Hannah Höch, "Cut with the Kitchen Knife Through the Beer Belly of the Weimar Republic, Berlin

Hannah Höch, "Cut with the Kitchen Knife Through the Beer Belly of the Weimar Republic, Berlin
Hannah Höch, "Cut with the Kitchen Knife Through the Beer Belly of the Weimar Republic," Berlin

Saturday, May 2, 2015

5/2 Walter Benjamin: "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction



Walter Benjamin (1892-1940) was part of the same generation of radical intellectuals like Sigefried Kracauer, Max Horkheimer, and Theodor Adorno–collectively known as the Frankfurt School–who we discussed in the lectures on mass culture. While maintaing an opposed stance to capitalism and emphasizing a cultural critique of capitalism, based on the concepts of "ideology" and "consciousness," and "subjectivity," at the same time they were distancing themselves from traditional Marxist thought, precisely because these ideas had been neglected by previous Marxist thinkers. Intellectuals from this generation basically created the field of media and cultural studies today, especially after many of them emigrated to the United States after 1933, where the first major studies on the effects of radio and movies on a mass audience were created. The influx of so many German and Austrian intellectuals (and soon after from all the other nations in Europe) from so different fields greatly contributed to the development of the American academic establishment, and is a large reason why the American university system is still considered to be the best in the world today.

Benjamin was among the first to leave Germany after Hitler took power in 1933 and settled in Paris. Yet for some reason he seemed to overestimate his security in France. Perhaps he loved the city–which he referred to as "the capital of the 19th century"–too much. Or perhaps, it was his large uncompleted work on urban life in Paris–known as "The Arcades Project," after the indoor/outdoor shopping malls constructed in 19th century Paris, the "arcades"–that he was still working on that kept him from leaving. 

He was also a great admirer of French art and wrote extensively about poets like Baudelaire (1821-1867) and new art movements at that time like Surrealism (something which we have not really discussed that much and different from Dada or Expressionism). 

Most of the Frankfurt School had emigrated to the U.S. between 1934-1936 (along with many other German refugees or émigrés). Adorno, who stayed in England for some time, joined his colleagues in New York in 1938. Once settled in the U.S. the Frankfurt School taught at Columbia University for several years through the 1930s and 1940s, where it was officially renamed the International Institute for Social Research. After the war, many of them stayed in the U.S. although Horkheimer and Adorno went back to Germany and reestablished the Institute at Goethe University Frankfurt (named after the German writer Goethe). 

On several occasions, Adorno and others tried to persuade Benjamin to leave Paris. After the war began in September 1939, French authorities briefly detained Benjamin and other German refugees in "detention" camps. After Germany invaded France in the Spring of 1940, Benjamin, with others, tried to illegally cross the border into Spain. The ultimate goal was Lisbon in Portugal which was a neutral port and a haven for refugees seeking asylum in the United States. 

Unfortunately, after crossing into Spain they were detained by Spanish authorities who had just decided to close the border at this time. Fearing he would be turned over to the Germans, Benjamin (a Jew with known communist associations) committed suicide by an overdose of morphine tablets–the guards were apparently so shocked that they allowed the rest of the group to go through. As a result of this, most of his work was unknown in America until the 1970s. He tends to fit into the mold of other people like Nietzsche (or Van Gogh) who became more famous after they died. The German-American theorist Hannah Arendt quotes Cicero when writing about Benjamin's life: Si vivi vicissent qui morte vicerunt–"if they had been victorious in life who have won victory in death."  Even his colleagues in the Frankfurt School, during his lifetime, disagreed with many aspects of his work especially regarding mass culture and sometimes refused to publish his work or published it with revisions. They did however publish this essay in 1936 in their journal Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung (renamed Studies in Philosophy and Social Science in 1939).

There is some strange irony in life that people like Benjamin and Rosa Luxemburg, had violent deaths, while Ernst Jünger (1895-1998)–who in his earlier work wrote about war as some kind of elevated religious experience and supported the Nazis early on–lived to be 102 and became one of the most respected German writers in the 1950s and 60s, and died in 1998, having lived through almost the entire 20th century. Or Leni Riefenstahl (1902-2003) who directed Nazi propaganda films, continuing in the art world after the war and lived to be 101. If Benjamin had lived he would have come to the U.S. and would have provided a balance from his more elitist comrades who were almost unanimously skeptical and disdainful of all form of "popular culture." Instead the fields of study revolving around the media and culture have an unmistakable elitist bias that continues into the present, in large part due to the large role people like Adorno had in establishing the very concepts and language we use to analyze and study the media.

The essay that we are reading this week, as its title implies, deals with the transformations in how art is produced, and how people receive it, brought about through technologies of mass production. 

Benjamin unlike many other media critics is positive in his overall view on the media–although with some qualifications–he believes it has great potential for freedom and the ability to undermine traditionally repressive systems of values. At the same time however, Benjamin is concerned with the loss of tradition in life. 

Mass media then gives us a more realistic view of the world and increases our ability to communicate with others even though we lose out in the sense of the supernatural and the mysterious that used to make art so powerful, what he later refers to as the "cult value" of art. But he is aware that the potential exists for fascism to capitalize on this technology for its own purposes as well. Take for example the almost constant rituals and rallies complete with torches, flags, banners, and other ritualistic objects in the film Triumph of the Will. The director Leni Riefenstahl had near unlimited resources granted to her by the German government and at that time (and for some still in the present) the film was praised for its sophistication and technique.  In other words, Benjamin believed that mass culture or rather any commodity produced under a capitalist system contains both "utopian" or "regressive" elements (as in utopian, a striving for something better, and regress, the opposite of progress)The task of the critic (himself) is to bring out these elements in their own criticism–the critic "completes the piece" in a sense which is incomplete until it has been critiqued for only then does  the deeper meaning of the work appear. The rest of the Frankfurt School were highly opposed to this position and saw the attempt to read utopian ideas into mass culture as giving them a fake magical quality and overly subjective, in other words they saw all mass culture as the deceptive and manipulative aspects of mass culture created by the Nazis. In one of their most controversial arguments made later in the 1940s they argue explicitly that mass culture in America or what they call the "culture industry" essentially produces the same totalitarian system of control in a fascist state, they are "two sides of the same coin" they say. 

A major influence on Benjamin was the German playwright Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956), who championed the idea of art having a social consciousness, or being didactic, and who among other things stressed the idea of what he called "crude" thinking to Benjamin. It is meant as a revolutionary tactic, based on the belief that to have any impact upon a mass society that social and political ideas are best expressed in simple forms. Benjamin for example once said that Charlie Chaplin films have the same effect as Dadaism, except he does it more "naturally." Brecht and Chaplin both parodied and mocked Hitler: Brecht in his play The Resistable Rise of Arturo Ui (1941) and Chaplin in the film The Great Dictator (1940). After hearing of Benjamin's death, Brecht reportedly said it was the first real loss Hitler had caused German literature.

Brecht declared that "crude thinking is the thinking of great men." In another essay that was not assigned, Benjamin speaks of the Brechtian influence of crude or coarse thinking in its relation to praxis (action): “Coarse thoughts have a special place in dialectical thinking because their sole function is to direct theory toward practice. They are directives toward practice, not for it: action can, of course, be as subtle as thought. But a thought must be coarse to find its way into action” (Benjamin p. 199).


 Positions like this horrified the Frankfurt School who had a very developed aesthetic taste and saw crude thinking as a justification for communist doctrine (Brecht was much more in line with the Soviet Union and some would accuse him of being a "Stalinist"). Benjamin also quotes Brecht saying "do not build on the good old days, but the bad new ones," which suggests a turning away from cultural tradition and an embrace of new forms of art which create new experiences.


Art is after all communicated through a kind of language even if it is a pictorial or symbolic language just as music is considered a language. Evaluating or judging the status of mass culture in contemporary society is still one of the most controversial aspects of modern life. Many, like the Frankfurt School believe that mass culture only has a harmful and regressive effect on the population–even if they are willing to admit that consumer impulses still contain a distorted demand for respect and dignity. 

Adorno's critique of Benjamin's approach is that it "lacks mediation" meaning that it is caught up in the "immediacy" or the immediate experience of the object, and not able to distance itself from the object and put it in its proper context. In essence they say: Benjamin judges things too much at face value. 

However, they all place special emphasis on the "experience" of art by people, how it affects consciousness by giving us categories by which to interpret the world, whether this develops in a group setting or individually. One of Benjamin's goals then is to explain how the experience of art changes when it is reproduced. Benjamin theorizes about two kinds of experience Erfahrung (integrated experience) and Erlebnisse (isolated experience). Integrated experience was a fuller and more developed form of experience as its name implies than isolated experience. Integrated experience occurs by understanding the historical origins of objects that you come into contact with–as tradition–while isolated experience suggests the opposite: objects are encountered in isolation and usually seen as hostile. Analysis, as a cognitive skill that can be developed, refers to the process of breaking down an object, to separate that object into parts, and observe each piece in isolation. In other words, the process of analysis itself, upon which reason and science rest and which is developed through rigorous disciplining, itself creates isolated experience. Integrated experience establishes a continuity or connection between experiences transmitted through tradition, while isolated experience sees no connection between one experience and another. Although Benjamin praises the potential liberating power of mass culture, the detachment of objects from their historical context–which mechanical reproduction makes possible–risks cutting the vital connection to history that makes integrated experience possible.

The emphasis on experience is rooted in the neo-Kantian philosophy that was standard in German universities in the early 20th century and was an influence on Benjamin and the Frankfurt School and others. Central to Kant's philosophy is the idea that there are forms of knowledge that do not depend upon experience in order to know this knowledge or to verify it, that there is knowledge prior to experience–this is known as "rationalism" or "apriorism" or a priori (Latin for "prior to" experience, literally translated as "from the earlier"), and is in contrast to "empiricism" which is knowledge learned through experience. Kant then divides our mental apparatus (our mind) into the "understanding" which is prior to experience, or transcendental, and the "sensibility" which perceives sensory stimuli from the outside world. The understanding processes or "interprets" what the sensibility perceives and converts these fragmentary sense impressions into knowledge. The understanding is different from the senses however. Kant argues this structure within the mind is universal, and seems to suggest that is at least close to the idea of what people refer to as a soul (another meaning of transcendent), although Kant would resist this kind of unscientific classification.

The most important ideas or concepts of the understanding, again, prior to experience are "space" and "time." In other words before we learn anything through experience our minds already perceive (and thus "know") time and space which Kant regards as a form of prior knowledge that is also universal and is the foundation of all experiences in general– the transcendental. Time and space are what makes experience possible by "organizing" sensory perceptions from the outside world into knowledge. Kant's position is meant to address the arguments by empiricists or materialists who believed that our minds passively "reflect" or record the objects of the external world, and on the other side, that the outside world is only real to the extent we are aware of it. Kant argues that there is an external objective world that exists outside of people, but that our minds are much more active in processing the information that comes from the outside. His ultimate objective is to clarify the limits of knowledge, and famously Kant claimed we could never know the "thing in-itself" (Das ding ah sich) meaning the outside world as it really is, our conceptual apparatus in our minds will always function as a kind of screen or lens to the outside world that interprets the world.

 Benjamin would later argue that Kant's concept of the transcendental misses the role of language in experience, and that Kant only defines experience in terms of mathematical or scientific knowledge, Benjamin wants to include religious and artistic modes of experience into his philosophy, even though he risks losing the scientific basis that Kant had been developing. Instead of a unitary form of experience that experiences the world in a uniform way, Benjamin proposes multiple forms of experience   that reconstitute our perceptions of the world in radically different ways–all mediated through language. Although not really a direct connection, Benjamin was likely influenced by the "theory of relativity" developed by Albert Einstein (1879-1955) also in the early 20th century, which states among other things that space and time are relative to the perspective of the viewer (later scientists even dispute the notion of time at all). Thus the Kantian idea of time being a universal feature of experience is now thrown into doubt. At the same time, jazz music is continuing to evolve in the United States and has already become popular in Europe from World War I on after being introduced to it by James Reese Europe (1881-1919) and the "Harlem Hellfighters." Musicians like Louis Armstrong (1901-1971) revolutionized music by changing the rhythm of music in a way which so many critics have noted was more reflective of the pace of the modern world, and of course the 1920s is sometimes referred to as the "Jazz Age" in U.S. history.  





"Swing kids" in Germany were a subculture in the 1930s that listened to banned American jazz and "swing" records. It is not clear that Benjamin was influenced by Einstein or Armstrong directly, in fact Benjamin's most direct influences seem to be primarily European and literary and aesthetic not scientific, but in fact the seeming randomness reveals the ways in which conventional notions of even things taken for granted like time and space were being challenged in a variety of ways, all a response to the radical changes in all societies at this time.


As it relates to integrated experience, Benjamin believed that the experience of time would change as well, what he called Jetztzeit, time "charged with the presence of now," a theological concept where the experience of times passing slows and a sense of the "everlasting present" takes hold. Again not to overemphasize the connection but Einstein once summarized his theory of relativity by pointing out the different experiences of time when you are doing pleasurable or painful activities, like "talking to a beautiful woman" or "sitting on a hot stove," time spent doing something pleasurable like talking to someone you are attracted to will seem to pass by fast even if a lot of time has gone by while sitting on a stove for ten minutes will feel like an hour, as he says. The important point is that the Kantian idea of how time is experienced in a standard, uniform kind of way is challenged by both science and philosophy. 


A more direct influence would be the Hungarian theorist Georg Lukacs (1885-1971), another unorthodox or "renegade" Marxist thinker who had a literary background like Benjamin. Lukacs, unlike Benjamin, had participated in a similar failed uprising in Hungary in 1919 as Spartacus in Germany and was likewise concerned with the importance of ideology and consciousness in shaping the attitudes and the actions of the proletariat. Benjamin borrows the concept of "mediation" which is central to Lukacs' early approach, and which he himself borrows from Hegel to explain the construction of different forms of experience. 

To "mediate" literally means to go between, and suggests already, implicitly, the later importance of "the media." In the original Hegelian sense it meant to explain the development of history and culture through the different "in-between stages," or mediations between the so-called Absolute Spirit and the particular: the finite material world. Mediation then referred to the relationship between concepts like universal & particular or transcendent & immanent, and is concerned with language to the extent to which language reveals the different stages of development of the Spirit. Hegel's philosophy of history is central to the notion of progress in history and the liberal worldview. Lukacs had tried to adapt this to the Marxist idea of class struggle and of the "class consciousness" of the proletariat as it goes through different stages of development. Benjamin, inherits all these past meanings, but is more concerned with the effects of technology on art and on how we experience it as a political phenomenon.

During World War I, Benjamin (who did not serve) wrote a series of essays on language where he separates language into: human, divine and natural language. Human language could be English or German or any other language; divine language is revealed through prophecy and revelation; natural language is the language between things. Experience is basically the act of translating into human language the divine and natural languages–misinterpretations are very common. Again, integrated experience would be able to experience the true natural language of things while isolated experience is limited only to human language. Benjamin through his analysis of the reproduction of art–which depicts divine and natural images and does not use language in the traditional sense–is actually trying to show that perceptions of space and time do in fact change, and thus experience changes too and is not the same at all times for all people.


Benjamin relies on the ideas of Johann Hamann (1731-1788), a contemporary of Kant's who critiqued Kant on the grounds that his "transcendental" concepts of experience, were in fact conditioned by experience after all, namely through the medium of language which conditions all experience, as he says:

Indeed, if a chief question does remain: how is the power to think possible?–The power to think right and left, before and without, with and above experience? Then it does not take a deduction to prove the genealogical priority of language….Not only the entire ability to think rests on language…but language is also the crux of the misunderstanding of reason with itself (Dickson 2007, N III, 286: 1-10).  

Or as he says elsewhere, “Hence it happens that one takes words for concepts, and concepts for the things in themselves” (Dickson 2007, ZH 5, 264:34-265:1).


Instead, Hamann argues that language, and thus thinking are inseparably connected with tradition and experience, as Dickson explains:
Language is the embodiment of experience and tradition; as long as the ability to think rests on language, neither ‘reason’ nor ‘philosophy’ can be pure of the empirical, of experience, and of the experience of the others to whom we relate. It itself is a ‘union of opposites,’ of the aesthetic and the logical, the bodily and the intellectual; it unites the division Kant’s Critique creates (Dickson ibid).

As this relates to mechanical reproduction, in short, it creates a new language for art and new forms of experience. What reproduction does is to strip away what Benjamin refers to as the 'aura' of a work, the aura being the unique presence that each work has, or as he says:
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 (p.220). 

Elsewhere he defines aura as: the unique phenomenon of distance no matter how close the object may be. In other words, a sense of distance that is immeasurable, that comes from the sense of mystery and otherworldliness the object produces–and which the person experiences upon beholding the work of art. This aura is dependent upon one crucial condition: uniqueness. As soon as art is reproducible its aura, or auratic quality is diminished–and under the conditions of mass society he would say it is completely destroyed, or as he says:
 One might generalize by saying: the technique of reproduction detaches the reproduced object from the domain of tradition. By making many reproductions it substitutes a plurality of copies for a unique existence. And in permitting the reproduction to meet the beholder or listener in his own particular situation, it reactivates the object reproduced. These two processes lead to a tremendous shattering of tradition which is the obverse of the contemporary crisis and renewal of mankind. Both processes are intimately connected with the contemporary mass movements. Their most powerful agent is the film. Its social significance, particularly in its most positive form, is inconceivable without its destructive, cathartic aspect, that is, the liquidation of the traditional value of the cultural heritage (p. 221).

Again, to relate this to experience: the decisive difference is that since you do not have to go to the original location of the object (space), and since the historical uniqueness of the object (time) no longer matters, it fundamentally changes the experience of the object, and literally alters the configurations of time and space by which previous generations perceived art: "in his own particular situation...reactivates the object the reproduced," even if you did then see the original afterwards it would not be the same as the original experience of it. For example, a famous example of art in a specific location could be the frescoes in the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican, painted by Michelangelo. The very fact that I can reproduce images of it here, Benjamin says, diminishes the aura of the work–even if it creates a new experience of the object:
Michelangelo, The Last Judgement, 1537-1541

The function or purpose of aura is closely connected with what Benjamin refers to as the cultic or religious function of art. Basically, in ancient times up until the Renaissance: artistic production was used in religious ceremonies and rituals, and thus art has always served a social purpose and served to maintain a specific social order. By the time of the Renaissance (circa 1400-1650), secular, non-religious themes began to replace the religious purposes of art, although religious themes remained very dominant during this time as well–and the dependence of art on social forces never diminished either like the Catholic Church or rich nobles and kings who commissioned artists for works and became their "patrons." 

This development culminated in 19th century Romanticism which stressed the doctrine: "art for art's sake," (l'art pour l'art in French) meaning that art was an independent realm of human activity separate from politics and society which operated according to its own rules and standards of excellence–in Benjamin's view this is only the last attempt to preserve the decaying aura that art once had. In reality, "independent" artists were still dependent upon rich patrons or upon commercial publishing houses and newspapers which were developing rapidly in the 19th century. 

Fascism draws upon Romanticism for its own imagery and because romantics emphasized "feelings" over "reason." These are basically still the two dominant approaches to art: art for art's sake (Kant had similarly defined art as "purposiveness without purpose"), or the didactic: art as a tool of social and political consciousness. 

Reproduction takes away the aura since works are no longer unique they exist along with perhaps thousands of copies of the original. This destroys the mystical aspect of art and Benjamin regards this as a positive development since it allows us to approach art in a more realistic way–although the destruction of the aura does diminish the experience of the object since it is taken out of its historical context which is one of the bases of integrated experience. He regards the auratic quality as a kind of supernatural domination that in effect serves the mundane purpose of protecting dominant classes in society. Later he says that the destruction of the aura allows people to see "the universal equality of things." Reproduction is then seen as a positive development even though it does create the possibility for art to become a mass produced commodity for the first time and also allows new political forces like fascism to use it as well. But in what ways are art mechanically reproduced?
He gives special emphasis to photography and to film. With photography one is able to examine images in ways previously unavailable to the naked eye. Photography is actually an invention of the French. The first known photograph is credited to French inventor Nicéphore Niépce in 1826:
First Known Photograph, 1826, La cour du domaine du Gras


Niépce died in 1833 and gave his notes to his partner Louis Daguerre, who developed the first commercially successful photographic process, the daguerrotype:
Daguerrotype, 1838, Boulevard du Temple, Paris


 A French-Brazilian inventor Hércules Florence, coined the term photographia, in 1832 and perfected a similar process, but was relatively unknown in his time. English inventor John Herschel is credited with coining the term "photography" in 1839. He was an influence on Fox Talbot who in 1841 developed the calotype process of photography. This was the process adopted by George Eastman (inventor of roll film) who founded the Eastman Kodak company in 1889 which set the standard for how all consumer camera and photography equipment would be produced–kodak originally was a word specifically for a small hand-held camera. 

The invention of roll film would be crucial for the development of motion picture film which is really just a further technical development of photography, pictures that move and later have sound–the first films were produced in the 1880s (the automobile was also invented during this time period), the first films made for a public were produced in 1895 as mentioned in the lecture on Caligari. This also changed the artistic standards in painting. Before the invention of photography, the standard of excellence for a a painter was the ability to recreate nature in painting and represent it accurately. The development of photography and its flawless accuracy makes "naturalistic" painting seem obsolete and it is in the latter half of the nineteenth century and after that you see the development of "abstract" forms of art–many of which we have discussed already or check the "modern art timeline."

With photography, one is now able to enlarge images to see things that would be hard to see or invisible, and slow motion allows us to examine movement and motion in ways that people would not be able to in real time, "For example, in photography, process reproduction can bring out those aspects of the original that are unattainable to the naked eye yet accessible to the lens, which is adjustable and chooses its angle at will. And photographic reproduction, with the aid of certain processes, such as enlargement or slow motion, can capture images which escape natural vision" (p. 220). How does this contrast with Jünger's analysis of the camera as the "evil eye?"

These technical developments in the reproduction of art leads to a "quantitative shift between its two poles" and causes a  "qualitative transformation of its nature." What he means by that is that artistic production could be analyzed as having a "cult value" and "exhibition value"–the two poles. The cult value refers to its status in magic and rituals; exhibition value refers to the content or the "information" contained within the piece, literally by showing or exhibiting it. Although both values are always present one is always stronger than the other and until modern times, the cult value of art (which supports social order by making it seem mystical) tended to dominate, but reproduction of art in ever greater numbers has caused this to shift so much, that the defining quality of art now tends to emphasize exhibition value over cult value. This is the framework by which Benjamin analyzes art, and he is suspicious of any attempt to recreate "cult value" under the modern conditions of production. One form in which this takes is fascism; the other is the American entertainment system–Hollywood by this time had already been established.  Emil Jannings, I already mentioned, star of The Blue Angel and later celebrity of the Nazi regime won the first Academy Award for Best Actor in 1928.

Benjamin stresses that the exhibition value of art clearly begins to dominate over the cult value for the first time with photography, especially with the the work of Eugéne Atget (1857-1927) who depicted street scenes in Paris, known for their haunting, almost supernatural quality–Benjamin says they look like "scenes of a crime":



Pavers (Bitumiers), 1899-1900
all Atget images from The Museum of Modern Art, New York
Edge of the Marne (Bords de la Marne), 1903


Cour, 41 rue Broca, 1912
Magasins du Bon Marche, 1927, Famous French department store

Atget had a tremendous influence on a whole generation of photojournalists also from Benjamin's generation (although Americans), like Walker Evans (1903-1975) and Dorothea Lange (1895-1965) and others who became well-known for their depiction of scenes of the Great Depression and basically created the style of documentary photojournalism that is still popular today. 

In this example, the camera is used not to glorify but to expose the contradictions within the economic and social system not by statistical arguments but by depicting human suffering, and to give expression to groups and individuals who normally would not be able to express themselves. This is true both of the economic underclasses but also of racial minorities such as many Japanese-American citizens who were placed in "internment" camps by the U.S. government during World War II:
Walker Evans, Vicksburg, Mississippi, 1936

Dorothea Lange, Migrant Mother, Florence Owens Thompson, 1936




Dorothea Lange, Japanese Americans line up at Tanforan  Assembly Center, San Bruno, California, 1942


It also increases our awareness of the horrors of the world and forces people to confront these aspects of life:


Lynching of Laura and Lawrence Nelson, Oklahoma, 1911

Stanley Forman, Fire Escape Collapse, 1975

Another prominent photographer during this time was Margaret Bourke-White (1904-1971), the first Western journalist to photograph the Soviet Union and the first female war correspondent. Here the camera allows the viewer to see distant locations and thus brings us into contact with these people in a way that was impossible before, but also serves as a chronicle of human abuse and misery and stands as a reminder to the atrocities committed by humanity:
Tractor Factory, Stalingrad, USSR, 1930


Prisoners at Buchenwald, Weimar, Thuringia, Germany, 1945

Nuremberg, Bavaria, Germany, 1945


The reproducibility of all these photographs–indeed Benjamin points out it is absurd to ask for an "original" photograph–makes it difficult to use these images for a "cultic" purpose, instead however, the exhibition value–they communicate a lot of information–is strong. The later photographers of the 1930s, (the same time in which Benjamin is writing on this) mark an even stronger insistence on the social and political function of their photography and developed the "documentary" style of photojournalism which is still popular today. Atget's work, from another generation, seems otherworldly and recreates almost an "aura" or auratic kind of quality, but not on the work itself, but what the work depicts: it gives the "real world" an aura, but also hints at a hidden darkness or evil under the surface of reality. Benjamin suggests that Atget's photos makes a person feel the traces of people who have occupied the spaces before even if they are empty. In this way, he is able to preserve a sense of historical connection in his work that makes integrated experience possible. After discussing photography, Benjamin shifts the discussion to film, which is not so much distinct from photography as it takes the technological development that is photography and refines it to a higher level of expression.

The American photographer Paul Strand (1890-1976), slightly older than Evans, Lange, and Bourke-White was also a major influence on establishing photography in the early 20th century. However, I mention Strand in this context because he serves as a link between photography and film. In 1921 he co-directed with painter Charles Sheeler, the short film Manhatta. This film in some ways recreates the sense of experience captured by Atget but now with actual moving images:


Film more than any other art form destroys the aura of traditional works of art, or as he says "liquidates the cultural heritage." Again, this frees people from the cultic power that art once had, but also cuts the connection for integrated experience that has to be reestablished somehow. Also Benjamin's influence by the playwright Brecht means that he partially conceives of the relationship between film actor and audience similar to the relationship between stage actor and audience. Since Brecht especially emphasized the interactions between actors and audience in his plays (in some cases actors would "break character" and speak directly to the audience) and this element is obviously lost in filmmaking–there is no connection between actors and audience at all–Benjamin interprets some aspects of film negatively:
The camera that presents the performance of the film actor to the public need not respect the performance as an integral whole. Guided by the cameraman, the camera continually changes its position with respect to the performance. The sequence of positional views which the editor composes from the material supplied constitutes the completed film. It comprises certain factors of movement which are in reality those of the camera, not to mention special camera angles, close-ups, etc (p. 228).

The fragmentation of the actor's performance brought about by mechanical reproduction and the second-hand quality of the performance which is not delivered live, in person, but through the mediation of a machine naturally destroys the aura–aura depends on presence. Benjamin argues in this case the destruction of the aura (which implies the authority of the actor) is substituted with celebrityhood:   "The film responds to the shriveling of the aura with an artificial build-up of the 'personality' outside the studio. The cult of the movie star, fostered by the money of the film industry, preserves not the unique aura of the person but the 'spell of the personality,' the phony spell of a commodity" (p. 231). Elsewhere he argues that there is great potential in filmmaking–for example he says in Soviet films  like those directed by Sergei Eisenstein (1898-1948) who created frenetic, fast-paced films, using innovative film editing techniques that also speed up the flow of time by displaying  rapid sequences of images from different perspetives and angles–similar to the pacing of music videos today. Eisenstein's editing techniques like Louis Armstrong's trumpet solos are both indicators of a new experience of time. In contrast to the Hollywood style Eisenstein's films usually featured "real" people instead of actors, and were explicitly political and revolutionary.

 Although: "In Western Europe the capitalistic exploitation of the film denies consideration to modern man's legitimate claim to being reproduced. Under these circumstances the film industry is trying hard to spur the interest of the masses through illusion-promoting spectacles and dubious speculations" (p.232).  These are aspects more unique to film: there are not really celebrity photographers at least not to the level of famous actors and actresses; and photography requires much less capital to produce than film (although some forms of independent or "guerrilla filmmaking" get around this difficulty). 

Film opens up entirely new areas of perception to humanity that previous art forms like painting could never do. Benjamin compares this to a surgeon:
 How does the cameraman compare with the painter? To answer this we take recourse to an analogy with a surgical operation. The surgeon represents the polar opposite of the magician. The magician heals a sick person by laying on of hands; the surgeon cuts into the patient's body. The magician maintains the natural distance between the patient and himself; though he reduces it very slightly by the laying on of hands, he greatly increases it by virtue of his authority. The surgeon does exactly the reverse; he greatly diminishes the distance between himself and the patient by penetrating into the patient's body, and increases it but little by the caution with which his hands moves among the organs. In short, in contrast to the magician–who is still hidden in the medical practitioner–the surgeon at the decisive moment abstains from facing the patient man to man; rather, it is through the operation that he penetrates into him (p. 233).
Rembrandt,"The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nichoales Tulp," 1632, The Hague
Even if some aspects of this sound unpleasant and suggest something lost that painting had, at the same time the ability to record and reproduce living moving images of human beings for the first time in human history created new forms of perception which before this did not exist:
Then came the film and burst this prison-world asunder by the dynamite of a tenth of a second, so that now, in the midst of its far flung ruins and debris, we calmly and adventurously go traveling. With the close-up, space expands; with slow motion, movement is extended. The enlargement of a snapshot does not simply render more precise what in any case was visible, though unclear: it reveals entirely new structural formations of the subject. So, too, slow motion not only presents familiar qualities of movement but reveals in them entirely unknown ones 'which, far from looking like retarded rapid movements, give the effect of singularly gliding, floating, supernatural motions (p. 236).
This even changes our own self-awareness so we can now study in detail how people move and behave:
Even if one has a general knowledge of the way people walk, one knows nothing of a person's posture during the fractional second of a stride. The act of reaching for a lighter or a spoon is a familiar routine, yet we hardly know what really goes on between hand and metal, not to mention how this fluctuates with our moods. Here the camera intervenes with the resources of its lowerings and liftings, its interruptions and isolations, its extensions and accelerations, its enlargements and reductions. The camera introduces us to unconscious optics as does psychoanalysis to unconscious impulses (p. 237).


Benjamin compares the impact of film with the Dadaists, noting that the "shock effect" of Dada art is reproduced by the rapid sequences of images produced by film, in fact it is enhanced by the presentation of the film and that in many ways dadaism is a prelude to the film (this could also explain why Dadaism is usually received well even in the present by a modern movie going public). He also contrasts "concentration" with "distraction" as ways of experiencing art and argues that the distracted mode is most similar to the experience of architecture in that you are in contact and experiencing the "art" but you are not concentrated on it–he also mentions that architecture is the oldest and most durable of all the art forms and is indispensable for humanity. He also compares it to optical (visual) and tactile (touch) art. Benjamin argues that distracted mode of experience is more social than concentration which assumes a certain antisocial behavior, and that similar to how we use architecture, he suggests, that we will use art in the same kind of tactile way (maybe clothing could be another example).

He ends by noting the difference between the fascist and communist appropriation of art so far. At the time in which Benjamin is writing in 1935-1936 there is a significant propaganda war going on throughout the whole world. Italy by this time has already invaded Ethiopia. Germany is about to make its first expansionistic move into the Rhineland. However, a new force has emerged in Europe to challenge the fascist influence–the Popular Front. 

This was an alliance of communist, socialist, and even bourgeois liberal parties. In 1934, Stalin through the Comintern (international socialist organization) had decided to align the communist parties of Europe with their social democratic counterparts and even bourgeois liberal parties who were willing to accept any ally to counteract the fascists. Popular Front governments were established in France (where Benjamin was) and also in Spain and animated the spirit of '30s radicalism in the U.S. during the New Deal. It was the election of the Popular Front government in the Second Spanish Republic (only established in 1931) that prompted right-wing extremists to initiate the Spanish Civil War in 1936 which culminated in the takeover by fascist dictator Francisco Franco in 1939.
Spanish Republic Allegory
 Note the symbols of progress and modernization. The plaque on the left is inscribed with a famous saying from the French Revolution: "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity."

The Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) was also notorious because it was the first time German warplanes were used to bomb a city, Guernica, in the Basque region of Northern Spain. This was memorialized by the painter Pablo Picasso (1881-1973).  In many ways the Germans regarded this conflict as "practice" for their own war they were about to unleash on the continent. The Germans began their war just as the Spanish Civil War was ending, costing the lives of Walter Benjamin and over 60 million more (more than half civilians). The Popular Front collapsed completely in 1939 after the Germans and the Soviet Union signed a non-aggression pact–a major betrayal by Stalin who initiated this five years before.

Some have argued that Picasso's style was influenced by film. His style later referred to as "cubism" reveals another radical reconstruction of experience. If Armstrong and Eisenstein reveal radical new experiences of time in their work, then Picasso's paintings represent a new conception of space that defies the conventional linearity and separation of objects. Similarly, Eisenstein's film editing, being a visual form, also transforms the spatial configurations of objects, allowing the viewer to see combinations and sequences of imagery that could never occur in reality, and allows the director to juxtapose or combine distinct, unrelated images together. 
Pablo Picasso, Guernica, 1937, Museo Reina Sofia, Madrid





Assignment Due 5/9: Choose a passage from "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," write out the passage, explain what it means and why you chose it.


4 comments:

  1. The video that was recently posted about the shooting of Powell is not right. There is no doubt that this video can provoke negative reactions. Like you said about films: "It also increases our awareness of the horrors of the world and forces people to confront these aspects of life". At the same time this video shows how the law enforcement is nihilistic. They are the ones who are supposed to maintain order, but instead they are practicing police brutality. By killing a young person they are demonstrating that they are going against their principles. There was no need to shoot this man multiple times, there was no need to shoot him period. This video upsets me, and before this I was not aware of such cruel event. There is no doubt that with videos or pictures we can see what is really happening. Therefore, it is clear that police brutality is becoming a serious problem in the United States.

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  2. This is practice of martial law people are not fully aware of the power the police hold. Counties,cities and states all of police get pumped in money by government,by distributing homeland security weapons and paying overtime so that they can with hold martial law and keep peace. People need to understand they protect and serve themselves they protect and serve the 1percent they protect and serve their pensions and retirement. It's all about the money at the end of the day. Law is law police are citizen with the right to uphold the law. Courts are to protect the police state. And martial law rises. So it's not a race thing it's a police state vs the people. GOVERNMENT vs the people. The 1percent vs the 99. But in numbers we are stronger and bigger!

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  3. One might generalize by saying: the technique of reproduction detaches the reproduced object from the domain of tradition. By making many reproductions it substitutes a plurality of copies for a unique existence. And in permitting the reproduction to meet the beholder or listener in his own particular situation, it reactivates the object reproduced. These two processes lead to a tremendous shattering of tradition which is the obverse of the contemporary crisis and renewal of mankind. Both processes are intimately connected with the contemporary mass movements. Their most powerful agent is the film. Its social significance, particularly in its most positive form, is inconceivable without its destructive, cathartic aspect, that is, the liquidation of the traditional value of the cultural heritage (p. 221).

    I chose this particular passage because the insight within it is very strong and accurate. What this passage explains is mechanical reproduction takes away from the originality of what was originally produced. The uniqueness of anything original is lost not only with substitutes but, with time. As used in this passage, mankind has become lost of values and morals watered down through this very mechanical reproduction. This is also why he states film to be the most powerful agent. Film captures the originality of what was happening at the time of what ever was being created. For example; when Martin Luther king was killed, or when they filmed Hitler's camp. Through these original truths are seen how watered down many if not all cultures have become. Almost to the point of it's destruction.

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  4. Arts of history are unique, and cannot be replaced. People have lost the perception of nature arts and their aura. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," the true is the modernization change people view, for example when you take a picture of a place, things or person, it just a picture . On the other hand, when you see a painting, you see something unique and history involve.

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