Walter Benjamin – The Work of Art in the age of mechanical reproduction

The Work of Art in the age of Mechanical Reproduction or Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit as it was called in German was first published in 1936. It was written by Walter Benjamin , a literary critic who had a Marxist take on life, influenced by the writings of Bertolt Brecht and the Swiss anthropologist Johann Jakob Bachofen.

One of the over arching themes that I discovered after reading Benjamins text was that of “aura”. Benjamin argues that works of art have an aura, or uniqueness and that the process of mechanical reproduction can depreciate the aura of a piece. To put it another way, the experience the viewer has of viewing an original work of art brings it context and meaning. However, once the work is reproduced, or photographed, it loses something of its uniqueness and value. Its aura and context are lost within the reproduction. Viewing a post card of the Mona Lisa will not have the same authenticity as viewing the original.  Therefore the act of mechanically reproducing works of art with photography, Benjamin argues, means that the work of art loses it value.

He begins his essay stating that “In principle, the work of Art has always been reproducible. What man has made, man has always been able to make again” and talks about the historical methods of reproducing art. However, unlike early methods such as embossing and casting, which were copies taken directly from the piece, the age of copperplate engraving and early 19th century lithography bought about a change in mass reproduction. Benjamin states that “with lithography, reproductive technology reaches a radically new stage.” It made the process of reproduction speedier and therefore made art more accessible than it had ever been.

This predominance was short lived when “mere decades after the invention of lithography…” it was overtaken by photography as a method of reproduction. “Principal artistic responsibilities …lay with the eye alone as it peered into the lens.”  Benjamin seemed to display an understanding of what the future would hold , with the introduction of sound to the moving image, he quotes Paul Valery “Just as water, gas and electric power come to us from afar and enter our homes with almost no effort on out part, there serving out needs, so we shall be supplied with pictures or sound sequences that, at the touch of a button, almost a wave of the hand, arrive and likewise depart.” A vision of the future that seems to suggest that the viewing of such material no longer requires that viewer to think, it is as though the whole process has been thought out for us, dumbing down the senses and this is very much in line with Benjamin s Marxist leanings.

He goes on to argue that a piece of Art can be defined by it’s genuineness, something within the work itself that copies cannot recreate with mechanical reproduction. That works of Art have an Aura that is directly related to their uniqueness. Benjamin states that technological reproductions bring the original close to the viewer but in doing so “substitutes for its unique incidence a multiplicity of incidences”

To surmise,  Walter Benjamins essay makes us ask the question that by reproducing works of art are we therefore making it lose its value as a unique piece and in doing so destroying the aura of such work. It makes ask ourselves the question , Just because we can, does that mean that we should?




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