Finally got round to reading Benjamin’s famous essay. I would like to say I fully understood it – but I think I know insufficient about Marxist theory to claim that. Whatever it is clear from the opening that Benjamin believes that his theory provides a way of formulating “revolutionary demands in the politics of art”, in opposition to what he describes as “outmoded concepts” such as creativity and genius which he suggests tend to support a Fascist world view.
The first chapter is a brief summary of the development of art technology, noting those areas where a level of manual reproduction had previously been available – such as woodcut or lithography.
He notes that photography, for the first time, “freed the hand of the most important artistic functions which henceforth devolved only upon the eye looking into a lens.” The speed at which this was possible allowed the development of film so that the overall impact of photography was two-fold - it allowed widespread reproduction and also, through film, took its place among artistic processes.
He goes on, in the next couple of chapters to introduce the idea of an “aura” for a work of art. Manual methods of reproduction rely on the presence of an original, an authentic, object which has a time and place – an aura. Mechanical reproduction on the other hand can continue to reproduce without that original to copy – Benjamin argues that this diminishes the aura of the original although in fairness I struggle with his argument at this point. His argument appears to hinge on two aspects of reproduction – the independence of the method from the original which allows it to highlight aspects of the original not previously perceived, and the ability of the copy to find its way to places out of reach of the original e.g. a symphony orchestra in my dining room.
In destroying the aura he suggests that the work of art is removed from its dependence on ritual and starts to be based on politics. Perhaps that is why there was never a painterly equivalent of social documentary, and helps explain why political pamphlets had to wait on the advent of the printing press.
In Chapter 5 he sets up an opposition between art with cult status and art with exhibition status. As reproduction moves art from cult to exhibition status through its increasing availability to the “masses” it also starts to change art. In particular the need to stand and contemplate the work is diminished and captions are developed to add meaning. He suggests that this change in the nature of art was overlooked in 19 and early 20th century discussions on whether film and photography constituted “arts”.
He goes on the compare film and theatre acting, noting that the cameras viewpoint allows the viewer to act as a critic, to become an expert, which is inimical to a cult value for art and also that the ability of film in particular to simulate reality through cutting and editing takes art away from the realm of “beautiful semblance”. A similar argument could perhaps be forwarded for Photoshop.
In Chapter 10 he appears to argue that cinematic practice in Russia is essentially democratic, available to, or at least involving non-experts, and contrast this with the “illusion promoting spectacles and dubious speculation” of Western cinema which he argues denies the individuals right to be reproduced – again there seems to be some interesting insight here for the rise of digital phenomenon such as selfies, Snapchat etc.
In the next few chapters he appears, to me at least, to be labouring the point about the ability of film/photography to provide art for mass consumption, as a consequence of which the “masses” (there they are again) can develop a progressive taste for the new art forms as opposed to its generally reactionary response to modern art. He also draws a parallel between the ability of the relatively new science of psycho-analysis to highlight slips of the tongue – the Freudian slip – and the ability of film ad photography to make visible that which was previously unseen.
He appears to conclude this section by suggesting that as the masses can be distracted by these new art forms they can be unconsciously mobilised to resist fascism by these new art forms – in other words by politicising art.
I’m not sure what to make of all this really. As a theory it certainly helps explain some of the thinking behind Constructivist art, but at the same time I can’t help observing that given the choice the “masses” prefer Disney to Eisenstein, and that art cinema is now pretty much the domain of the intellectual.
Benjamin, Walter (2012-10-11). The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, Prism Key Press. Kindle Edition.