"Segne den Becher, welcher überfließen will, daß das Wasser golden aus ihm fließe und überallhin den Abglanz deiner Wonne trage!" – Nietzsche

A brief response to Benjamin’s “Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”

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I have a confession to make – I have never until quite recently read Walter Benjamin’s Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. It’s an embarrassing admission for me – akin to a film buff admitting that they’ve never seen The Godfather, or worse. If you haven’t read it yourself and would like to, you can find it here in English and here in German.

Now that I’ve read it and spent some time analyzing it I can understand why it attracts so much discussion. It seems to me that much of the productive appeal of The Work of Art lies largely in its beguiling invitation to the reader to try to understand and resolve the hermeneutic fissures that cleave it. In my reading, Benjamin was averse to comprehensive systematization, and preferred to apply and juxtapose new analytical frameworks on problems of perennial interest, and in this work we encounter fault lines where he has applied dissimilar systems to his persisting interest in a certain kind of experience – to wit, a disclosure of what he characterized in his early writings on Romantic aesthetics as the immanent absolute. One of the primary tensions that drives The Work of Art is the contradiction between this mystical-existential modality and his burgeoning interest in Marxist ideology criticism.

In my reading, this work has two primary interpretive challenges. The first is understanding what he means by this statement in the introduction:

[T]heses about the art of the proletariat after its assumption of power or about the art of a classless society would have less bearing on these demands than theses about the developmental tendencies of art under present conditions of production. Their dialectic is no less noticeable in the superstructure than in the economy. It would therefore be wrong to underestimate the value of such theses as a weapon. They brush aside a number of outmoded concepts, such as creativity and genius, eternal value and mystery—concepts whose uncontrolled (and at present almost uncontrollable) application would lead to a processing of data in the Fascist sense. The concepts which are introduced into the theory of art in what follows differ from the more familiar terms in that they are completely useless for the purposes of Fascism.

On the surface, Benjamin appears to associate the concepts of genius and creativity with fascism and warns against their “uncontrolled application,” suggesting that a social criticism of aesthetics prevents his analysis from being misappropriated by fascists. The meaning of this statement, to which he returns to in the epilog, remains largely unexplained, and is to me somewhat inexplicable.

The second interpretive dilemma pertains to what exactly he means by “aura,” which the work of art has hitherto possessed, but which now “decays” in the age of mechanical reproduction. For reasons of his own, he refrains from analyzing or explaining this core concept, and much ink has been spilled in trying to elucidate its meaning.

So what does he tell us about it, exactly? I read in secondary literature that Benjamin’s earliest extant discussion of the concept of aura is preserved in a notebook describing the influence of hashish. This makes a certain amount of sense.

In an earlier work on photography, he defines the aura as “A strange weave of space and time; the unique appearance or semblance of distance, no matter how close it may be.” In The Work of Art he distinguishes between the natural aura, repeating this definition, and the artificial aura, which primarily refers to the “uniqueness” of the work of art – the fact of its having only one historical actuality. In this sense, the loss of “aura” means nothing more than the fact that our traditional aesthetic categories, which have depended on the uniqueness of works of art, have been displaced by new considerations, and will have to be reevaluated.

I have argued at ponderous length with other readers of this text on this point, but it’s clear to me from how he uses the term “aura” that he means much more by it than historical singularity, and conceives the loss of aura as a phenomenon tied to a decline of certain kinds of existential experiences of profound value that he is deeply concerned with. The narrative he describes of the various ways that works of art have claimed autonomy and authority for themselves is one of movement from the cultic ritual value of art to the veneration of “art pour l’art” aesthetics to the logic of mass manipulation that he sees exemplified by film, which “shocks” and motivates the masses, and replaces the act of art criticism which he has elsewhere described as a kind of mystical or sacred office of truth-disclosure into a kind of mass-market “anyone with a blog can say anything these days” situation.

It’s my view that it is precisely by refraining from critically analyzing the aura, he posits it as an irreducible category of direct experience and a locus of value, thus insisting upon its givenness and non-rational character.

In another writing, Benjamin claims that regarding the loss of aura as “merely a symptom of decay” would be “fatuous,” which would seem to suggest he doesn’t see it as a kind of nostalgia for a more innocent time. But he left me with little doubt in his application of the term in this essay that this is how he uses it, whether or not it’s what it necessarily means.

I found his discussion of reproduction a little thin – for example, in his analysis of the cult he neglected what I would consider an important precursor to mechanical reproduction, and in so doing, misread the character of cult art substantially. Specifically, I would argue that the production of iconic art is a form of reproduction.

In this sense, iconic art refers to works of art that are valued not in terms of their unique content, but insofar as they duplicate established types. Anyone who has walked through a gallery of Italian Renaissance art and seen canvas after canvas depicting with formulaic fidelity the Annunciation or the Virgin Enthroned with Child will recognize that was is principally salient about many of these paintings is their expression of a sacred formula. This is a characteristic of most cult art, from the thangkas of Tibet, with their rigorously-determined proportions and attributes, to the cases of Cycladic Bronze Age goddess sculptures you can view in the Louvre, displaying dozens of nearly-identical design created over the span of centuries. I think it opens up the concept of reproduction to recognize that it occurs on many different planes.


May 2018 note: I substantially re-wrote this post after additional close readings of the essay and several useful discussions about it with a study group. 


Written by Mesocosm

April 14, 2018 at 3:32 am

Posted in Uncategorized

4 Responses

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  1. Thanks. You’ve written a clear analysis of what sounds like a rather murky theory.

    Keep ’em coming 🙂

    Anne Campbell

    April 14, 2018 at 6:49 pm

  2. Critical reason arises as the preferred tool of resistance—which is a negative function—against the abuse of authoritarianism and extremism when the need for reason arises from a search for truth and certainty, decoupled from a quest for meaning that embraces paradox and tragedy—a reflection that is made as I leave behind me the S21 prison museum of the Cambodian killing fields in Phnom Pehn. What is to be said of the “aura” and “reproducibility” of these photographic “works” on display in this non-museum museum, hovering in the margins of “art history” not unlike light being fatally sucked into a black hole?

    “Science describes accurately from outside, poetry describes accurately from inside. Science explicates, poetry implicates. Both celebrate what they describe. We need the languages of both science and poetry to save us from merely stockpiling endless “information” that fails to inform our ignorance or our irresponsibility.”

    — Ursula K. Le Guin


    April 14, 2018 at 9:30 pm

    • Thanks Marcherman, that’s interesting. I’ve been reading an essay by Manfred Frank on mythology and poetry in the German Romantics which makes a series of similar claims – to wit, that the disenchantment of the world by analytical reason dissolves solidarity by depriving mental experience of positive content, thus preserving a solely-negative function. It’s increasingly clear to me that the negative dialectics of critical theory are to a substantial degree a continuation of the criticism of the Enlightenment that goes back to the Romantics.

      I myself have very little nostalgia for such mythological solidarity. I’m not sure critics of disenchantment often grapple with the stark historical reality that solidarity has itself a largely negative function, negating in-group differences, coercing conformity, and positing a metaphysical gulf between in-groups and outsiders.


      April 14, 2018 at 10:43 pm

      • The visit to the Killing Fields S21 museum inevitably reminded me of a Christian Boltanski exhibition I saw in Bologna, Italy, last year. Boltanski, as you may know, is a French artist who works with photography, seeking to connect art with life and (re)generate shared cultural memories. “The fascinating moment for me is when the spectator hasn’t registered the art connection, and the longer I can delay this association the better.” — CB, an interesting alternative to Benjamin’s idea of aura it seems to me. This has little or nothing to do with a Romantic art-as-religion idea, nor does this suspension of reason necessarily lead to an abandon thereof in favour of a mythico-nostalgic mindset from which—and I agree with your suspicion of tribalism of any kind—“cultural memories” of the worst kind can arise, even more so as they are “shared”.


        April 15, 2018 at 12:31 am

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