Walter Benjamin’s 1935 essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” begins with the assumption that the very definition of art is flexible, varying in response to the historical conditions of its production, distribution, and reception. The essay addresses a modern, technologically effected transformation in the nature of art, and the political implications of that transformation. Prior to the advent of methods of reproduction such as lithography, photography, sound recording, and film, a work of art was a unique object or performance that could not be experienced except by audience members willing to make a pilgrimage to the artwork’s location. The artwork had an aura, that is, a property of distance from the observer whatever the spatial proximity of the two, which necessitated its being actively pursued via contemplation, yet precluded its ever being fully understood, except by its creator, who had imbued it with its aura in the first place. These rituals of pilgrimage and contemplation were a form of worship that acknowledged the artwork’s cult value, and the unique communion between the artwork and the artist led to the elevation of the latter to the status of genius. Due to its cult value, a product of its unique existence, the art object had value in and of itself, and was in many cases moderately to extremely inaccessible to any who might wish to view it.

Benjamin contrasts these traditional art objects with modern artworks, whose reproductions, as images, film reels, or sound recordings, are mechanically reproduced and distributed widely. In fact, art forms such as film and photography exist purely in the realm of reproduction, so that an original artwork is indistinguishable from its copies and any authenticity that it claims is arbitrary and illegitimate. Mass distributed artistic reproductions are incorporated into the personal contexts of their observers, meeting “the beholder or listener in his own particular situation,” instead of retaining their distance, their aura. In addition, the multiple, indistinguishable copies that replace an art object each convey a less weighty testimony than that conveyed by the unique original which existed before any copies were made. Even if the content of an artwork’s testimony is unaffected by the process of copying, a work of art lacking a unique existence lacks authority as a result. Technological methods of reproduction alone are not responsible for the decline of the aura. The demographic trend by which mass society congealed during the latter half of the nineteenth century led to the adjustment of a former reality to the demands of those masses, who aimed to extract a kernel of content from each original art object, in order to bring that object close to itself, if only in the form of a reproduction. A unique object is too limited to be addressed by a mass, which is defined by the shared experiences of its members.

Robbed of their cult value, reproduced art images are appreciable for their exhibition value only, for the way in which they seek out and influence their audience. However, a counterrevolutionary trend is detectable among even among the most eminently reproduced and reproducible media: The artworks begin to construct auras for themselves or lay claim to an inflexible context. While the modern transformation of art may have begun with a proliferation of isolated reproductions, to be imbued with complete meaning only during the process of their exhibition, a reactionary trend in artistic production responded to this crisis by situating each artistic image within an externally defined context
For the first time, captions have become obligatory. And it is clear that they have an altogether different character than the title of a painting. The directives which captions give to those looking at illustrated pictures in magazines soon become even more explicit and more imperative in the film where the meaning of each single picture appears to be prescribed by the sequence of all preceding ones.
While filmmaking can be image based, instead of narrative based, the latter technique predominates, especially within mass culture. This regressive tendency reclaims the freedom of interpretation granted to audience members viewing free-form films such as Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera (1929). Benjamin labels as “ultrareactionary” those film critics who claim that films have a “contextual significance”, and yet, he acknowledges the possibility that many films do in fact have such significance, having been imbued with it by ultrareactionary filmmakers.

Benjamin claims that the precise reproduction of film reels removes the aura of those films, while enabling the identical film to be screened multiple times in multiple locations to multiple audiences. This situation leads to unique possibilities for the reception of film vis-à-vis the reception of stage performances. Whereas a live theatrical performance is inviolate and must be addressed in its entirety, a film consists of a “sequence of positional views” taken on the part of the camera, so that the action that the camera records is fragmented visually, as well as frequently having been fragmented and disordered actually during the process of filming. In addition, a stage actor can gauge the reactions of his audience and vary his performance accordingly, whereas a film actor presents his performance only to an impassive movie camera. The intended audience, whom the actor will never address directly, observes him as if from behind a one-way glass. Observing as they do actors who have been deprived of their aura enacting situations that have been deprived of their continuity, film audiences are endowed with a different subjectivity than that with which they had previously observed cult objects. This subjectivity is not wholly one of analysis and objectivity, however. While in general, reproduced art images, which an observer can address within his own chosen context, free that observer from any authoritative meaning that the object might fascistically impose, most films preclude the observer’s abandoning himself to his own associations.

To Benjamin, the key distinction between traditional and transformed art forms, which he represents as easel painting and film, respectively, is that the former are addressed in a state of concentration, while the latter are addressed in a state of distraction. Because an audience member viewing a film is not permitted to individually experience the viewing of that film as an outgrowth of the film’s interactions with the audience member’s own unique existence, his concentration is irrelevant, and the ensuing distraction with which he views the film places him in a position of vulnerability to persuasion. Benjamin sees this receptive state as one lending itself to the absorption of progressive messages, inciting the audience to take into their own hands the redistribution of property, for instance. However, his contention that the modern, art viewing “public is an examiner, but an absent-minded one” is weak. The conclusion that transformed art is progressive because it enables its audience to address it critically while remaining receptive to its persuasion rests on the bizarre assumption that analysis does not require attention.

As he originally wrote it, Benjamin’s Artwork essay affirmed technologically mediated mass culture and its political potential. He proposed that in order for a work of art to retain its cult status, its audience must give credence to the concepts of “creativity and genius, eternal value and mystery”, concepts which are also prerequisite for “processing of data in the Fascist sense”. As a result, the atomization of the experience of art that he observed, a process associated with a repudiation of those concepts, would by necessity lead to receptive conditions antithetic to fascism. However, the essay’s 1936 coda reverses some of its former hopefulness, observing that the technological reproduction that had aestheticized everyday life had also aestheticized politics. This transformation effected a sensory alienation whereby an observer could receive sensory pleasure from the patterns set up the wartime destruction or spectacular sublimation into a leader of the crowd of which he was a member. This state of mind was crucial for subjects of fascism. However, this phenomenon does not negate the Benjamin’s progressive definition of artistic materialism, it merely means that the cinematic medium did not in fact develop in a materialistic fashion. Films such as Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will (1935) revealed the possibility of constructing seemingly perfect, inviolate, distance artifice using all of the artistic techniques of fragmentation. “The thoroughgoing permutation of reality with mechanical equipment” had produced an artwork consisting not of “an aspect of reality which is free from all equipment”, but instead consisting of a complete alternate world, a regimented, aestheticized state into which individuals could be drawn by its very beauty.

Works cited

Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”. Illuminations. Ed. Hannah Arendt. Trans. Harry Zohn. New York: Schocken Books, 1969.

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