Friday, October 2, 2009

Thoughts on Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction by W. Benjamin

Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” was written in 1935; a time when communism, facism, and capitalism were clashing forcefully, and when film had just risen to become a powerful and transformative means of communication and art. In this piece Benjamin focuses on analyzing the impact that mechanical reproduction has had on art. The main strand of his argument is that mechanical reproduction has transformed art from a phenomenon that is focused and ritual to one that is focused on politics.

If we define both politics broadly, to mean something such as “social relations involving intrigue to gain authority or power” (Princeton), then I am mostly in agreement with his view. That said, it is important that I qualify my viewpoint through further explation. I agree that art was transformed from a practice that mostly supported existing traditions, to one that uses aesthetics to communicate ideas that are often (or ate least occasionally) new with the intent of shifting power and/or authority. This is not to say that all modern (or film-based) art is political. Also, one can argue that by supporting the existing establishments and institutions art was already political (though not necessarily supportive of a political-dialogue).

Though at first I felt that Benjamin had a negative perspective on the film and photography, this perception changed by the end of the article. The reason I felt that Benjamin did not like these new media was his assertions about art loosing its authenticity through film and photography, and objects loosing their aura. Benjamin believes that an object’s authenticity is closely tied to its “unique existence”, in a similar way that the “aura” of any object is tied to its unique existence in time and space. I agree with Benjamin that important aspects associated to these dimensions are lost on mechanically reproducible media. This is not good or bad, it is only a consideration for an artist when choosing a media in which to communicate.

“Reproduction enables the original to meet the beholder halfway, be it in the form of a photograph or a phonograph record. The cathedral leaves its locale to be received in the studio of a lover of art; the choral production, performed in an auditorium or in the open air, resounds in the drawing room.” In this quote, Benjamin points out how technical reproduction technology has altered art’s long-standing relationship with time, space, and physical condition. These modern media can be experienced simultaneously across time and location, are easily transportable. Also, they do not lend themselves to physical analysis and authenticity requirements.

Another important notion that interested me in this reading was about how film’s shock value helped popularize art. This is an important phenomenon because the mere reproducibility of art did not necessarily widen its appeal beyond people who already enjoyed art but did not have the means to experience it. Not only did film and photography make art more available, but it also created new types of images that had power to engage the “distracted masses”.

A few interesting trends that Benjamin identified early included the notion that we are trading experience of objects’ with auras for the ability to experience a much wider number of objects. However, these new objects are transitory nature rather than permanent (or at least longer lasting). This trend has picked up more steam with the recent evolution from reproducing pictures on a physical pages and videos on physical cassettes to virtual ones.

Another tend he identified was the changing relationship between author and public. “The distinction between author and public is about to lose its basic character. The difference becomes merely functional.” Again this is something that has greatly evolved in the last decade with the rise of the internet, and blogging in particular.

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