The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction – Walter Benjamin (1936)

I found this essay quite challenging to read but after reading through approximately three times I found I grasped a lot of the concepts. This made for a rewarding experience and made me think hard concerning the original art work’s (and indeed the photograph’s) authenticity.

Benjamin (1936) asserts technically reproducing the original work of art is not as simple a concept as copying or ‘forgery’ as was the case with manual reproduction. Benjamin identifies two reasons for this. Firstly, framing the technical reproduction of the work of art in space and time is independent of the original art work. Therefore Benjamin states the authority of the original art work is undermined. The fact the technical reproduction allows the work of art to become mobile (albeit without the inherent authenticity) in its new form is the second reason. Factors for me which diminish authenticity include its apparent quality, scale and perspective.

Benjamin attributes loss of aura of the original work of art as the defining characteristic of mechanical reproduction: ‘that which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art.’ – (Benjamin, 1936:74). In fact I would argue the technically reproduced photograph for instance can be a work of art in its own right. This is because of the characteristics that undermine the original’s authenticity. For example spatial variables in how the technical reproduction was made (like framing in a photograph) make the original appear different. This varies from photograph to photograph of the same original art work. For me as more and more of these photographs appear of the same subject, the original art work loses further aura. This is because the ‘new’ works of art (the technically reproduced photographs) are instated in their own image world or furthermore are appropriated by other artists. As well as this the convenience (especially nowadays) of the technically reproduced photograph can be a factor for loss of aura of the original. So many people tend to photograph certain art objects that it suffers from loss of aura in this manner.

Benjamin wasn’t of the opinion that this loss of aura was a negative aspect on the part of mechanical reproduction. According to Benjamin the original art work possesses a cult value while the reproduction an exhibition value. The values of film/photography are both artistic and scientific and have the power to transform seemingly mundane aspects of life into new studies the human eye can’t naturally perceive: ‘Evidently a different nature opens itself to the camera than opens to the naked eye – if only because an unconsciously penetrated space is substituted for a space consciously explored by man.’ – (Benjamin, 1936:78).

Here Benjamin makes a case for film/photography’s transformation of the object into something hitherto unseen because of the optics of the camera. I feel this is a strong case, although the aura of the object is at the same time eroded, which Benjamin admits earlier in the essay: ‘that which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art.’ – (Benjamin, 1936:74). However, it is certainly more positive than Kracauer’s point of view, where he stated: ‘the resemblance between the image and the object effaces the contours of the object’s “history”.’ – Kracauer, 1927:58). I do somewhat agree with Kracauer on this point, especially in retrospect nowadays with the proliferation of images of certain art works or landmarks for instance. I do feel though Benjamin brings another aspect to this argument (making a case for film/photography’s transformation of the object into something hitherto unseen because of the optics of the camera) which is a valid one.

References:

Benjamin, W. (1999) ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ In: Evans, J. and Hall, S. (eds.) Visual Culture: A Reader. London: SAGE Publications Ltd. pp. 72-79.

Kracauer, S. (1927/1995) The Mass Ornament: Weimar Essays. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

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