The shift towards capitalist values in the modern world has marked a distinct change in the perception of art, which prompted numerous attempts to explain the phenomenon. The current paper analyzes the essay “Work of art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” by Walter Benjamin in order to determine the feasibility of concepts provided by the author and identify intersection points with related works in the field.
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The essay deals with the change of aesthetic values that supposedly occurred as a result of the emergence of means of mechanical reproduction. According to Benjamin (1939), the fact that works of art can be reproduced in large quantities devaluates their artistic merits. To further clarify his position, the author introduces the concept of aura. Aura is an imperceptible and elusive vibe attained by a work of art as a result of its creation and serving as a basis for the feelings of awe and divine inspiration experienced upon exposure to the masterpiece.
Since the primary artistic value of the works of art throughout history was cultic in origin – that is, serving to sustain the belief in and fear of the supernatural – aura can be considered the essence of any artwork. In other words, the presence of aura ensured the masterpiece’s central position in the magical rituals of the societies and, by extension, became the foundation of the cultural and ritual tradition (e.g., a religious inspiration).
A ritualistic idol, for example, was able to communicate the sense of power and supernatural authority precisely because of the aura in it (Benjamin, 1939). However, once an object is duplicated, the aura is not transferred to the copy, stripping it of its artistic and/or ritual merits. To support his position, Benjamin provides several arguments that confirm the recognition of and reaction to the phenomenon in modern times. Specifically, he argues that the tendency of the modern art movements to distance themselves from the mundane and their goal of becoming detached from the society can be considered a form of self-preservation that aims at the same outcome as the early religious organizations (Benjamin, 1939).
The attempts to exclude the political and social influences in an attempt to refine art in its purest form also fall under this category and signify the antagonism between art and capitalistic values. Interestingly, the author also recognizes the fact that works of art have been copied throughout history and before the formation of capitalistic societies. Such copying, however, is not detrimental to aura since it lacks the mechanical component.
This situation, according to Benjamin, leads to a scenario where the institutions that were sacred and unique are becoming equalized. Importantly, such change is both acknowledged by the participants and is aligned with their needs. In simple terms, modern society does not need the experience of artistic aura anymore and is instead satisfied with the mediating nature of the institutions in question.
As can be seen from the summary, there are two main points used by the author to build his argument. The first assumption is the existence of an imperceptible aura which explains the feelings invoked by the works of art. The second is the ability of the mechanical reproduction to devaluate art by destroying the aura, or, rather, the impossibility of transferring it onto the copy. The former assumption is relatively easy to agree with based solely on the personal experience and the observations of others’ reactions, both individually and on a broad scale.
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There is little doubt in the fact that a truly magnificent work of art triggers a strong emotion that is hard to describe or qualify. While it is hard to conclusively describe what exactly is responsible for such a reaction, I consider the complex interconnection of experiences, values, and beliefs the most likely candidate. Since it cannot be boiled down to the simple and specific set of factors, I consider the concept of aura suggested by Benjamin an acceptable substitute.
The historical perspective suggests that the described effect is common among individuals as well as societies. For instance, the architectural works of art inspired by and meant for the religious groups, such as churches and other grand buildings, are reported as awe-inspiring throughout the literature and seem to influence religious and secular individuals alike. Therefore, it can be safely assumed that the aura defined by Benjamin is a fair assessment of the effects art pieces have on the observer.
The second assumption – that mechanical reproduction is disruptive to the aura regardless of the fidelity of the copy – is somewhat harder to defend. If we assume that the suggested aura is a result of the individual perceptions and experiences of the observer, it becomes immediately apparent that the effect depends on the properties of the art piece. In this case, the presence of an aura would depend on the physical characteristics of the object, or, in the case of the mechanically reproduced copy, the precision and quality of manufacturing.
In other words, there would be no difference in aura perception between the original work of art and the copy unless the latter has flaws in its design incompatible with the artistic qualities of the object. However, it is also true that the original works and unique objects do possess a certain quality that distinguishes them from those that are widely available on the market. If the said effect is added to the multitude of factors that comprise aura, the definition suggested by Benjamin becomes more convincing. However, we then need to determine the reasons behind the magical power and authority contained in the art pieces of religious and cultural significance.
The most simplistic interpretation would be an added value of the uniqueness of the object. Under this assumption, the photographs and film, both of which can be easily copied in large amounts, would devaluate proportionally to their increase in quantity. On the other hand, the pieces that are hard to mass-produce with high fidelity or that are artificially limited in number would necessarily increase in quality and, by extension, would attain aura, which does not seem likely considering the religious and supernatural significance ascribed to it.
Another way of looking at mechanical reproduction is to evaluate the effort required for the production of the final work of art. In this case, the understanding of the lack of individual touch of the author would undermine the perception of the observer and decrease the significance of the observed object. When considered in separation, such interpretation is relatively meaningless, since the sheer complexity of the production of any object is insufficient for it to become inspiring in the cultist sense.
However, combined with the aesthetic magnificence of the piece, it is possible to see how the uniqueness of the object acquires additional sense when added to the general aesthetic characteristics of the artwork. Conversely, it would be reasonable to expect that once the observer comprehends the absence of the effort by the creator, its perception of the power and authority will be diminished.
Finally, it is possible to include social factors as a reason behind the devaluating effect of mechanical reproduction. Once the object is being explicitly reproduced, it becomes clear that the act of creation is caused by the demand of the society. In turn, this assumption suggests a link between society and the produced work, which denies it a unique detachment from humanity’s goals. This assertion seems the most plausible since it is partially confirmed by the author with an example of natural phenomena.
According to Benjamin (1939), a mountain can be equally awei0nspiring precisely because it is not in any way connected to the motives of humans and is, therefore, an independent phenomenon. The effort interpretation obviously does not stand to test in this case, and while it is still possible that it plays a certain role, it was not considered meaningful by the author.
The conclusions reached by the author increase our understanding of art in general as well as photography in particular. If we agree to categorize art as containing a necessary component of magical power resulting from the detachment from society, it becomes clear which contemporary activities can be considered as having greater artistic value. For instance, the concept is clearly connected to Tagg’s ideas on evidence and truth as shaped by the emergence of photography.
According to Tagg (1988), the utilization of photographic evidence as means for upholding certain facts as truth can be traced to the gradual improvements behind the technical process of component manufacturing and, as a result, the decrease in costs of the technology. Notably, the described shift is itself inspired by the need for serial production, which is a form of mechanical reproduction. Thus, in a certain sense, the growth of the state requires the decline of art as an authoritative force in the first place in order to adopt it as a tool for social needs.
Berger (1968) further refines the concept of art’s incompatibility with capitalist values by suggesting that the driving force behind the perceived value of art is the possibility to interpret it as property. Since the property has tremendously grown in importance in capitalist societies, the uniqueness of art is now serving as a warranty of the piece’s safety implications. Photographs, which are easily reproducible, are inherently less rare and, therefore, have no value compared to the works that do not rely on mechanical reproduction.
While it is arguable whether this concept was accounted for by Benjamin, it aligns well with the functions ascribed to the aura. In other words, it is consistent with the current understanding of photography and can be used to explain the differences in responses to different works of art. While it does not identify all of the causes behind the described effect, it contributes its set of factors that, when expanded by the suggestions of other authors, create a meaningful picture.
Since the conclusions made by the author rely on the broadly defined speculative concept, it is difficult to consider the essay by Benjamin a comprehensive assessment of the devaluation of art. Nevertheless, it is consistent with other scholars’ ideas on the matter and plays an important role as an outline of the direction taken by some art forms in capitalist societies.
Benjamin, W. (1939). The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction. In W. Benjamin, Illuminations (pp. 219-253). New York, NY: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc.
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Berger, J. (1968). Understanding a photograph. In G. Dyer (Ed.), John Berger selected essays (pp. 215-218). New York, NY: Pantheon Books.
Tagg, J. (1988). Evidence, truth and order: Photographic records and the growth of the state. In J. Tagg, The burden of representation: Essays on photographies and histories (pp. 61-66). New York, NY: Macmillan Education.