Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction

Walter Benjamin  has written  a groundbreaking essay “Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” in 1936.  He critiqued the way the images are reproduced and the motivation that drives the idea of art reproduction in the Age of Industrial Revolution. W. Benjamin  was concerned of loosing “aura” of art. The writer observed that the methods of art reproduction were prompted by the advancement of  capitalist society and its productivity. He was implying that  the cultural and political importance of its consequences should be properly estimated by the art lovers. Mass reproduction of art lead to cheapened value of art objects and culture. His article is the foundation for marriage of art  and industry. W. Benjamin's approach to art history and pieces  of art, aesthetic value of art  and its relation to politics to art deserve closer attention than they usually get. His ideas have often been discussed by numerous writers, philosophers, art critiques.

Generally speaking, there are three overlapping points of view. Some authors, for example, Wolin and  Richard in their  Walter Benjamin: An Aesthetic of Redemption analyzed it as  an episode in intellectual  biography of the writer himself.  While other writer chose to analyze the essay simply as an episode  of Marxist theory. (Leslie, 2000) A third point of view is related to the two mentioned above. It  adopts the methods approaches the essay as a part of  the philosophy history. Such philosophers  interpret the views of Benjamin  in order to place the essay within the history of philosophy or  some philosophical  or art theory.  (Riehter, 2002)

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Generally, the main observation of the article written by W. Benjamin is correct, the writer hoped his anti-aesthetic idea described in the essay would confront aesthetics. He  used classic Marxist style with his opening theories.  Benjamin acknowledged fully,  that modern society has very strong influence on the culture perception. He considered the influence of photography on art to be dominant in comparison to the opposite influence the art makes  on photography. (Walter, B. 1936)  

Theodor Adorno, an opponent of W. Benjamin,  was an art critic and philosophy theorist.  He wrote numerous essays on aspects of society and culture, T. Adorno was convinced that the "culture industry" turned  modern people into consumers and the  very possibility of thought and heterogeneity is denied. (Zuideraart, 2003) W. Benjamin took a different approach, more understandable in the post 9/11 crisis culture, where homogeneity is spread by reducing the world to a struggle between democracy and terror. So called “Adorno - Benjamin debate”, often makes readers think  which one of the two Marxist philosophers is right in his ideas  about popular culture. (Sherratt,2002)

Benjamin in his essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” described  casting, stamping, woodcuts, movable type, engraving, etching, lithography as the ways of reproducing the art pieces,  known for a long time.  But only  photography accelerated reproduction in detail and with minimal effort. Today with the introduction of digital photography and digital transmission networks such as the Internet mass reproduction of culture has accelerated enormously.

Photographs represent a fundamentally different way of seeing than paintings do. A photo is a documentary of events and places. Prior to the advent of this technology the eye saw differently. W. Benjamin stated that photography made the human hand  free of the  artistic functions which evolved  to the eye look in the lens. (Walter, B. 1936) Human perception of the world had hardly changed  through the centuries and the influence of photography on our daily lives should not be exaggerated. W. Benjamin  is right in the idea that photography and film have great influence on us and the way the broaden our visual horizons. Modern society has very subtle language  of visual expression thanks to imagery. (Walter, B. 1936)

Benjamin emphasized those most important problems existing in the reproduction of art works. The presence in time and space cannot be replaced by any  mechanical methods. The authenticity lost  in mass reproduction leads to extinction of “aura”.  The philosopher said “Mechanical reproduction of art changes the reaction of the masses toward art” (Walter, B. 1936)

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Benjamin recognized those features of  cultural  and technological  streams during his lifetime that  are still discussed in the contemporary society. Reproduction of images has evolved and progressed enormously since the writing of his essay. Twenty-first century society technology has enabled the general population to take on even a greater critical perspective then Benjamin could ever have foreseen. The means of digital reproduction have reached  high technical standards that permit to reproduce any art works.

Benjamin’s concept of art is pessimistic when it comes to the influence of modern media on the human experience and  consequences on the society. He  identified the strong influence of photography and film on the human perception with great accuracy. (Walter, B. 1936) Obviously, the media today has transformed our understanding of art. W. Benjamin’s thoughts  about photography are true  to any media art forms. The mechanical reproduction possibilities have  changed mass reaction  to art. (Walter, B. 1936)

In our everyday lives we are surrounded by images. As human evolution progresses we are left with a great mass of photographic images that record  social and cultural life. These images are records of our visual heritage that have tremendous  influence  on art. The art pieces are often reproduced for economic reasons. Photographs represent a fundamentally different way of seeing than  paintings do. A photograph is  a documentary of events and places. Cameras became extensions of the human eye. Benjamin stated that photography has made  human hand  free of the most important artistic functionality, instead only  the eye looks on the lens. (Walter, B. 1936) Human perception of reality has hardly changed  from the early centuries until now. The influence of photography is tremendous but it should not be exaggerated. W. Benjamin   correctly estimated the influence of  photography and film and the way they broaden human perception of visual images. The visual language of the modern society became much more subtle thanks to the presence of imagery arts. (Walter, B. 1936)

The authenticity of the work of art adds to its value even today in the digital world of mass copying of every single art piece. If one has a choice, a copy of a painting will not be chosen  instead of its original. Numerous works of art were reproduced in copies, replicas, limited editions and variants.  But no art-lover would prefer Michelangelo's plaster David  the original marble sculpture. On the other hand, when the art object is observed  without knowing that  it is not the original, a person’s experience may not be much different from perception of  the original.

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Benjamin stressed the importance of art reproduction bringing false idea of equality of society. The reality is “adjusted to masses” or rather the sense of adjustment is given by the availability of mass copies of art masterpieces. Benjamin lived his life as an exile so his concepts were limited to sum extent. So his objection sometimes fail to take into account some historical arguments. However, the truth of Benjamin's thoughts about the authenticity of work of art  should be analyzed in the connection  with the historical argument that he makes.  Some opponents argued his  narrative of the  aura history, thus they concluded the essay's idea of the death of the aura might also be under a  question. From another point of view, the objectors brought attention to the fact that Benjamin’s work is  less historical than philosophical. His  essay is  ontology of art.

The decline of the aura in art can be argued, but  the ritual value and the aura, described by W. Benjamin  have changed.  The times have changed  however there is still some ritualistic quality in the cinemas,  music events or art galleries. The politicians can now use art more effectively as a way of propaganda. Numerous innovations in  mechanical reproduction, or  distribution of digital copies and network communication made art and art pieces to be  even more powerful and even more dangerous tool for liberation or oppression.

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