Art in the age of Mechanical Reproduction by Walter Benjamin, a review

To say we live in a new era is not in and of its self saying much. Cultures shift through paradigms all the time, it’s a natural part of progress. However, Walter Benjamin argues that this current paradigm is prominently important to comprehend because of the way it has transformed art and culture. This is the age of mechanical reproduction.

Art is in our life in a way it never has been before. Once upon a time, each piece of art was singular in nature, rarely reproduced. Then along came wood carving, bronze casting, printing, and with each step, reproduction became more rapid  and industrious. This was, up to the point of photography and film, where the eye ‘took over from the hand’, and art was created and reproduced as quickly as the eye is capable of viewing.

Each individual piece of art existed within, and had meaning within its own context. However, new contexts give a piece of art new meanings. When a piece of art is reproduced, each space imposes meaning into the piece of art, and therefore each instance of art is a painting with a new imposed meaning. The original, of course, has meaning that a reproduction could never have, such as authenticity; the reproduction, however, has the power of autonomy. It can adopt a new life in a way that an original piece never could.

In creating reproductions with unique meanings, the genuineness and authority of original pieces is compromised. When a piece of art exists as a single form, it has a single inherent (intended) meaning. However, when meanings are created in reproductions, the meaning of the original is confused.  Assumptions are compounded into the original, authentic meanings removed from the original, and authority of the piece is lost. Benjamin says that originals have an ‘aura’, and the modern age of reproduction strips art of aura. The other issue is that experience of a reproduction robs us of having an authentic experience of the original piece as it is ‘diluted’ by an imperfect form.

Uniqueness of an original is confined to the original context, and also to the functional meaning of the painting. In a piece of art’s meaning being derived from its cultural and historical context, we see that the piece is imputed with the values and assumptions of its inherent context. When we reproduce it, the reproduction is subsumed by the context in which it is placed. Art often had religious meaning too, which is what we often mean by its functional value. When a piece of art is sacred or holy, reproducing it strips it of those values because originality becomes insignificant. Reproducing religious art is the act of desacralizing religious art. Some scholars have noted how attitudes differ in religious contexts such as how Sikhs venerate their texts in comparison to how Christians do. Sikhs have a pronounced interest in the sanctity of the physical text, whereas Christians are more prominently interested in the meaning and ideas of the text. As the later have more readily embraced reproduction we have seen two very different attitudes to holy books.

As originals lose their meaning, art is free to become art for the sake of art for the first time. Furthermore, art has now become reproductions of the reproducible, rather than reproductions of originals. What we mean by this is that the attitude to the original cannot be free from the concept of reproduction any more, and therefore our perception of an original is robbed of its right to be seen as a unit of uniqueness. As Susan Sontag once famously said, moments now exist merely to be photographed. In the same way, pieces of art exist to be preproduced now.

Art has two values, CULTIC and DISPLAY. As meaning is removed from the original, the display values take precedent, and are valued highest, or even singularly. The value of art to the masses is gaged by its aesthetics over its meaning. That is to say, the age of reproduction becomes an age in which meaning is stripped from objects.

Next Benjamin shifts focus to take aim at film in particular. The meaning in film is far too base, he argues. Rather than being full of rich information, it is closer to that of the hieroglyph. He feels that a film is too sterile to be meaningful in the way that a painting is.

The artform of film creates a space between the viewer and the viewed in a whole new way. The viewer of a painting can mediate themselves, unpack it, and view it as it is. The relationship between the viewer and the painting is direct. However, the camera becomes a mediator between the viewer and the subject of the film. The director and cameraman chose what you see, how you see it, how things are grouped, lighted, and so forth. Continuity of a film is also highly unnatural. Scenes are chopped and changes, refilmed until ‘perfect’, and reproduced into a new, synthetic unity. This art cannot mirror life like earlier artforms.

The other issue with film is how it alienates the actor from their self. They lose the audience, and in doing so, they lose self validation. The only thing they direct towards is a camera. An actor without an audience has a very different nature to an actor with an audience, and this loss of self is conferred to both the viewer and the actor. It is inorganic, the actor has a relationship with the audience when performing live, which is lost when the audience is taken away. The loss of self validation is also the loss of identity and meaning in one’s self. As we view a picture of our self, and view other people’s perceptions of us, we come to understand ourselves. The actor has no understanding of himself in front of the camera because that reciprocal self validation is lost to the vacuum of the camera. This means that the filmic art becomes a sign of the loss of self, since we validate ourselves in art, and we cannot validate ourselves in film because there is no solid subject-identity through which we can identify either.

Another way in which film is different to other art is that when we view a painting, our consciousness permeates the space of the art naturally, and in organic time. When a viewer views a film, however, the film imposes fully into the consciousness of the viewer. This not only forces the viewer into a kind of participation new to the art-viewer relationship, but halts one from thinking about the art, for thought is subsumed by the movement of the piece. If you think about a moment in a film, you lose everything that follows, and you therefore miss out on the film. To appreciate a film fully, you must desist from complex thought. Art kills thought.

Benjamin claims that this makes the film the ‘art of the proletariat’ because the proletariat’s life is so hard that all they want from art is a veritable holiday. Because film is so immersive as to subsume their thought and senses, it creates, for the viewer, a ‘holiday from life’.

Artists have always sought to transcend the limits of power their mediums have, and what film directors do is take over from the Dadaist art movement. The Dada school looked to confront the barren meaninglessness of life, and film managed to minimise the meaning-subject relationship. Film became an experientially significant move on from the ‘word salad’ poetry of the Absurdists and Dadaists. Art has to mirror the meaning of the age because the meaning of the age is always captured in the art. The age of reproduction loses meaningfulness, and therefore we have reached a cultural crisis. This is where Walter Benjamin leads us to at the end of the essay. He takes the sad view that the next progression from this modern art is war, or anything which can fulfill the role of war in the art world. If meaning is lost, we must experience the anguish of loss of meaning before we move on, and this is the ultimate necessary step, he believed.

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