following is a write up by Kusumika Mitra
‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ by Walter Benjamin is a seminal essay that talks about how the advancement in technology, the emergence of new techniques has affected our perception of art. Structurally the essay has been divided into fifteen different sections with a preface and an epilogue. Each section deals with a separate aspect and contains arguments that the author successfully connects to the main argument of the essay.
Walter Benjamin begins by talking about the shift in the process of reproduction of image and the relationship of this shift with the society. He traces the reproduction of art from the hand (when a student tries to copy his master’s painting), to mechanical (lithography) and digital (photography) and says that with each of these shifts, the human effort decreases and the work becomes easier. Imitation has always been known to mankind. However with the coming in of mechanical reproduction (be it printing, lithography, photography), not only was there a development in the techniques but also the process of reproduction became faster. The author tries to explore the effects that the reproduction of art and the film as a medium have had on traditional art.
Walter Benjamin believes that time and space are two elements that can never be reproduced while reproducing any work of art. When a piece of art is created, it is done at a particular time and within a certain space. It is this that makes the work original and authentic. This particular time and space cannot be recreated. Thus the reproduced work cannot claim authenticity because authenticity lies in tradition. With the practice of reproducing works of art and recreating them, inevitably comes the question of authority. Benjamin believes that in the case of manual reproduction, the work reproduced is seen as forgery and thus the initial work of art maintains its originality and authority. However this is not the case with mechanical reproduction. The process of mechanical reproduction is independent of the original. For example, a painting put up in the museum can be captured by a camera and then later be reproduced in any studio in the form of a photograph. The original portrait need not be present in the studio while reproducing it. However during the process of manual reproduction, the painter needs to sit in front of the original and make a copy of it. Also due to mechanical reproduction the work of art is used in many situations where the presence of the original is not possible. For example a cathedral is captured through photography and put in an art studio. Thus though the original cannot be present inside the studio, a copy of it substitutes it. However Benjamin believes that though the mechanically reproduced work of art takes the place of the original under certain situations, there is something that gets lost in the process- the authenticity of the work of art. According to Benjamin, the authenticity of the work lies mainly in the history that the work has experienced. Thus it is the history of a work that determines its authenticity. Therefore this authenticity is lost in reproduction. Benjamin uses the term ‘aura’ to describe the element that gets lost in reproduction. Due to reproduction of a work of art the uniqueness is lost. With the medium of mechanical reproduction coming in, the number of copies of the ‘unique’ work of art increases. Thus its uniqueness decreases. In the absence of the mechanical reproduction, the aura is a natural one. Benjamin gives the example of a mountain and says that the shadow that is created by the mountain is a natural one and when we perceive it we know for sure that we cannot own it. However with the emergence of various techniques like photography and films, the same scene is captured and reproduced. Accessing it no longer become experiencing it but just visually seeing an image.
Art has always been known to be connected to tradition. It is context sensitive. Thus when a piece of art is created it is seen as a beautiful or an object of veneration by a group of people but the same creation is seen as ominous by another set of people. It is ritual based. But with the coming of mechanical reproduction, art no longer remains ritual based. In the age of secularization art becomes ‘art for art’s sake’. It is not as much based on rituals as much as on politics.
Benjamin also feels that with the introduction of techniques of reproduction of art, the emphasis has shifted from the cult value to the exhibition value. Earlier art was seen as something mystical and something that needed to be practiced in secrecy. This gave art its cult value. But with the coming of photography and films, art came to be for the masses. It got caught up in the economy and was seen as a source of profit. The value of art depended on the display of the work of art in public. This thus became the exhibition value. With the shift from cult to exhibition value, the quality of art also underwent a change.
Talking about the medium of film and the film actor, Benjamin believes that the actor and the audience are not in contact with each other. The actor is optically tested and the best of his shots, as judged by the director are compiled together and this is what the audience gets to see. Thus we are removed from the original actor and what we see is nothing but the manipulations of the camera. Again going back to talking about artistic aura, the author believes that though the actor does have an aura, this is a forged or a made up aura. The moment the person faces the camera, he is exiled from his own original self; he gets into the role of the character that he enacts. It is here where he maintains an aura (this aura is the aura of the character and not of the actor himself). Benjamin believes that this aura is forged because the moment the shot is over the actor gets out of the character and comes back to being himself. The aura too then vanishes. Benjamin also stresses on the fact that actors are individuals who have a false personality. This he says is because the actor becomes popular in the eyes of the audience because of the aura that he creates. This aura as Benjamin earlier points out is not the actor’s own but the character’s that he enacts. Thus he becomes famous because of the many illusions that he creates.
Talking about the painter and the cameraman, Benjamin believes that the painter maintains the aura of the work by keeping a distance from the work of art. On the other hand the cameraman destroys this aura by minimizing the distance from the desired object. Though Benjamin criticizes films for destroying the aura and tampering with authenticity and originality, he also appreciated films for increasing the audience’s visual perception. This gives rise to a deeper engagement and a closer study and thus understanding of the medium.
After talking about the nature of art in the age of new technological advancement, he concludes his essay by talking about the anti- art movement or Dadaism. He emphasizes on how this movement too destroyed the aura of art and aimed at shocking the audience with unfamiliar and dissimilar images. Thus it can be noted that Benjamin’s conception of art is classical and thus it will not be wrong to conclude that Benjamin saw art to be deteriorating in the age of mechanical reproduction.