardly observe without machine enhancement. However, the author blames reproducibility for the destruction of original aura. Furthermore, reproducibility accounts for the mass productions, thus detaching the original object from the tradition. Benjamin’s observation is crucial for reproduction can hardly depict originality. In the course of reproduction, crucial details can be omitted. On the other side, additional and unnecessary points can be incorporated. Although art and photography are different, Benjamin depicts works of art as reproducibility that occurs through photography. By highlighting that reproducibility influences the original aura, the author tries to explain the adverse effects of reproducibility in relation to originality and qualities of an artwork. However, Benjamin does not give examples to illustrate the concept of authenticity and aura. Although Benjamin’s article addresses a variety of crucial elements of photography, the author concentrates on the application of photography in art. Benjamin further appreciates that reproduction alters the people’s perceptions in relation to aura. As aura relates to distance, reproduction lessens distances and extracts similar features from an object’s uniqueness. Furthermore, reproduction makes it possible to produce artworks as many times as possible.

The timing of the appearance of Benjamin’s work played a key role in the positive Anglophone reception that it received. The positive reception was fuelled by the productivity of the work in aesthetics and literary theory. At this time, political exile was a common phenomenon. In addition, Benjamin witnessed the Second World War and the hellacious Nazi Germany under the leadership of Hitler, which later culminated in the infamous Holocaust. However, several controversies exist with scholars like Ian Knizek and Adorno criticising Benjamin’s work. For instance, Knizek argues that the concept of aura is easily transferable to reproduction. On the other side, Adorno digresses from Benjamin’s argument by maintaining that reproduction stifles creativity, which explains why the majority of modern citizens are not critical thinkers.

Benjamin introduces the concept of aura in response to a friend’s comment in relation to photography and reproduction. He relates reproduction to the loss of aesthetic pleasure. Among the majority of philosophers, aura entails unique phenomena of distance between the actual object and the casted image of the object in question. At this point, the observer’s perceptions in relation to the distance count. However, aura alienates the person from his or her perceptions in relation to the object. According to Benjamin, aura incorporates an individual’s perceptions, thus highlighting some aspects of aesthetics. In the middle ages, posterior idealistic tendencies reinforced these aesthetics. However, such a move depicts a reaction to the changes that tended to separate spectators from artworks.

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At this point, one may question artistic influences on a spectator, especially in the engagement in a new artistic process. A spectator forms a negative perception the first time he or she encounters artwork that results from reproduction. First, reproduction that can be deemed perfect lacks perfection as it loses track of the original space and time. In this case, one can conclude that the concept of aura involves more of authenticity than the perfection of the original. For the first time, mechanical reproduction frees an artwork from an object’s character. With the mechanical reproduction, original artworks lose authority as reproduction become independent. Such a case arises, as the resulting copies are quite distinctive from the original even though they allow the original to meet the beholder halfway. Benjamin highlights this analysis in the argument that an object submits its environment to an art’s studio.

However, an artist has the responsibility to reproduce the object in line with his or her perception. An artistic object that arises from reproduction can hardly be the original or reflect the same. Nevertheless, mechanical reproductions make it possible to detach an artwork from the traditional domain as it can be moved from the original space and time. However, multiple reproductions do not depend on multiple exhibition opportunities. At this point, it is evident that Benjamin presents a positive evaluation of aura in relation to liquidation. Nevertheless, Benjamin’s use of exhibition value can be viewed as pathway to the critical analysis that not only invites for public participation, but also propels people to enjoy the work. According to Benjamin, concentration and distraction form part of the perceptions pertaining to the original object. Benjamin gives Duhamel’s illustration in relation to the film, artworks, and moving images. According to Duhamel on film, moving images replace a spectator’s thoughts, thus depicting distractions that divert a spectator’s concentration as demanded by art.

However, Benjamin’s theory of aura can be interpreted and applied differently in diverse situations. For instance, Benjamin argues that the people’s desire to own a certain artwork is rooted in its uniqueness or aura. However, this assertion might not be true especially in a capitalist system where people are driven by elitist narcissism. People may acquire artworks in a bid to feel good or stand out from the rest, which is a form of elitist blustering.

Mechanical reproduction revolutionised art as it eliminated the perception that pure art can hardly be altered. As part of the social function, art is dynamic and it is subject to change just as other societal components. As such, it is possible to conclude that reproduction accounts for the violation of authenticity in artistic production. According to Benjamin, a shift of artistic production from ritual to another practice highlights the concept of politics. With reference to highlighting the spectator, Benjamin makes a comparison of film and photography, and theatre and painting in a bid to demystify art. For example, film proves superior to theatre as it propels people to assuming a critical attitude, especially in identifying the key actor with the help of a camera. Such an element shows that film enhances people’s perceptions.

According to Benjamin, the decay of aura originates from the desire to move contemporary masses closer to reality and changes in the people’s perceptions in relation to universal equality. From this analysis, one can conclude that reproduction changes reality to masses while ensuring that the resulting works maintain most of the features for them to reflect the reality. Nevertheless, a film cannot succeed in the absence of aesthetic and ethical features. Through these features, an artist can base his or her criticism of the traditional artistic concepts.

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Benjamin’s argument highlights why there lacks common grounds between art politicisation and the attempt to aestheticise politics. Perhaps, non-uniformity arises for aestheticism tends to suppress the traditional distance depicted between the object and its image. Nevertheless, aestheticism can hardly be ignored, as it is a key concept in reproduction. As the traditional objects and concepts fail to resist reproduction, these developments reveal the extents to which politicisation is superior. With the superiority attached to politicisation, it is evident that the concept paves the way for the traditional concepts to show masses, but denies traditional concepts the chance to reveal their original features. Although traditional features are maintained throughout reproduction, they appear disguised in the resulting masses. Furthermore, in the course of reproduction, the spectator is revealed, but s/he appears in the form of an object. Conversely, the politicisation of artwork requires the spectator to assume his/her position as a subject and question his/her condition. Such a development highlights ways through which an artist can set rules in the course of art production.

In this sense, one can conclude that Benjamin has comprehensively addressed the significance of an artist’s autonomy. At this point, one should question the degree of autonomy to which an artist should adhere. Unfortunately, Benjamin does not state the degree of autonomy that should be reserved for the artists. Such a move makes it difficult for an artist to determine whether to make new art out of the entire object. Additionally, Benjamin has failed to outline a logic procedure to guide artists.

Art Politicisation

Benjamin relies on Marxist politics exclusively in his conception of views in relation to the art of masses. However, the incorporation of Marxist concepts in his argument influences the way he approaches politicisation and aestheticism. The incorporation of Marxist politics introduces art to the projects of fascism and communism. Nevertheless, the rigid opposition between the two concepts presupposes the agents of masses and people. Opposition arises from the fact that allowing people to change property relations abstracts offering them an expressive chance to preserve their property. With this view, philosophers present arguments in support of Benjamin’s argument. According to Adorno, Benjamin’s argument in relation to reproduction fails to draw a clear distinction between art and fascism in addition to misusing aestheticism for mass domination and exploitation.

From Adorno’s argument, there is a need to distinguish political conceptions from which art is drawn and political relations in which people invest for the benefit of the society. Although conceptions that are free of ideology do not prevail in politics, they attempt to dominate masses through art. However, insufficient dialecticisation does not account for Benjamin’s unclear distinction between politicisation of art and aestheticisation of politics.

According to Benjamin, the median requires the support of other factors to enhance the politicisation of art. Furthermore, Benjamin’s article is comprehensive as it mentions how artists neutralise the power of art. With reference to Benjamin’s concept of art, it is evident that modernity accounts for revolutionising art. Nevertheless, one can argue that there prevails artistic works that depict the concept of the will to art. With reproduction, new artworks can be produced at different periods in the course of history. The will maintains some of the original concepts in the new work. The will to art sets the environment within which artistic works occur, thus paving the way for artists to incorporate elements that point beyond the original object. Such an argument can be illustrated by Takashi Murakami’s work as depicted by the image in figure 1 below.

In figure 1, Murakami presents a platinum leaf sculptor that is mounted on a carbon. Murakami’s artworks are known to represent various traditional aspects of the Japanese culture. With reference to figure 1, it is evident that Murakami has incorporated various new technological concepts in his artistic works. From the observation of the diagram, one can easily spot the effects of mechanical reproduction. For example, through mechanical reproduction, Murakami is in a position to produce a 3-dimensional photograph. Nevertheless, the diagram introduces new aura that distances the resulting imagination from the original object. Given the attractiveness that the Murakami’s artwork presents, it is evident that a person will choose Murakami’s work over the original. Although the artist tries to incorporate traditional features of the original object, the reproduction has resulted in the incorporation of too many details to the artwork. Such a move accounts for distancing Murakami’s work from the original object and the actual reality. Furthermore, through reproduction, Murakami’s painting assumes a cartoon-like style and the artist maintains creative liberty. Figure 1 is robust and it resembles a beast in the actual world.

Invoking the Vitality of a Universe beyond Imagination
Fig. 1: Invoking the Vitality of a Universe beyond Imagination

With reference to Murakami’s artwork, one can highlight the new aura that is not based on the traditional concepts. However, Benjamin seems to eliminate this concept and he does not hint at the issue of aura that does not depend on the traditional artistic concepts. Meanwhile, one can conclude that perhaps aura, which does not depend on the traditional concepts, designates a different concept. According to philosophers who respond to Benjamin’s article, free associations contribute to the aura that is independent of traditional rituals. From this response, one can question what constitutes features of aura. The response that a spectator receives from an artwork characterises aura. With reference to Benjamin’s aesthetical definition, works of art can hardly lose their exhibition value by inspiring a spectator. One can also conclude that through aestheticism, artworks acquire inexhaustible traits as they offer a spectator, which is more than just a representation of the original object. In contrast, traditional artworks entailed mere representations prior to the period of mechanical reproduction. With the onset of mechanical reproduction, the camera helps in capturing most of the original artistic features, hence the production of an image that reflects the original artwork.

Baudelaire reveals new media as terrifying and cruel although it contributed to diminishing the traditional aura. However, such an argument entails the poet’s motifs that reveal the ephemeral element in relation to the art of reproduction. According to Benjamin, Baudelaire’s concept of aura disintegrates within his poetry, but proceeds to highlight a new form of aura. The poet depicts shock as the aesthetic experience that leads to the generation of a new aura. Primarily, Baudelaire’s argument in relation to aura is a depiction that Benjamin does not address the prevalence of a new form of aura that does not rely on the traditional concepts. According to Baudelaire, the new form of aura occurs in the form of shock, impact, and effects of words, images, and sounds that disrupt the spectators’ perceptions by failing to offer a response. However, the spectator focuses on the critical evaluation of the representation not only in arts, but also in the theatres.

With reference to Benjamin’s article that addresses German playwright, the essay highlights his approach of aesthetics, the concept of art, and aura coupled with how art has revolutionised over time. According to Benjamin, changes in art began with Brecht’s attempts to introduce non-Aristotelian drama. The drama propelled spectators to identifying with the contemporary life, as opposed to the events within the drama. Such drama entails an epic theatre that generates astonishment as opposed to provoking empathy among the spectators. Brecht’s drama introduces allegory features that depict aesthetic aspect that subsumes different kinds of aura. However, with this representation of aesthetic aura, one can hardly draw a link between the will to art and the traditional artistic influences in the past. However, a comprehensive analysis of cinema can reveal artistic changes that depict the transformation of aura in arts.

Conclusion

In the article, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, Benjamin attributes artistic changes to the development of the capitalist society. Economic developments account for reproductions that revolutionise traditional artworks. Benjamin’s article is comprehensive and it introduces readers to a variety of non-artistic concepts. Although the article addresses complex artistic concepts, it is easy to read as it is divided into different sections. Nevertheless, Benjamin has not presented a comprehensive analysis of the new aura that is independent of the traditional artistic concepts.

Bibliography

Adorno, Theodor, Aesthetic Theory (Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 1997).

Benjamin, Walter, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’, in Marxist Literary Criticism, 2015. Web. 

Benjamin, Walter, Illuminations (New York: Schocken Books, 1977).

Benjamin, Walter, Twentieth Century Literature Theory (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1988).

Murakami, Takashi, ‘Invoking the vitality of universe beyond imagination’, in Gagosian Gallery, 2015. Web. 

Rochlitz, Rainer, The Disenchantment of Art: The Philosophy of Walter Benjamin (New York: Guilford Press, 1996).

Weber, Samuel, Mass Mediauras: Forms, Technics, Media (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1996).

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