Walter Benjamin – The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction

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Walter Benjamin’s work is refreshing, in his attempt to deal with photography as a unique medium, rather than transpose the traditions of painting and sculpture onto it. The very title of the book, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, suggests the challenges and possible limitations of photography as an Art. In this first sense, it is a forward looking work which examines how photography can develop its own, unique perspectives as an art form.

With photography, in the process of pictorial reproduction the hand was for the first time relieved of the principal artistic responsibilities, which henceforth lay with the eye alone as it peered into the lens’. (Benjamin, 1936: 4).

Benjamin was an eclectic Jewish thinker, often drawing from Marxism, Romanticism and Idealism. In some way, I believe he saw the reality of photography as a way out of the fascism of the Nazis. Sadly, he committed suicide whilst trying to escape. Benjamin was associated with the Frankfurt School, founded in the Weimar Republic, which including intellectuals, academics, and political dissidents whose common ground was that then-current social theory (e.g. Capitalism, Marxism) was inadequate for explaining the turbulent politics of the inter-war years. So, in this second sense, all of Benjamin’s writing is anchored in the cultural, political and social context of its time.

His writing is sometimes quite challenging. Susan Sontag suggested that his work did not always have a simple line of logic, remarking that each sentence:

‘… had to say everything, before the inward gaze of total concentration dissolved the subject before his eyes.’ and ‘His major essays seem to end just in time, before they self-destruct’. (Sontag, 1981: 129).

One suspects that had Benjamin been writing today, his online texts would be full of hyperlinks.

In The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, for Benjamin, Art historically was religious in nature. Fine Art works were the object of cults, often religious in nature. Hr recalls the statues of the Greek and Roman Gods.

‘The uniqueness of the work of art is identical with its embeddedness in the context of tradition. …  A classical statue of Venus, for example, occupied a different traditional context for the Greeks, who made of it an object of worship, than for medieval clerics, who saw it as a threatening idol. But what both were equally struck by was its singularity or, to use another word, its aura [my emphasis]. The original way in which the work of art was embedded in the context of tradition was through worship’. (Benjamin, 1936: 10).

Benjamin’s notion of aura is fundamental to his conception of art. Great works have auras. The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. He considered that artworks were very much situated in a physical as well as a social space. This sense of uniqueness contributed to the impact and power of a work of art in the eyes of the viewers. Whilst this does not seem to be fully explored in the book, I believe it is implied that not all paintings have auras, just ‘proper’ works of art. The distinction is not something Benjamin works through.

As Art was liberated from a specific (physical) place, it lost cultic status, and became more accessible. This predated the challenge of photography, with reproduction via the printing press, lithography and so forth.

‘The kind of simultaneous viewing of painting by large crowds that occurs in the nineteenth century painting, which is an early symptom of the crisis affecting painting, was certainly not triggered by photography alone but, relatively independently of photography, by the work of art laying claim to mass attention’. (1936: 27)

Photography made images much more accessible, took them out of a fixed apace, and all but eliminated their cultic status. Thus, whilst a painting could have an aura, a photograph could not. The photograph is an image of an image while the painting remains original. A photograph can be reproduced, whilst a painting is unique. In other words, mechanical reproduction has eliminated the magical, cultic response we have to great art. By, corollary photography could not in future ever really become ‘art’.

That said, Benjamin does hold out one hope for photographic aura, and that is portraits.

In photography, display value starts to drive cultic value back along the whole line. However, cultic value does not give ground without resistance. It occupies one last ditch, and that is the human face. It is no accident, not at all, that the portrait forms the centrepiece of early photography. In the cult of recalling absent or dead loved ones, the cultic value of the image finds its last refuge. In the transient expression of a human countenance in early photographs, we catch one final glimpse of aura. It is this that gives them their melancholic, matchless beauty. 

But where the human form withdraws from photography, there for the first time display value gets the better of cultic value’. (1936: 14).

To truly understand what Benjamin means by aura, one needs to read further, as some passages in The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction seem incomplete. Benjamin had written a Little History of Photography in 1931, and Mechanical Reproduction borrows heavily from that. In that Little History, Benjamin more clearly analysed portraits, their interpretation and their aura.

He picks the portraits of Karl Dauthendey, amongst others, saying that in his work has a ‘magical value’ – an aura. In fact, he lauds technology as a way to create aura:

‘ … the most precise technology can give its products a magical value, such as a painted picture can never again have for us’. (Benjamin, 1931: 4).

Karl Dauthendey. 1857. Self Portrait with Fiancée.

Diarmuid Costello, in his paper Re-Reading Benjamin – Aura Face Photography (2005) comments that there is, however, still a problem in Benjamin’s logic, as he attributes the aura of the portrait directly to reality as opposed to a representation of reality. This limits Benjamin’s consideration that all kinds of photographs could potentially have aura. To quote Costello:

‘When I turn to Benjamin’s subsequent generalization of aura in the paper on technical reproducibility, I suggest that it makes clear that aura pertains to the subject rather than the object of perception, namely, to a particular modality of experience on the part of a perceiving subject.

I call this the experience of ‘aesthetic transcendence’, and I take it to represent Benjamin’s mature conception of aura’. (Costello, 2005: 3).

Costello goes on to note that ‘aura’ is not a predicate attached to one category of artwork (paintings) at the expense of others (photography). Rather, it is a property that art of all kinds can have [my emphasis] depending on execution and context. Thus, it is possible to have photographic aura, and welcome the medium into the world of art.

Put all of that another way. If one over-focuses on the indexical reality of photography, one losses the potential of the aura. In this interpretation of aura, I also see much similarity with Barthes’ description of portraits.

But more insidious, more penetrating than likeness: the Photograph sometimes makes appear what we never see in a real face (or in a face reflected in a mirror): a genetic feature, the fragment of oneself or of a relative which comes from some ancestor’. (Barthes, 1980: 103).

In the Little Art of Photography, and considering the same work by Dauthendey, Benjamin also examines what it is about a photograph that gets us interested. He writes:

‘No matter how artful the photographer, no matter how carefully posed his subject, the beholder feels the irresistible urge to search such a picture for the tiny spark of contingency [my emphasis], of the here and now, with which reality has (so to speak) seared the subject, to find the inconspicuous spot where in the immediacy of that long-forgotten moment the future nests so eloquently that we, looking back, may rediscover it’. (Little Art of Photography, in Selected Writings, Volume 2, pg 510).

I am taking here ‘contingent’ to mean something which is possible but which cannot be predicted with certainty. Benjamin’s ‘tiny spark of contingency‘ seems to be a precursor to Barthes’ idea of Punctum, that which pricks our interest in a photograph. Barthes wrote:

‘I now know that there exists another punctum (another ‘stigmatum’) than the ‘detail’. This new punctum, which is no longer of form but of intensity, is Time, the lacerating emphasis of the noeme (‘that has been’), its pure representation’. (Barthes, 1980: 96).

I’d like to use a modern photograph to illustrate.

Richard Drew’s Falling Man (2001) was (and still is) a controversial image, with much of the US Press refusing to publish it, as being disrespectful or overly macabre, depending on their position.

Richard Drew. 2001. Falling Man.

Yet to me, this is an image with punctum and aura. And it is the ultimately contingent image.

In terms of ‘aura’, it is an image which has risen above its literal, indexical meaning to have profound implications for the audience, both positive and negative. In Barthes’ terms, the image has both denotation (a reality) and a connotation (a meaning) – it certainly has Punctum.

Falling Man also ticks Szarkowski’s boxes, and Shore’s. In particular, the image takes a three dimensional space (a fourth if you consider timing) and dramatically converts it to a flat page. It is a photograph of profound historical importance.

In Costello’s words, I believe Drew’s image, therefore, has ‘aesthetic transcendence’.

Perhaps, therefore, Benjamin never quite came fully to terms with the possibilities of photography, when viewed alongside its ‘artistic’ and ‘cultic’ limitations in the world of art. Nobuo Ina, a Japanese contemporary of Benjamin did a better job, I think, writing Return to Photography in 1932, predating Benjamin’s Mechanical Reproduction essay:

‘When a monkey imitates a human, the monkey does not become human. Rather, when a monkey imitates a human, it becomes most like a monkey. Thus, as photography imitates are, it cannot become artistic. The concept of art is constantly changing. The art of today is not what was considered art yesterday. When photography imitates art is always copies yesterday’s art. This is doubly damaging and deserves double contempt’.

‘The camera’s machine quality is the origin of its uniqueness and reproductive truth’. (Ina, 1932: 3)

Photography is about seeing with the eye through mechanical means – which is different in kind to art by hand, yet it can still be art. It is not a debate, it is just a new form of art.  Whilst we know that Ina was influenced by Bauhaus thinking, I have not yet been able to find reference as to whether Benjamin and Ina directly communicated.

To summarise to this point, I find Benjamin’s notions of aura and contingency most striking. Whilst I understand fully that ubiquity (and reproducibility) can limit value, I interpret Benjamin’s work more as a warning of what might happen to photography, rather than an absolute statement of truth about all photographs.

I also find his connections into the thinking of Barthes fascinating, and still crave for some form of ‘joined up’ theory.

……………………………

There is much else in Benjamin’s writing to consider, of course. In The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, Benjamin presses the analogy between writing and the plastic arts. He comments that, for centuries:

… the situation in literature was such that a small number of writers faced many thousands of times that number of readers. Then, towards the end of the last century, there came a change. As the press grew in volume, making ever-increasing numbers of new political, religious, scientific, professional and local organs available to its readership, larger and larger sections of that readership (gradually, at first) turned into writers. (Benjamin, 1936: 22).

In the 1930s, Benjamin commented that ‘everyone can write’ and therefore offer a point of view. In some ways, this predicted the impact of the social sharing, where everyone can be a writer or photographer on today’s World wide Web.

Benjamin noted that every art form has been impacted by technology and social context. For example, in the Renaissance new sciences  such as anatomy, maths, and the invention of perspective profoundly impacted art.

‘The history of every art form has critical periods in which that form strives for effects that are able to find expression without effort only when technology has reached a new level’. (1936: 30).

In fact, art also reflects these new technologies directly. Benjamin believed that this was very clear in his own era.

‘Dadaism was trying to generate the effects that people now look for in film’. (1936: 31).

Benjamin uses Cinema as an exemplar of a modern technology that can achieve the cultic status of art. Cinema demonstrates an end result though the power of its apparatus, rather than the power (charisma?) of an individual actor on a traditional stage. In this, Cinema is actually transcending theatre as an art form, rather than suffering because of its ubiquity and reproducibility. Whilst he doesn’t state this explicitly, it seems Benjamin is allowing ‘aura’ to exist via cinema, because of its narrative capabilities emboldened by its  technology.

He also suggests that the aesthetic judgment of an audience can somehow become more readily accessible with a medium of real social significance

‘From being very backward (faced with a Piccasso, for instance), it has become extremely progressive (given Chaplin, for instance). Yet this progressive response is characterized by the fact that in it the pleasure of looking and experiencing is associated, directly and profoundly, with the stance of passing an expert judgment. This link is an important social indicator.

In fact, the more the social significance of an art diminishes, the greater the extent (as is clearly turning out to be the case with painting) to which the critical and pleasure-seeking stances of the public diverge’. (1936: 26).

Towards the end of the essay, and probably reflecting his socialist views, as well as his rage against the Nazis, he writes how the camera could be well suited to particular kinds of image-making.

‘As a rule, mass movements present themselves more clearly to the camera than to the eye. Cadres of hundreds of thousands are best captured in bird’s-eye view.

And if that perspective is as accessible to the human eye as to the camera, the image that the human eye cames away from the scene is not amenable to the kind of enlargement that due recorded image undergoes. In other words, mass movements (and that includes war) represent a form of human behaviour that particularly suits the camera’. (1936: 50).

So whilst he still doesn’t directly suggest this can now be art, perhaps Benjamin does hold out hope for photography, after all.

My conclusion? Perhaps self evident, but the choices that all artists make (including photographers) can drive the reception of their work amongst its audience, and this includes their use of technology. These choices also drive the work’s ability to be considered Fine Art.

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Introducing the Frankfurt School. 2008. Hampshire College, Amherst, Mass. Available at: https://frankfurtschool.wordpress.com/2008/02/28/summary-the-work-of-art-in-the-age-of-mechanical-reproduction/amp/ (accessed 26/01/2019).

BARTHES, Roland. 1980. Camera Lucida. New York: Hill & Wang.

BENJAMIN, Walter. 1931. Little History of Photography. Available at: http://ls-tlss.ucl.ac.uk/course-materials/ANTH3037_59485.pdf (accessed 01/02/2019)

BENJAMIN, Walter. 1936. The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. 2008 Edition. London: Penguin.

COSTELLO, Diarmuid. 2005. Aura, Face, Photography: Re-Reading Benjamin. Warwick: University of Warwick. Available at: https://warwick.ac.uk/fac/soc/philosophy/people/costello/costello_benjamin__photography.pdf. (Accessed 26/01/2019).

INA, Nobuo. 1932. Return to Photography. In Pearson, Mark. 2010. Japanese Photography of the 1930s. Tokyo: Zen Folio Gallery.

JENNINGS, Michael W., EILAND, Howard & SMITH, Gary (Eds.). 2002. Walter Benjamin; Selected Writings, Volume 2: 1931-1934. 2005 Edition. Cambridge: Belknap Press.

JENNINGS, Michael W., EILAND, Howard & SMITH, Gary (Eds.). 2002. Walter Benjamin; Selected Writings, Volume 3: 1935-1938. 2006 edition. Cambridge: Belknap Press. Available at: https://mycourses.aalto.fi/pluginfile.php/378988/mod_resource/content/1/walter-benjamin-selected-writings-volume-3-19351938-1.pdf (accessed 02/02/2019).

SCRUTON, Roger. 1981. Photography and Representation. From Critical Inquiry, Vol 7, No 3 (Spring 1981). Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Available at: https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/7cb1/ddbb50d4120061e4e3f136c60d6d1cc18588.pdf (accessed 25/01/2019).

SONTAG, Susan. 1981. Under the Sign of Saturn. New York: Viking Books. Available at: https://monoskop.org/images/8/83/Susan_Sontag_Under_the_Sign_of_Saturn_1981.pdf (accessed 03/02/2019)