NOTE: Benjamin's essay is dealt with in depth in the convolute titled "Structure" which serves as the framing apparatus for The Arcades Project Project.
Walter Benjamin's “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”
Walter Benjamin begins his best-known and most widely read essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (“Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit”), with an epigraph from Paul Valéry’s Pièces sur L’Art (1931) in which Valéry prophecies the demise of what he refers to as “the ancient craft of the Beautiful” (epigraph, Benjamin, “WMR” ??). It is this very Romantic convergence of the concept of a perceived distance of time passed and the value judgements brought forth by the notion of a transcendental ‘big-B’ Beautiful that Benjamin calls into question in his following fifteen theses.
Starting with a reference to a symbolist poet such as Valery places Benjamin’s essay in the midst of a current scholarly debate surrounding the destructive capabilities of subjective
Benjamin begins his first thesis with a discussion of the way in which “a work of art has always been reproducible” (section 1, par. 1, Benjamin, “WMR” ??), tracing a series of ancient reproductive measures throughout history from founding to stamping to print, engraving, etching lithography and finally photography and its most modern application, film. It is in photography that the image becomes capable of “keeping pace with speech”
In his Preface, Benjamin explains that:
The concepts which are introduced into the theory of art in what follows differ from the more familiar terms [such as “creativity and genius, eternal value and mystery concepts whose uncontrolled (and at present almost uncontrollable) application would lead to a processing of data in the Fascist sense” (last paragraph of Preface, Benjamin, “WMR” ??)] in that they are completely useless for the purposes of Fascism. They are, on the other hand, useful for the formulation of revolutionary demands in the politics of art. (Last paragraph of Preface, Benjamin, “WMR” ??)
BENJ: CONTEXT is displaced by MULTIPLICITY through REPETITION
STEIN: REPETITION as MEDIUM
DELEUZE: multiplicity of media (books as assemblages)
MCL: MEDIUM and CONTENT are one in the same
BAUD: CONTENT is replaced by MEDIUM
-concerned with authenticity which requires the presence of an original and which privileges the old (temporally closerbut only if time is perceived as linear and finiteto the “original, which is an identifiable object) over the new. The value is placed on the material objectthe THINGwhich makes sense, considering his role as a collector (very concerned with authenticity in this materialistic wayand translation, in which he argues that it is the “essence” of the thing that must be apprehended and transmitted.
Perhaps Henry Miller will be of help in resituating this argumentand this concept of authenticityin a way that focuses less on the thing and more on the event (EVENTNESS is much more strongly tied to IT than THINGNESS.)
“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. (Okay, here’s that concept of “presence” that John’s class has been fighting against. Presence implies that objects have existences apart from their contexts and the forces they deploy, and those who feel the residual effects of those forces. In other words, Benjamin is Romanticizing the object, attributing to it human qualities, human values, perhaps why he is such an avid collector of booksas objects.
Q. Why do we want authentic things? According to Benjamin, we want them because they have “authority”but it’s really the imagination that gives them that authority. We try to trace the history in its wear, in where it’s found, we relate the significance to our own livesit’s a sentimental journey, really, this task of the collectorself-absorbed and materialistic.
Q. In the case of electronic texts, there is no longer a thingness to the works of art transmitted. What we have is a highly versatile medium in which are events occur.
The Medium is the Massage (The event, not the thingMcLuhan)
John thinks I’m most concerned with this question of authenticity because of my concern with avant-garde creative projects. How can anything ever be authentically avant-garde? Anyone who claims to be avant-garde is lying to themselves and trying too hard. It is a quality that is only contributable after the fact, after those avant-garde ideas have taken hold an been digested by the main stream. Therefore, why bother with that….In order for something to be avant-garde, it must be somehow unique, somehow disconnected from all that has happened before. I guess we can lose this notionespecially since “now” there really is no such thing as avant-garde, even the big corporations are appropriating artsy fartsiness as a means of appealing to the bored consumer looking for novelty.
So, it’s not really a question of authenticityor avant-garde statusbut more one of dissemination/navigation? The creator disseminates and the viewer/receiver/reader/spectator navigatesand then disseminates (perhaps).
Benjamin’s Key Points About Reproduction:
1) Aura withers because of reproduction…. “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.” (Illuminations 221) (BUT, IMAGES AND WORDS CAN HAUNT DESPITE A CHANGE IN MEDIUM OR A CHANGE IN RARITYIN MUCH THE SAME WAY THAT A MCDONNAL’S SIGN CAN HAVE AN AURAIF IT BE INVESTED WITH PERSONAL HUMAN HISTORY….)
2) continued from quote above à “The technology of reproduction detaches the reproduced object from the domain of tradition” (Illuminations 221) (OKAY, IF YOU’RE A JEW TALKING ABOUT JEWISH ART AND JEWISH WRITERS…THEN GREAT, BUT THIS IDEA OF “TRADITION” SEEMS HIGHLY SUSPECT FOR BEING ARBITRARILY CENTRALIZED. MIGHTN’T THE REPRODUCTION OF A WORK OF ART REINTRODUCE THAT WORK INTO A NEW TYPE OF TRADITIONTHE TRADITION OF POP CULTURE, FOR EXAMPLE? THINK FOR INSTANCE OF VAN GOGH’S STARRY STARRY NIGHT OR KLIMPT’S THE KISS. THE REPRODUCTION OF THESE WORKS OF ART HAVE GIVEN THEM A NEW SIGNIFICANCE. THEY HAVE BECOME DÉCOR, BUT DÉCOR WITH A MESSAGE…THAT THE PERSON WHO HUNG THAT PRINT HAD A CERTAIN FAITH IN THE OLD, PERHAPS A VERY BENJAMINIAN TAKE ON THINGS, HARKENING BACK TO THE DAYS WHEN PAINTINGS AND THEIR DISPLAY WERE EVENTS, YET AT THE SAME TIME GESTURING TOWARD A PRESENT THAT IS OVERSATURATED WITH SENTIMENTALISM….THE KISS OR THE VAN GOGH BECOME PARODIES OF THEMSELVES, HIGHLIGHTING THEIR OWN SHORTCOMINGS IN THEIR STARK CONTRAST TO THE CYNICAL WORLD THAT SURROUNDS/BECOMES THE AURA OF THAT OBJECT.)
Abel, Gance. “Le Temps de l’image est venu.” L’Art cinematographiquie, Vol. 2,
pp. 94 f,
“Shakespeare, Rembrandt, Beethoven will make films…all legends, all mythologies and all myths, all founders of religion, and the very religions …await their exposed resurrection, and the heroes crowd each other at the gate.” Crowds (See Crowds and Power)
“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 it accomplished, is determined not only by nature but by historical circumstances as well.” (222) PERSPECTIVE (Renaissance versus Medieval versus Po-mo)
Aura: “the unique phenomenon of a distance however close it may be” (222)
“the unarmed eye” (Illuminations 223): eye without an apparatus
“Uniqueness and permanence are as closely linked in the latter as are transitoriness and reproducibility in the former. 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.” (Illuminations 223)
“The uniqueness of a work of art is inseparable from its being imbedded in the fabric of tradition.” (223) why TRADITIONwhy the constant harkening back to the PAST, why not say that the uniqueness of a work of art is inseparable from its being imbedded in the fabric of the present. (Why privilege the has been over the now is?)
The cult object maintains distance no matter how close it isand is inextricably linked to the location of its “original use value” as an object of ritual.
Ritual art gave way to secular art via “The secular cult of beauty, developed during the Renaissance” (224)
L’art pour l’art changed things: “pure” art denies social function and creates a theology of art. “for the first time