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Walter Benjamin was a Jewish intellect who lived in Germany during a period of anti-semitic feeling and WWII. His work was influenced by Jewish mysticism and historical materialism. Both the era in which he lived and his religion strongly impacted on his thinking. He is associated with the Frankfurt school. The 'Frankfurt School' "refers to the work of those philosophers, cultural critics and social scientists who belonged to, or were associated with, the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research" (Edgar et al 1999 p129) The institute developed a Marxist approach which it is now associated with and no doubt contributed to Benjamin's historical materialism.
In "The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction" Benjamin addresses the ways in which mechanical reproduction spoils the uniqueness and authenticity of the work of art. He called this uniqueness and authenticity the "aura". "Aura is the particular power which an image or object has by virtue of its singularity, authenticity, and embeddedness in the fabric of tradition" (Gilloch 2002 p182) Benjamin believes the aura of art has changed due to mechanical reproduction and sees the increasing reproducibility of art as directly related to the strength of its aura. "Art in the age of mechanical reproduction" explores the differences and consequences of the politicisation of art and the aestheticisation of politics.
Benjamin describes works of art and some natural objects as having an aura. "By 'aura' he meant the trait of authenticity and uniqueness that constituted the artworks distance from everyday life, the notion that art was something that required contemplation and immersion on the part of the spectator" (Gentz p116) A natural object such as a mountain could be said to have an aura because it has a personality and life independent of us. It is distant, is the only one of its kind and is tied to its surroundings and location. Similarly, a masterful painting is considered unique in that no person can reproduce it with complete accuracy. "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. This unique existence of the work of art determined the history to which it was subject throughout the time of its existence." (Benjamin p4) The paintings value comes largely from its exclusivity. A painting may be called permanent partly because museums, galleries etc. are devoted to keeping them intact and partly because history insures that the artists identity and the contextual significance of the work of art survive through the ages. "But in another, less well-known sense, aura refers to the investing of an object with human qualities and emotions. We imagine not that we are looking at an inanimate thing, but that this thing can look back at us. We become caught up in a reciprocal relationship with it, just as with another person" (Butler 2002) One could question whether uniqueness or authenticity could really be used as
According to Benjamin the use of technology such as lithography changed the way in which art is produced and consumed. "With lithography the technique of reproduction reached an essentially new stage" (Benjamin p3). Lithography enabled many copies to be printed and expanded the potential audience who could view the art considerably. After this, the introduction of the illustrated newspaper and later, photography increased the rate of production and the size of the audience who consumed it. The use of photography was a turning point in the history of artistic aura. "But only a few decades after its invention, lithography was surpassed by photography" (Benjamin p3). After this the introduction of film was a further step towards mass communication. These technologies enabled art forms to be enjoyed by the masses. Art was no longer reserved for the wealthy and inaccessible to the general public. Film created even greater changes as it allows performances to be recorded and repeatedly enjoyed. Mechanical reproduction, therefore, has brought great changes to the consumption and availability of art. Both film and photography completely changed the idea of what art is.
These changes in the production of art are what, according to Benjamin, spoiled the authenticity and uniqueness of the work of art i.e. its aura. "For the first time in world history, mechanical reproduction emancipates the work of art from its parasitical dependence on ritual" (Benjamin p9) He also believes that a work of art has now become a thing that is designed to be reproduced "From a photographic negative, for example, one can make any number of prints; to ask for the "authentic" print makes no sense" (Benjamin p9). However, no matter how perfect a reproduction may be, it will always lack a place in time and space and unique existence. Benjamin gravely disapproves of the lack of history that mechanical reproduction allows. He believes that without a testimony to history the aura of an object is destroyed. A plurality of copies is substituted for a unique existence. The aura of the object is destroyed through mechanical reproduction and this coupled with the ability to meet the person in his own environment are the two main reasons for the shattering of tradition that Benjamin speaks of and both are connected to the mass movement.
Prior to the age of modernity, art was predominantly religious. Art of this type has what Benjamin describes as "cult value". "For Benjamin, works of art in our society often have with them a specific 'cult value', or value that is not subscribed to the artworks themselves, but, rather to the context in which the artworks were either constructed or situated" (Cala 2010, p283) He explains that this form of value is no longer relevant, as art produced using modern methods of production no longer have an authentic element. For example, "From a photographic negative, for example, one can make any number of prints; to ask for the "authentic" print makes no sense" (Benjamin p9) The "exhibition value" of art is emphasised in the modern age . Benjamin feels that art is no longer produced for art's sake but for political reasons. Film and photography could be said to be prime examples of this. "Reproducibility leads to the demise of the artwork's cult value. It is no longer hidden away in those hallowed spaces of bourgeois culture frequented by the privileged few" (Gilloch 2002 p185)
The destruction of the aura with regard to film is as a result of two distinct advances. They are the relationship between the actor and the audience and the mass nature of film. In film, the actor does not perform to an audience and the performance does not occur in one long piece but in scenes that can be recorded in any particular order and put together at a later time. The audience is distanced from the actor and Benjamin says that they take on the role of a critic as there is no personal contact with the actor "This permits the audience to take the position of a critic, without experiencing any personal contact with the actor. The audience's identification with the actor is really an identification with the camera. Consequently the audience takes the position of the camera; its approach is that of testing. This is not the approach to which cult values may be exposed" (Benjamin p13). The audience do not stand back and admire this art form and therefore it can be said that film has altered art's very nature and in this way it promotes the detachment of film from "the realm of the "beautiful semblance which, so far, had been taken to be the only sphere where art could thrive" (Benjamin p15) The mechanical reproduction of film changes many of the original notions on art. One of the most radical ideas contributed by film is "the promotion of a revolutionary criticism of traditional concepts of art" (Benjamin p15) In Benjamin's mind, the production of film is the ultimate expression of the aestheticsation of politics as it was revolutionary and changed the way in which people interpreted and saw the outside world. The invention of film allowed people to escape for a short time ultimately masking them from reality. Benjamin realized that film had the power to be used for political purposes and that it was well suited to propaganda. Film had the power to attract and hold the attention of the audience in order to shape their beliefs on the dominant political ideology without questioning. "Its apparatus is perfectly suited for propaganda in both a positive and negative way. In fascism, film was used to celebrate the cult leader with whom the masses could identify without being urged to denounce social inequality. (Van den Braembussche 2009 p189)
Benjamin also discusses another way in which mechanical reproduction affects society by discussing the change in the social status gap. Before mechanical reproduction a work of art would be a singular object unique by its individuality. Important works of art would be kept in private dwellings by someone of high social status and other places such as cathedrals, castles or private museums. These works of art would be inaccessible to anyone in the lower classes who were considered not worthy of viewing them. These private works of art defined the owner's status due to the exclusivity of the art and its exhibition value. Due to mechanical reproduction the value of art took a dramatic shift. A piece of art was valued by its uniqueness and its aura. Today, an image is valued not in its uniqueness but rather in its aesthetic, cultural and social worth. With the introduction of mechanical reproduction the social gap between those who viewed art and those who didn't began to close. There was an increased circulation of images and documents that were very rare and used by the higher classes. Once mechanical reproduction became widespread these rare images and diagrams were shared by all classes increasing public education and thus closing the status gap. "Technology meant that art could be reproduced and consumed by the masses, which Benjamin saw as a democratising feature. Benjamin envisioned a time when art was no longer reserved for the elite, but could be enjoyed, discussed and interpreted by anyone" (Gentz p116)
Benjamin influenced the work of Theodore Adorno. Adorno also wrote about art as having an aura. Adorno agrees with Benjamin in some regards such as that the aura has declined in this age of mechanical reproduction and that the aura of art is declining in the modern era. However he disagrees with Benjamin in other areas such as the reason for this decline. Adorno criticised Benjamin's "The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction" in a letter he wrote to Benjamin. He critisised the manner in which Benjamin used his concept of aura. "Adorno criticises the way Benjamin transfers the concept of magical aura to the 'autonomous work of art'" (Van den Braembussche p189 ) Adorno thought that Benjamin made it appear that only autonomous works of art are characterised by aura.