Sunday, September 25, 2011

Walter Benjamin's The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction


Walter Benjamin’s The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction focuses on the changes in art as a medium, both cultural and social, by the invention of mechanical reproduction. 

The following quote by Paul Valery from the very beginning of the article aptly sums up the progression of the future of art:

We must expect great innovations to transform the entire technique of the arts, thereby affecting artistic invention itself and perhaps even bringing about an amazing change in our very notion of art.

Benjamin begins by describing the idea of authenticity and aura as it pertains to art.  In painting, there is the perception that there is only one original, which contains and aura, and that any copy or reproduction is a forgery, and therefore inauthentic, and does not contain an aura.  Benjamin writes, “that which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art.”

Benjamin points out that “lithography enabled graphic art to illustrate everyday life,” and that “only a few decades after its invention, lithography was surpassed by photography.”  This shift freed the production of images from the artist’s hand and allowed a greater focus on the visual.  I was interested in Benjamin’s points about how the camera can capture more than the eye can see. 

In photography, process reproduction can bring out those aspects of the original that are unattainable to the naked eye yet accessible to the lens, which is adjustable and chooses its angle at will.  And photographic reproduction, with the aid of certain processes, such as enlargement or slow motion, can capture images which escape natural vision. 

He continues to discuss the idea of reproduction bringing the original work into a context it otherwise would never reach, such as the ease of displaying a marble bust in different locations versus bringing viewers to a fixed statue, or listening to a recording of a choral production while in one’s studio.  In this way, mechanical reproduction plays into a type of socialism, making available to the masses what was once an elite experience.  Benjamin writes:

With the advent of the first truly revolutionary means of reproduction, photography, simultaneous with the rise of socialism, art sensed the approaching crisis which has become evident a century later.

Also integral to this article is the idea between art being created for the ritual, or spiritual realm, and art created with the intention of being viewed or exhibited.  Earlier forms of art were created solely for the cult purpose, while more modern forms of art are being created with exhibition as their intention.  Benjamin writes:

For the first time in world history, mechanical reproduction emancipates the work of art from its parasitical dependence on ritual.  To an ever greater degree the work of art reproduced becomes the work of art designed for reproducibility.  From a photographic negative, for example, one can make any number of prints; to ask for the “authentic” print makes no sense.  But the instant the criterion of authenticity ceases to be applicable to artistic production, the total function of art is reversed.  Instead of being based on ritual, it begins to be based on another practice- politics.

He continues to relate these ideas to photography specifically.

With the different methods of technical reproduction of a work of art, its fitness for exhibition increased to such an extent that the quantitative shift between its two poles turns into a qualitative transformation of its nature.  This is comparable to the situation of the work of art in prehistoric times when, but the absolute emphasis on its cult value, it was, first and foremost, an instrument of magic.  Only later did it come to be recognized as a work of art.  In the same way today, by the absolute emphasis on its exhibition value the work of art becomes a creation with entirely new functions, among which the one we are conscious of, the artistic function, later may be recognized as incidental.  This much is certain: today photograph and the film are the most serviceable exemplifications of this new function. 

He continues to speak about the film specifically and how it is fundamentally different from both painting and theatre. 

The artistic performance of a stage actor is definitely presented to the public by the actor in person; that of the screen actor, however, is presented by a camera, with a twofold consequence…  Guided by the cameraman, the camera continually changes its position with respect to the performance…  It comprises certain factors of movement which are in reality those of the camera, not to mention special camera angles, close-ups, etc.  Hence, the performance of the actor is subject to a series of optical tests. 

He also describes how film denies the actor the ability to interact with his audience and to present himself to them in person.  Rather, he is solitarily projecting into a camera, knowing he will eventually be seen and criticized by a public he cannot see or be aware of at the time of performance. 

While facing the camera he knows that ultimately he will face the public, the consumers who constitute the market.  This market, where he offers not only his labor but also his whole self, his heart and soul, is beyond his reach. 

The disconnect between the actor and the public allows the public to play the role of the critic through the viewpoint of the camera, passively watching the film as an absent-minded viewer, as opposed to really deeply engaging with the art as was previously mentioned necessary to viewing painting or theatre in person. 

I also really enjoyed Benjamin’s comparison of the painter and cameraman to that of a magician and surgeon. 

Magician and surgeon compare to painter and cameraman.  The painter maintains in his work a natural distance from reality, the cameraman penetrates deeply into its web.  There is a tremendous difference between the pictures they obtain.

He also addresses the issue of art being presentable to the masses, arguing that painting was designed to be viewed by only a few people at a time.  And perhaps, by larger numbers of people through ritual and the passage of time, such as a cathedral painting.  Film, on the other hand, was designed from the beginning to be easily available to the masses and viewed by many people simultaneously. 

Painting simply is in no position to present an object for simultaneous collective experience, as it was possible for architecture at all times, for the epic poem in the past, and for the movie today…  Although paintings began to be publicly exhibited in galleries and salons, there was no way for the masses to organize and control themselves in their reception. Thus the same public which responds in a progressive manner toward a grotesque film is bound to respond in a reactionary manner to surrealism. 

He continues to speak to how human behavior can be much more closely analyzed in a film than it can be in a painting, and how capturing human behavior on film did not merely make it available to a wider audience, it changed how it was perceived.

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 explore by man. 

In Man with the Movie Camera, filmmaker Dziga Vertov utilizes a modern, avante-garde approach to film-making.  Ignoring a linear or narrative style, he instead films a variety of moments in the life of a common man and edits them together in a somewhat random fashion.  The point is not to tell a story, but to show a series of moments together in an experimental style, focusing on the possibilities of film to take viewers somewhere they have never been before.  He also focuses heavily on industry and machinery and how they affect life, which is parallel to the way he is using film to create a new visual experience.  He uses many innovative camera techniques, such as double exposures, slow motion, and freeze-frames. 

I found the following on Wikipedia, and I especially enjoyed the last sentence.  It related Vertov’s intentions as a filmmaker to Walter Benyamin’s article.

The film also features a few obvious stagings such as the scene of a woman getting out of bed and getting dressed and the shot of chess pieces being swept to the center of the board (a shot spliced in backwards so the pieces expand outward and stand in position). The film was criticized for both the stagings and the stark experimentation, possibly as a result of its director's frequent assailing of fiction film as a new "opiate of the masses.”

Leni Riefenstahl’s film Triumph of the Will is quite different.  It is a propaganda piece commissioned by Adolf Hitler that chronicles the 1934 Nazi Party Congress which was attended by more than 700,000 Nazi supporters.  In contrast to Vertov’s film, Triumph of the Will has a very clear narrative storyline and intended message.  It has a very clear intended meaning and is a vehicle used to spread political propaganda.  Vertov’s film, however, focuses much more on the abstract of the every day life and leaves interpretation and experience completely up to the viewer. 


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