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

“The Work of Art on the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” by Walter Benjamin was published in 1936, the inter war period. “Having experienced Fascism and the fascist use of media in Germany” [from Media & Cultural Studies Keyworks ed. by Durham and Kellner] Benjamin speaks to the transformation of the Marxian superstructure which he observed “has taken more than a half century to manifest in all areas of culture the change in the conditions of production”. Reflecting on the function of art in the 20th century, he explores a theory of art and the “useful formulation of revolutionary demands in the politics of art.” [Preface] Since first reading this essay fifteen years ago, I’ve always been struck by its prescience and continual resonance in the digital age, so please forgive the length of this provocation beyond the recommended 2-3 paragraph blog post.

Benjamin asserts that the work of art has always been reproducible, but is quick to point out that mechanical reproduction, i.e., Marxian Capitalist mechanistic reproduction, through photography and film, represents something new. Benjamin discusses the profound repercussions that reproduction of works of art through photography, and the ‘art of the film’ have had on art in its traditional form. [Section I] Given this context, what are your thoughts on Benjamin’s statement that “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,” or in Benjamin-ian terms, its “aura”. [Section II] Benjamin further clarifies and defines the term “aura” of the work of art as “that which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction”. Do you agree or disagree?

For this provocation, I’ll use an example from art: does Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa cease to be the Mona Lisa if we remove her from the rooms in which Leonardo painted and her patron intended her or the Louvre where she has resided for many centuries and still resides today? For example, more specifically, an enlarged and interactive Mona Lisa is currently on display in the windows of fashion conglomerate LVMH at 5th Ave. and 57th Street and she even winks. She is featured in a collection of luxury leather products designed by artist Jeff Koons entitled “MASTERS” that retails for approx. $585.00 – $4,000.00. Here’s a recent photo of the display:

Mona Lisa is also currently on display at my local mall via a jacket design: 

Do you think such reproduction erodes, or conversely, enhances the Benjamin-ian aura of this work of art?

Benjamin attributes social bases for the “contemporary decay of the aura” and that these “rest on two circumstances, both of which are related to the increasing significance of the masses in contemporary life.” [Section III] What are your thoughts on this?

While the contemporary cult of the Mona Lisa carries on in our modern fashion world today, Benjamin states that “originally, the contextual integration of art in tradition found its expression in the cult” and he clarifies, “in other words, the unique value of the ‘authentic’ work of art has its basis in ritual, the location of its original use value” and he proceeds with “an all-important insight: for the first time in world history, mechanical reproduction emancipates the work of art from its parasitical dependence on ritual.” Benjamin then points out a paradox that “to an ever greater degree the work of art reproduced becomes the work of art designed for reproducibility.” Cautioning, he qualifies this with: “But the instant that the criterion of authenticity ceases to be applicable to artistic production, the total function of art is reversed. Instead of being based on ritual, it begins to be based on another practice – politics.” [Section IV] Do you think the post-millennial function of art is one of ritual, politics or both? Can you cite examples of works of art to illustrate your point of view?

The Internet, and our use of it, are for us, in my opinion based upon Benjamin, the ultimate mechanical reproduction of art and exhibition space (another important concept to Benjamin). Acting as the mass which “is a matrix from which all traditional behavior toward works of art issues today in a new form” [Section XV] the Internet’s inherent mechanical reproduction is the ultimate emancipation of art, and I’d add, also its paradoxical enslavement of art to the new rituals of clicking, copying, pasting, scanning, uploading, downloading, swiping, posting, re-posting, tweeting, re-tweeting, liking, favorite-ing and deleting.

While it is easy for me to grasp the degradation of the Benjamin-ian aura in the work of art, because all one has to do is photocopy the Mona Lisa from an art book or copy it from a website and see the loss of resolution and aesthetic quality with each generation, one must ask rhetorically how Benjamin foresaw this without the benefit of Xerox, Photoshop, the World Wide Web, apps such as Instagram and filters. Do you find “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” as forward thinking as I do? Does it hold up in the digital age?

I cannot overlook that this provocation is assigned and intended for the readings for our Sept. 11 class, and it brings to mind some remarks made by the author of “Prozac Nation” Elizabeth Wurtzel. They struck me then and still do now, as reminiscent of the Epilogue in which Benjamin theorizes that war is the ultimate work of art. Wurtzel was asked about the events of Sept. 11, 2001 in February 2002 during an interview to promote her book More, Now, Again by the Toronto Globe and Mail in the context of her residency close to the World Trade Center, and she commented as follows: ‘I had not the slightest emotional reaction. I thought, this is a really strange art project…it was a most amazing sight in terms of sheer elegance. It fell like water. It just slid, like a turtleneck going over someone’s head.’ (Her comments set off a shock wave and likely caused her movie for “Prozac Nation” made by Miramax not to be released.) For me, these comments brought to mind words of Benjamin I have difficulty typing and relaying that “war is beautiful” and that “through gas warfare the aura is abolished in a new way.” Writing in his time and place, Benjamin quotes Fascism “Fiat ars – pereat mundus” (translation: let art be created, though the world perish) which was the Fascist spin on “l’art pour l’art” (art for art’s sake) and concludes by conjecturing “war to supply the artistic gratification of a sense of perception that has been changed by technology.” [Epilogue] Do you find this to be the logical and probable post-Marxian evolution?

Related Video Clip: Does this video of LVMH’s Titian window (detail from the painting of Mars, Venus and Cupid) decay its aura or enhance it?

Related Resources:

“Jeff Koons’s New Line” by Vanessa Friedman, The New York Times, April 11, 2017

“The Louis Vuitton x Jeff Koons Bags May Be My Least Favorite Designer Collab Ever” by Amanda Mull on purseblog, April 13, 2017

“Release Me” by John Harris, The Guardian, July 17, 2004

“Mona Lisa & an Iguana on 5th” by Carolyn A. McDonough, on CultureArtMedia, September 1, 2017

7 thoughts on ““The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” by Walter Benjamin

  1. Thanks for this inspiring provocation Carolyn! On your question regarding aura + translation to these days:
    I’d tend to equate our age to the withering of individual’s “aura”. As a follow up to your Mona Lisa example: despite the countless reproductions available, people have kept on flocking to the Louvre to take a picture/selfie and share it: “I (was there)” becomes real once you technologically mediated it. Contemporary sense of self has become more and more predicated on technological mediations to assert its existence. This is not pertaining to a “new” process per se, but most recent technologies have certainly been instrumental to its accelerating and expanding.
    However, Benjamin’s thinking is not reactionary and, even though there might be a few traces of nostalgia in his presenting of the withering of aura, he does not seem concerned with retrieving that aura, but rather with carving up sustainable alternatives (surrealism, Dada, Soviet films) in order to provide with an antidote to the fascist response to this new configuration – that is aestheticization of politics, of war which, as he ominously points out, leads up to war itself. Although the opposition Benjamin draws between aestheticization of politics and politicization of art is probably too clear-cut, it does bring up the question (which you underlined) of what art can do in the face of massive social changes that technology informs. Clicking, copying, pasting, scanning, uploading, downloading, swiping, posting, re-posting, tweeting, re-tweeting, liking, favorite-ing and deleting… The whole ambiguity is that it is equally legitimate to conceive of these as alienating rituals as much as empowering practices. Benjamin might have figured a way to dialectically go beyond…

    • Thank you, Angelique! For both your kind words and very substantive reply! You have a major grasp on Benjamin which I totally appreciate. I thoroughly agree with your follow up to the Mona Lisa: in today’s culture, a pilgrimage to see it only “becomes real once you technologically mediate it.” I remember the first time I saw the painting in the mid 80’s–it was not yet under glass as it is now, so its aura from being in the Louvre for so many years was quite palpable. And yet, tourists would take a photo of it while the guards reprimanded “no flash” in multiple languages and not even linger a moment to actually look at it after waiting many minutes for their turn, with the only difference being they did not turn their backs on it to take the photo as a selfie.

      You make an excellent point that Benjamin “does not seem concerned with retrieving that aura”. An antidote to the fascist response by him is welcome. Do you suppose we could propose one? Is there a way to preserve the sanctity, so to speak, of the aura with the Internet genie out of the bottle? Before the Jeff Koons line of handbags, I might have leaned in the direction of “yes/maybe” but now I’m leaning more “maybe/no” as the winking Mona Lisa window display made the real painting’s aura whither to fumes. So I do wish Benjamin had gone a little further to guide those of us in the future about “what art can do in the face of massive social changes that technology informs” as you articulately observe.

  2. Thanks Carolyn and Angelique. So many good questions to ponder and so little time. Tomorrow’s discussion will be jam packed, I suspect (and we haven’t even included the EP Thompson and Schivelbusch readings!).

  3. Carolyn, you’ve offered a thoughtful and productive set of considerations about Benjamin’s essay. I’m going to take you up on your question “Do you think such reproduction erodes, or conversely, enhances the Benjamin-ian aura of this work of art?” I think that this question bears interestingly on the role of the “cloud”, as in the full infrastructure of storage (servers) and delivery (cables, wifi, ISPs) that contains and manages the whole internet. In what follows, I’m going to suggest that our digital age invites us to re-conceptualize what it means to experience a work’s “aura”. Specifically, the digital age provides new opportunities for affective experiences that replace those of authenticity before the time of mechanical reproduction.

    I think comparing the railroad and the internet will lead to some interesting insights about the experience of being online and how we can rethink “aura”. I read the Benjamin article immediately after reading the Shiveslbusch chapters on the development of the railroad. While I was reading Shivelbusch, I couldn’t help but think of the development of the railroad as an analogue for that of the internet. For example, just as the railroad collapses the space between two places, and smooths over the difficulties of travel, so does the internet collapse space between the user and information (stored in servers very far away) and streamlines that user’s engagement with a variety of materials by providing everything at her fingertips. Shivelbusch’s examples of the visual differences between traveling on stagecoach (slow, visually rich and subtle landscapes) versus the train (fast, visually disorienting/fatiguing and imprecise) thereby offers a model for thinking about the internet and reproduction, especially when we look at his point about the Impressionist painters. He compares the experience of being on the train to the art of the Impressionists, which was about the immediacy and flash of the brushstroke, rather than the precision and lines of more “realistic” styles of painting. So, coming back to the question of the digital age, although we’ve lost the sense of authenticity or “aura” when looking at things online, perhaps this quality is replaced by others that are specific to the affordances of the digital. Here I’m thinking particularly of light, immediacy, and electricity. Our screens glow with light, and literally create their own “aura” in that sense. Things travel at immense speeds through cables deep underground and underwater. Though most of us don’t think much about datacenters or internet cables until something breaks, there are plenty of works of art that emphasize the physical existence of the cloud or the affordances of the digital. I’ll close thought by asking you for some examples of contemporary digital art that creates its own “aura” along these lines. Any ideas?

  4. Thank you, Filipa, for your reply, thought provoking insights and in taking me up on my question. You bring Benjamin completely up to speed with the digital age. I agree with your observation “to the question of the digital age, although we’ve lost the sense of authenticity or “aura” when looking at things online, perhaps this quality is replaced by others that are specific to the affordances of the digital.” Your mention of the cloud is really significant and I do think cloud technology has launched us into a new age of ‘authenticity’.

    Your parallel between the railroad in Shivelbusch and the Internet is really striking. I agree with you that they both alter/interact in regard to time/space, light, immediacy, electricity — read: “aura”– as qualities of the digital (analogue in railroad).

    In regard to “some examples of contemporary digital art” a few years ago, I received a scholarship to the Museum of Modern Art for the online course “CATALYSTS: Artists Creating with Sound Video and Time” and there were many multi-media artists in the class including the instructor, Randall Packer. The experience of studying with them online was profound for me. I will research the class roster for more artist names, but do check out Randall, he posts his art very frequently over multiple platforms from his multi-media bunker.

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