Notes for Walter Benjamin “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”

Key concepts: alienation, aura, cinema, critical media theory, mechanical reproduction, pictorial reproduction, ritual, self-alienation.

Develops consequences of mechanical reproduction freeing work of art from dependence on ritual, while losing aura. Focus shifts to what can be mass reproduced. Theater, transformed into cinema, loses its dynamic interaction with the audience; alienation of performer. New equipment-free aesthetic. I suggest that being able to reflect via electronic media the audience can provide the feedback lost. Expansion of space in the close-up; extension of movement in slow motion expands analysis of phenomena and subjectivity. Necessity of war to maintain property relations.

Related theorists: Aarseth, Baudrillard, Dumit, Pierre Levy, Manovich, McLuhan.

In all the arts there is a physical component which can no longer be considered or treated as it used to be, which cannot remain unaffected by our modern knowledge and power. (Valery)


(I) With lithography the technique of reproduction reached an essentially new stage. . . . For the first time in the process of pictorial reproduction, photography freed the hand of the most important artistic functions which henceforth devolved only upon the eye looking into a lens. Since the eye perceives more swiftly than the hand can draw, the process of pictorial reproduction was accelerated so enormously that it could keep pace with speech.

Acceleration of capture from photography to cinema points toward VR of consciousness, dreams.

(II) The presence of the original is the prerequisite to the concept of authenticity.
(II) Confronted with its manual reproduction, which was usually branded as a forgery, the original preserved all its authority; not so vis a vis technical reproduction. First, process reproduction is more independent of the original than manual reproduction. . . . Second, technical reproduction can put the copy of the original into situations which would be out of reach for the original itself. . . . Since the historical testimony rests on the authenticity, the former, too, is jeopardized by reproduction when substantive duration ceases to matter.

Withering aura of work of art picked up by many theorists, including Baudrillard.

(II) One might subsume the eliminated element in the term 'aura' and go on to say: that which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art. This is a symptomatic process whose significance points beyond the realm of art. One might generalize by saying: the technique of reproduction detaches the reproduced object from the domain of tradition. . . . Their most powerful agent is the film. Its social significance, particularly in its most positive form, is inconceivable without its destructive, cathartic aspect, that is, the liquidation of the traditional value of the cultural heritage.

Contrast his sense with emphasis on social causes to McLuhan; consider Manovich codetermination by cultural and technological aspects.

(III) During long periods of history, the mode of human sense perception changes with humanity's entire mode of existence. The manner in which human sense perception is organized, the medium in which it is accomplished, is determined not only by nature but by historical circumstances as well. . . . And if changes in the medium of contemporary perception can be comprehended as decay of the aura, it is possible to show its social causes.
(III) Namely, the desire of contemporary masses to bring things 'closer' spatially and humanly, which is just as ardent as their bent toward overcoming the uniqueness of every reality by accepting its reproduction. . . . To pry an object from its shell, to destroy its aura, is the mark of a perception whose 'sense of the universal equality of things' has increased to such a degree that it extracts it even from a unique object by means of reproduction. Thus is manifested in the field of perception what in the theoretical sphere is noticeable in the increasing importance of statistics.
(IV) The uniqueness of a work of art is inseparable form its being imbedded in the fabric of tradition. . . . We know that the earliest works originated in the service of a ritual – first the magical, then the religious kind.

With mechanical reproduction we thus make mass entertainment like cinema, radio, television, print rather than individual spectacles that cannot be recorded, and when spectacles, mass spectacles like rock concerts.

(IV) 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.
(V) Works of art are received and valued on different planes. Two polar types stand out: with one, the accent is on the cult value; with the other, on the exhibition value of the work.
(V) With the different methods of technical reproduction of work of art, its fitness for exhibition increased to such an extent that the quantitative shift between its two poles turned into a qualitative transformation of its nature.

From free-floating contemplation to involvement in hidden political significance and specific approaches to appreciation.

(VI) With Atget, photographs become standard evidence for historical occurrences, and acquire a hidden political significance. They demand a specific kind of approach; free-floating contemplation is not appropriate for them. . . . For the first time, captions have become obligatory. And it is clear that they have an altogether different character than the title of a painting.
(VII) But the difficulties which photography caused traditional aesthetics were mere child's play as compared to those raised by the film. . . . Characteristically, even today ultrareactionary authors give the film a similar contextual significance – if not an outright scared one, then at least a supernatural one.
(VIII) 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. The camera that presents the performance of the film actor to the public need not respect the performance as an integral whole. . . . Also, the film actor lacks the opportunity of the stage actor to adjust to the audience during his performance. . . . Consequently, the audience takes the position of the camera, its approach is that of testing. This is not the approach to which cult values may be exposed.

Benjamin grounds much of critical media theory: theater, transformed into cinema, loses its dynamic interaction with the audience and art takes on more of a bureaucratic, industrial production process, invoking Marxist alienation of labor; however, something is regained in the present age if there can there be an virtual aura regained through feedback.

Levy hints at potential for virtual aura through feedback recovering art and observer from withered condition brought on by commodification.

(IX) For the film, what matters primarily is that the actor represents himself to the public before the camera, rather than representing someone else. . . . for the first time – and this is the effect of the film – man has to operate with his whole living person, yet forgoing its aura. . . . However, the singularity of the shot in the studio is that the camera is substituted for the public. Consequently, the aura that envelops the actor vanishes, and with it the aura of the figure he portrays.

With Arnheim scream art has a new ground besides representing beauty; enter Baudrillard.

(IX) His [Rudolf Arnheim] creation is by no means all of a piece; it is composed of many separate performances. Besides certain fortuitous considerations, such as cost of studio, availability of fellow players, décor, etc., there are elementary necessities of equipment that split the actor's work into a series of mountable episodes. . . . The frightened reaction can be shot now and be cut into the screen version. Nothing more strikingly shows that art has left the realm of the 'beautiful semblance' which, so far, had been taken to be the only sphere where art could thrive.
(X) This market, where he offers not only his labor but also his whole self, his heart and soul, is beyond his reach. During the shooting he has as little contact with it as any article made in a factory. . . . Similarly, the newsreel offers everyone the opportunity to rise from passerby to movie extra. In this way any man might even find himself part of a work of art.

Not just accidentally being in a news reel, occasional letter to the editor, or documentary subjects, but being able to reflect via electronic media the audience can provide the feedback lost.

(X) With the increasing extension of the press, which kept placing new political, religious, scientific, professional, and local organs before the readers, an increasing number of readers became writers – at first, occasional ones. It began with the daily press opening to its readers space for 'letters to the editor'.
(X) Some of the players whom we meet in Russian films are not actors in our sense but people who portray themselves – and primarily in their own work process.

Cutting in film produces equipment-free reality, complete artifice impossible in theater.

(XI) In the theater one is well aware of the place form which the play cannot immediately be detected as illusionary. There is no such place for the movie scene that is being shot. Its illusionary nature is that of the second degree, the result of cutting. . . . The equipment-free aspect of reality here has become the height of artifice; the sight of immediate reality has become an orchid in the land of technology.
(XI) 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. . . . Thus, for contemporary man the representation of reality by the film is incomparably more significant than that of the painter, since it offers, precisely because of the thoroughgoing permeation of reality with mechanical equipment, an aspect of reality which is free of all equipment.

This makes sense of gnomic formula by Aarseth contemporary empathy with the perceived political symbolism of the mode of mutation.

(XII) The reactionary attitude toward a Picasso painting changes into the progressive reaction toward a Chaplin movie. The progressive reaction is characterized by the direct, intimate fusion of visual and emotional enjoyment with the orientation of the expert. . . . The conventional is uncritically enjoyed, and the truly new is criticized by the public.

Group reception including feedback is not possible with paintings and other individual pieces not easily reproducible or mass communicated.

(XII) 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.
(XIII) The film has enriched our field of perception with methods which can be illustrated by those of Freudian theory. . . . As compared with painting, filmed behavior lends itself more readily to analysis because of its incomparably more precise statements of the situation. . . . To demonstrate the identity of the artistic and scientific uses of photography which heretofore usually were separated will be one of the revolutionary functions of film.

Extreme closeup and other techniques are ways perceptions change through technology moreso than society, although Dumit discusses the social aspects; recall comparison to magician and surgeon, link to NMR.

(XIII) With the close-up, space expands; with slow motion, movement is extended. . . . The camera introduces us to unconscious optics as does psychoanalysis to unconscious impulses.
(XIV) Dadism attempted to create by pictorial – and literary – means the effects which the public today seeks in the film.
(XIV) The Dadaists attached much less importance to the sales value of their work than to its uselessness for contemplative immersion. . . . Their poems are 'word salad' containing obscenities and every imaginable waste product of language. . . . What they intended and achieved was a relentless destruction of the aura of their creations, which they branded as reproductions with the very means of production.
(XIV) The painting invites the spectator to contemplation; before it the spectator can abandon himself to his associations. Before the movie frame he cannot do so. No sooner has hist eye grasped a scene than it is already changed. It cannot be arrested.

Participation shifts to passive consumption, reception in state of distraction; do movies invite a different kind of contemplation, or are they just amusements?

(XV) Quantity has been transmuted into quality. The greatly increased mass of participants has produced a change in the mode of participation. . . . Clearly, this is at bottom the same ancient lament that the masses seek distraction whereas art demands concentration from the spectator.
(XV) On the tactile side there is no counterpart to contemplation on the optical side. Tactile appropriation is accomplished not so much by attention as by habit. As regards architecture, habit determines to a large extent even optical reception. The latter, too, occurs much less through rapt attention than by noticing the object in incidental fashion. This mode of appropriation, developed with reference to architecture, in certain circumstances acquires canonical value.
(XV) Reception in a state of distraction, which is increasingly noticeably in all fields of art and is symptomatic of profound changes in apperception, finds in the film its true means of exercise. The film with its shock effect meets this mode of reception halfway. The film makes the cult value recede into the background not only by putting the public in the position of the critic, but also by the fact that at the movies this position requires no attention. The public is an examiner, but an absent-minded one.
(XVI) (Epilogue) The masses have a right to change property relations; Fascism seeks to give them an expression while preserving property. The logical result of Fascism is the introduction of aesthetics into political life. The violation of the masses, whom Fascism, with its Fuhrer cult, forces to their knees, has its counterpart in the violation of an apparatus which is pressed into the production of ritual values.

Necessity of war to preserve property system and scarcity, for example famous shot of precision-guided bomb destroying a target; also looks to use of media by military.

(XVI) (Epilogue) All efforts to render politics aesthetic culminate in one thing: war. . . . Only war makes it possible to mobilize all of today's technical resources while maintaining the property system. . . . The destructiveness of war furnishes proof that society has not been mature enough to incorporate technology as its organ, that technology has not been sufficiently developed to cope with the elemental forces of society.
(XVI) (Epilogue) 'Fiat ars – pereat mundus', [let art be created, let the word perish] says Fascism, and, as Marinetti admits, expects war to supply the artistic gratification of a sense perception that has been changed by technology. This is evidently the consummation of 'l'art pour l'art'. Mankind, which in Homer's time was an object of contemplation for the Olympian gods, now is one for itself.
Its self-alienation has reached such a degree that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order. This is the situation of politics which Fascism is rendering aesthetic. Communism responds by politicizing art.

Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings. New York, NY: Oxford UP, 1999. 731–751. Print.