Walter Benjamin

We’d like you to do something a little different for this reading, which we’ll discuss in class on Thursday, 10/31. Instead of posting questions online, post your comments and reactions before class – say, by Tuesday 10/29 – and read what your peers have written.

Then, come in to class with questions on which you’d like our discussion to focus.

You can find the reading, titled “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” in the packet with Kramer’s “Classical Music and its Values.”

This entry was posted in Announcements, Reading & Reacting. Bookmark the permalink.

17 Responses to Walter Benjamin

  1. apalathingal says:

    In “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” Walter Benjamin points out some relevant facts about the evolution of human perception. Over the years technology has changed and evolved in many ways and through that “recording” through photos and videos have changed. Benjamin seems to be concerned about people submitting themselves to modern mechanical reproduction and failing to realize the value of authenticity. I concur with Benjamin to a certain extent. He seems to be a little too worried but there is reasoning behind his thoughts. One line that I very much agree with is, “Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be.” In today’s day and age, we seem to forget that nothing can replace originality and first-hand experience. Text-messaging and phone calls can provide happiness for a short time but there are limits. Modern technology cannot replace the feel of spending time in person with someone. The same goes for pictures as pictures can only capture a small aspect of an actual event or person. Pictures cannot bring back the real, present moment. Seeing something on screen “steals” the effect of reality and people today must realize that they should not be living within a world of copies and movies. The mass reproduction of an object cannot provide the authenticity and uniqueness of the original and this can apply to all aspects of life.

  2. Ahmed Ashraf says:

    In “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Walter Benjamin comments on the effect of modernity on art and artistic perception. Human technology and understanding improved with the progress of society. It gave rise to the different types of reproduction of art as well as the perception of art. The reproduction of art played very important roles in human society. Art was always susceptible to reproduction. Though first they were contributor to the improvement of the process of creating art itself, the more mechanical involvement took many things out. The author recognizes that a reproduction of art lacks the originality and authenticity of the original piece. (“Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be.”) The mere capture of a piece of art by modern day device will deduct the aura of the original in the reproduction. Though it can be considered a form of art by itself and the process reproduction is “more independent of the original than manual reproduction,” it is nothing without authenticity of the original and is representative of something new against the original. Though problematic, the reproduction of art can be useful. Forms of reproduction, such as Printing, can allow a piece of art to reach much more audience, though lacking its essence. It can allow the art to be viewed in different places, different ways and from different angles. A photograph of an painting, though lacking originality, can allow the viewer to zoom in or out of the picture and study specific part of the painting. A video of an artistic event can allow the viewer to see it in different pace, focus on specific part and see in different context without being out of context. Through these effects, a reproduction can take the original paintings to new heights, but it will affect the originality of the first piece negatively. Also suggested by the author, though the reproduction of art in the modern age was introduced as a means of capitalist profits, it will end up helping the counter-theories by spreading them in large quantities to versatile people. Though helpful for spreading message and liberating of the limited existence of the original, the reproduction of an art is also totalitarian. It directs the viewer to a specific angle and part of a painting and a story that is preferred by the reproducer. It also creates a devoid from reality. Overall, the author shows that though the mechanical reproduction of art in the modern era can be advantageous in certain occasion, the piece that results from it will never have the same uniqueness and authority as the original piece. The mass reproduction of any art will never replace the metaphysical and aesthetic value of the original. I certainly agree with this conclusion.

  3. Daniel Vargas says:

    Correct me if I am wrong but section III of The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction defined the ‘aura’ as the phenomena of feeling distance even when one is close to the object. It argues that by bringing the works of art closer by means of reproduction destroys the ‘aura’ but I believe that it does not. Reproduction is just a means to arrive at the aura; we are only trying to experience a fraction of the feeling that the work of art provides. We are trying to get closer, but by doing so; we accept that what we are looking at is merely a reproduction, giving an even greater sense of distance. If the definition of aura given is correct, then the reproduction would enhance the experience of the viewer by bringing it closer (as in being able to manipulate the reproduction which one would not be able to do to an original) and putting it farther away (as in the original with all its glory and history is not equivalent to the reproduction only similar).

  4. danitsa andaluz says:

    In “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Walter Benjamin makes it very apparent that he disagrees with the concept of mechanical reproduction of artwork. He makes various points as to why mechanical reproduction detracts from the artwork itself. One of those point is that “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.” I interpret this statement to mean that we cheapen things because people are so obsessed with making everything convenient or easily available and subsequently we destroy uniqueness. In essence we must ask ourselves if by producing thousands of pictures of the Statue of Liberty do we take away from seeing the Statue of Liberty in person? In our attempt to make things faster, closer, or more convenient do we take away from the experience? My opinion is that we often do. In the new generation of technology many people do not feel the need to go hear an orchestra because they can easily go to YouTube and listen to the same music. Why would they bother to go to an art museum if they could easily Google Picasso and get hundreds of results? If the only way you could see the Eiffel Tower was to go to Paris yourself then you would make it your business to go to Paris. The idea of uniqueness is also a major component of this argument. If there were pyramids everywhere would we think pyramids were so amazing. When we are constantly surrounded by something we seem to dismiss it, to look over it, because we expect it to be there the next day. However, when we don’t have something available to us everyday we are more likely to focus on every aspect of that thing. Overall, Benjamin is saying that mass mechanical reproduction of art robs it of so many of the things that make it special including its uniqueness.

  5. Gurprit Kaur says:

    In Walter Benjamin’s essay “The Work of Art In The Age of Mechanical Reproduction”, he discusses a shift in perception and its affects in the twentieth century with the rising of film and photography. He writes about the changes in the way we look and see the visual work of art. Benjamin argues that technology is changing art and our perceptions.
    All art is replicable, which brings into question the worth of the art if it is not “original.” Specifically focusing on the fact that copies do not duplicate that original aura. Benjamin here attempts to mark something specific about the modern age; of the effects of modernity on the work of art in particular. Film and photography point to this movement. Benjamin writes of the loss of the aura through the mechanical reproduction of art itself. The sense of the aura is lost on film and the reproducible image itself demonstrates a historical shift that we have to take account of even if when we don’t necessarily notice it. This actually relates what we learned at the costume shop today; a character playing a specific role, which is a form of art in of itself, needs to be designed and carried out with the same aura of it’s original historical period in order to give the same feel. If the aura is lost the art of playing the character is not a success.
    This reading actually made me think of what it means to place an aura on “someone” or “something”? Is it even necessary to reclaim the aura in the first place? The mystical sense of the original is broken with the loss of the aura, and now every one can go to a gallery, a museum, the theater or the cinema. A whole new appreciation of art is introduced while at the same time; a whole new mode of deception and distraction also enters because aura is depleted.

  6. Mena McCarthy says:

    Walter Benjamin’s article on “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” shows that in the reproduction of a piece of art, the original essence is taken away. Like Danitsa said, the availability of art in the modern world is endless, whether it is a picture online or listening to music, but this raises another point.

    Imagine a scenario in which you had no access to internet, books, or any other medium in which artwork could be reproduced. How would one know the difference between Van Gogh, Picasso, and Monet’s paintings? Words alone would only leave the differences to the imagination instead of being more concrete.

    Another factor of reproduction that Benjamin addresses is his disagreement with film. He believes that scenes are too fleeting and that it is the film that seems to “view” the reader instead of the opposite. But when viewing a film, would it still be entertaining if all of the action was slow and the setting never changed? Didn’t think so.

  7. sanam Bhandari says:

    In “The Work Of Art in the Age of Mechanical reproduction” Walter Benjamin states that “even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space,” which I think is very true. A work of art is a representation of the time and situation it was built in, if the work is reproduced it does not maintain the same “aura” as the original artwork. However, Benjamin also states that reproductions of artwork “can put the copy of the original into situations which would be out of reach for the original itself.” He also states that some people have such a strong sense of universal equality that they even extract uniqueness from the artwork by means of reproduction. Most works of art before were designed to serve in a cut, but slowly became produced for exhibition and looked at art. Early photography was used as a cult of remembrance of loved ones, but it developed into standard evidence for historical occurrence (because of Atget). The change in the use of art work was brought about because the mode of human sense perception changes with humanity’s entire mode of existence.

  8. lilokuo says:

    I agree to a certain extent that mass mechanical reproductions of works of art devalues both the artist as well as the audience, in the sense that certain elements (such as the unique aura of sharing the space and existence with the piece of art) might be lost in the process. I like the effort made by Walter Benjamin to distinguish the means of the said reproduction; I for one am a strong believer and practitioner of “master copies”, and this practice has existed for as long as art has been in existence. Artists practice and make perfection of their skills by reproducing paintings of renowned artists before they themselves achieve their grand titles, hence “master” copies, because there is something to take away from the skills and intricacies of said paintings. When new artists attempt to reproduce copies they are in a sense commemorating the work that the original artist has put into the painting and showing respect and admiration for the artist, something that mechanical reproduction done by a machine fails to do. Although master copies do not possess the “one element: its presence in time and space”, they certainly still have that human touch of labor and ingenuity that is lacking in mechanical reproductions.

  9. levirybalov says:

    Benjamin writes on page 234: “The greater the decrease in the social significance of an art form, the sharper the distinction between criticism and enjoyment by the public. The conventional is uncritically enjoyed, and the truly new is criticized with aversion.”

    He goes on to describe how “individual reactions are predetermined by the mass audience response they are about to produce,” how movies are a perfect example of this, and about paintings has to say that “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.”

    This analysis is interesting. First Benjamin claims that the less socially important an art is, the more distinct are criticism and enjoyment of it. Thus, the mainstream is enjoyed without mass criticism, whilst the avant-garde is heavily scrutinized. This is why “the same public which responds in a progressive manner toward a grotesque film is bound to respond in a reactionary manner to surrealism.” He then goes on to say that our individual reactions are predetermined by the mass response an art produces (which I don’t understand, since public reaction to art is rarely, if ever, homogenous).

    But are our sentiments towards art really dependent on whether we can form a mass response to it? Does the power of mass opinion so aptly affect us that we acquiesce to peer pressure in the absence of peers?

    I keep on thinking about these questions, and can’t come up with answers, mostly because I can’t think of any good examples that are analogous to the film vs. painting contrast Benjamin uses. Maybe somebody can help me and come up with some relevant and cogent examples, because I’m stuck.

  10. Janna Wu says:

    Walter Benjamin is clearly against the role of mechanical reproduction in the arts. In the first couple of sections (labeled in roman numerals), Benjamin underlines the idea that reproducing an artwork diminishes its authenticity, its uniqueness, and its “aura”. He writes, “the uniqueness of a work of art is inseparable from its being imbedded in the fabric of tradition”, making the argument that everything that makes the artwork special stems from the very idea that it was created from specific traditional values which “originally the contextual integration of art…found its expression in the cult.” He elaborates with examples of how an ancient statue of Venus could stimulate completely different traditional perspectives if placed before different groups of people and in different contexts. In essence, the unique value all works of art emit are a result of their ritualistic basis or their cult origin. By pointing this out, Benjamin is saying that reproduction of art destroys this dependent relationship, that which exists between the artwork and its ritualistic origin.

    Benjamin explains the effect that viewers get when looking at art from its pure form, a painting, and from its mechanically produced clone–a photograph. While “the painter maintains a natural distance from reality,” the cameraman zooms into reality with more intensity and depth. The products of these two snapshots are a more generalized picture by the former and one consisting of many fragments “assembled under a new law” by the latter. Hence this is one reason why the modern individual prefer the photograph snapshot to the original painted by the artist according to Benjamin. Reading into the author’s thoughts and opinions of the role of mechanical reproduction in the arts, I began to see clearly why reproducibles are ruining the value of art. John Berger said in his BBC tv miniseries show,”Ways of Seeing”, that once the meaning of a painting becomes transmittable, it is liable to be manipulated which Benjamin supports by mentioning the panoply of modern technological equipments available today. No longer is a work a constant in the sense that it is viewed in the context it was meant to be because of mechanical reproduction.

  11. Destiny Berisha says:

    Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” was very difficult to read. I’m still not 100% sure of what is meant by his use of the word “ritual” which he used ritually in the piece. I think the most interesting point that Walter Benjamin made in this piece was that the existence of multiple copies of a work of art takes away from the sacredness of the “uniqueness of existence.” Say for example you are looking through Google images on a search of Da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa.” Seeing it on your computer screen will never be the same as seeing the original in person, because when you see the original you can’t help but think to yourself that that is the piece that Da Vinci sat right in front of and worked on. The brush strokes are those that came from Da Vinci’s own hand. The authenticity and the uniqueness of the art piece’s presence on art gives it a magic and compelling nature that brings with it a history of physical change and historical context. However, there is a positive aspect of mechanical reproduction; firstly, the reproductions “can capture images which escape natural vision,” in other words, the reproductions can highlight certain aspects of a painting that the original can hide. The creation of reproductions can also allow for an art piece to be more accessible to the public– for example, even if I wanted to see the “Mona Lisa” in person, the funds needed for my travels would be quite large, however, because so many of the images of its replication are on the internet, viewing her is accessible to anyone who can access the internet. Another point that Benjamin brings up that I thought was very interesting was the way in which he described change in human perception over time: “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 is is accomplished, is determined not only by nature but by historical circumstances as well.” I interpreted this to mean that human perception changes as a collective whole in accordance to time period (historically and socially) and by how these aspects influence perception organization and means– if we think of popular movement (like Benjamin’s example of how ancient Greeks viewed the statue of Venus in comparison to how it was seen by clerics of the Middle Ages).

  12. Michael Marfil says:

    In this piece, Walter Benjamin condemns the use of mechanical reproduction in art, because it depreciates the value of that work of art. At first he describes that mechanical reproduction can enhance the original work and also allow more people to see this work of art. Benjamin goes on to give an example through photography, in which a single shot can be made into a limitless amount of prints. However, he argues that this reproduction depreciates the value of that work of art, as millions of copies of the work of art are available to the public.

    This brings us to the argument of quantity vs. quality. Should we trade off the value of art for the masses to see or should we preserve the quality of art for those who will truly appreciate its value? That is the literal million dollar question asked during auctions and exhibits. To synthesize with the Barnes discussion in the beginning of the semester, Barnes kept a tight grip on his collection because he believed that the quality (namely, the aesthetic quality) of the pieces was much more important than for millions and millions of people, many who are uneducated, to view his unique collection.

  13. dennism says:

    I think Benjamin makes a very good point by saying that original works of art have a certain aura about them. Why else would people go to great lengths in order to see the real thing in person when they could simply look up an image of it online? He mentions that a part of a work’s aura is it’s physical presence in that space. I agree, there are many things in this respect that don’t translate to mechanical reproductions. For example, at the Brooklyn Museum was the painting “A Storm in the Rocky Mountains” by Albert Bierstadt. The first thing that strikes you is the enormous size of it; I, personally, was awestruck by the sense of scale it imparts upon you. There are plenty of small details which, upon looking it up online, were hard to make out. The paint itself adds to the real thing, even. There is a sort of 3D effect and layered texture that paintings use which, again, you don’t see in mechanical reproductions.

  14. Evgenia Gorovaya says:

    I found it very interesting how Walter Benjamin connected film with Freud. In Section XIII, he discusses how film now lets us analyze every aspect of motions that we would otherwise not give a second thought to. On page 236, he states: “The enlargement of a snapshot does not simply render more precise what in any case was visible, though unclear: it reveals entirely new structural formations of the subject.” The study of body language became popular and legitimate around the same time that film really picked up. One must wonder: how real are these new structural formations? Isn’t a wave just a wave? And if you do believe in body language, how many other hidden meanings do we communicate, and through what mediums? Before Freud, no one would have thought that a “slip of the tongue” meant anything; likewise, before the advent of film, no one really payed any attention to body language. Maybe one day we’ll discover what our natural vocal range says about us.

  15. Destiny Berisha says:

    I wanted to add onto my comment, as I’m still very confused about how Walter Benjamin feels about film and how he connects it to war, Fascism and Communism. Even in my second revisit to “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” the answers are still blurry.
    At first, Walter Benjamin seems to harbor a negative view towards photography, and especially towards film. Benjamin compares the actor on stage to the actor in film, and seems to favor the former. The actor on stage has a personal connection to the audience and can adjust his or her performance according to the audience– this audience is also blessed with chosen perspective, according to Benjamin. Film’s audience is the general public, and so the actor is not allowed to showcase his or her talents to act according to environment. Their performance is also subject to the camera’s perspective. To me, this seems like a viewpoint that leans towards one side. Besides, can you really compare actors on stage to actors in films? Apples and oranges, some may say–both fruit, but very different. Film is the embodiment of fast moving images, and so the concept of attention is taken away from the perception of art in film. According to Benjamin: “Art demands concentration from the spectator…A man who concentrates before a work of art is absorbed by it” p.239. By taking the viewpoint of the camera and with fleeting images, “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 efface that at the movies this position requites no attention. The public is an examiner, but an absent-minded one.”
    This leaves us with the notion that Walter Benjamin disproves of the use of film. However, he offers a counter point of view by suggesting the positive aspects of film. For example, he says: “In comparison to the stage scene, the filmed behavior item lends itself more readily to analysis because it can be isolated more easily,” meaning that film allows for deeper analysis through control—perhaps nowadays by the utilization of the pause button in any moment of time throughout the film. Instead of impairing our perception, film can enhance perception: “Evidently a different nature opens itself to the camera than opens to the naked eye…The camera introduces us to unconscious optics as does psychoanalysis to unconscious impulses” p. 236

  16. Destiny Berisha says:

    I now understand the connection between art and politics that Benjamin is trying to communicate in this piece: “The aestheticization of politics was an idea first coined by Walter Benjamin as being a key ingredient to Fascist regimes. In this theory, life and the affairs of living are conceived of as innately artistic, and related to as such politically. Politics are in turn viewed as artistic, and structured like an art form which reciprocates the artistic conception of life being seen as art.” I got this from Wikipedia and it helped me understand his points.

  17. shimon herzog says:

    What is quite interesting about art according to Benjamin is that in this new age of reproduction, art that would usually be connected with a religious structure can now be seen without the added religious orientation which contextualizes the piece. When a piece of work is removed from its religious framework, it loses some of its religious undertones and the added layer, or in some cases the primary layer, of meaning of the piece of work.
    In my personal experience, the works of Michelangelo’s holy scenes from the Bible on the ceilings of the Sistine Chapel are a prime example of a work of art whose meaning is provided through the actual space it inhabits. Until recently, I did not know that the Sistine chapel was in the Vatican which also houses the Pope. While it may be true that the fact I did not know the Sistine chapel was in the Vatican reflects my own ignorance, but it is also a prime example of how the separation of a work of art from its religious entity does not necessarily diminish the aesthetic value for the piece.
    After finding out that the Sistine Chapel houses the Pope, my view of the art has not changed. I fully appreciated the paintings on the Sistine Chapel as works of art based on the Biblical stories, i.e. a work of art that is completely religious in nature. It is perhaps because the very works are based on Biblical stories that knowledge of its placement in the Vatican did not change much of the meaning of the work of art. In one sense, the fact that we as a society can reproduce art and have the reproductions circulate around the world since people do not have to spend thousands of dollars to travel and appreciate the culture and arts of different societies. With the power of reproduction, we can all access art worldwide, and in a way make it more democratic by making it available to people who would otherwise never be able to see it.
    While I do not want to argue that divorcing art from its space is the optimal way to appreciate art, I do believe it is better to appreciate a decontextualized work of art than not appreciate it at all (or at least not having the means to appreciate it). Perhaps, a ‘semi-authentic’ feel for a work of art such as the ceilings of the Sistine chapel could be recreated by recreating the space of the art in other exhibitions, such as reproducing a church ceiling with the paintings in a museum. While this is not always possible, it is another way in which art can be reproduced, while maintaining some sense of the space it occupies without traveling to the Vatican.

Leave a Reply