The essay is important for its early analysis of photography, and the influence photography and technological reproducibility have had on art and our perception of it. I summarized the essay below, dedicating a short paragraph to each of the chapters of Walter Benjamin’s essay. I have commented briefly after each paragraph to indicate strong and weak points in the essay. First of all, Benjamin observes that the reproducibility of art is a consequence of the advances of productive capitalist society, and that the political interest of its consequences should not be underestimated. Benjamin’s main observation is correct and extremely important. One may quarrel with the Marxist style of his preliminary observations (Samuel, 1996). However, they are explicit, not hidden and do not influence his main analysis of the consequences of the reproducibility of art, and should rather be seen as hallmarks of intellectual integrity and openness (Taylor, 1997).
Next, he observes that though reproducibility of artworks has been known for a long time (casting, stamping, woodcuts, movable type, engraving, etching, lithography), with the advent of photography, reproduction in detail was vastly accelerated, with minimal effort. He sets out to analyze the effects of the reproduction of artworks and the art of film, on art in its traditional form. Again, Benjamin’s main observation is acute, and acknowledges the strong influence that reproductive society has on our perception. He rightly considers the influence of photography on art as dominant compared to the influence of art on photography although the latter is also important. In fact, he stops short of analysing the wider influence of photography on culture in society, although he alludes to it often in the sequel of the essay. He could have allowed his observations a wider applicability (Walter, 1988). Benjamin is clearly aware of that but chooses nevertheless to concentrate on the influence on art. The choice of domain is artificially small, and is presumably the cause for a much less refined treatment of much broader subjects in the introduction and epilogue (Theodor, 1997).
Benjamin argues that the work of art is distinguished from a reproduction by the here and now of the artwork. He argues that photographic reproduction is not forgery, since it can reveal details unobservable to the human eye, and can place the artwork in otherwise unreachable contexts. Reproducibility endangers the original’s aura. Mass existence detaches the authentic object from the sphere of tradition. Once more, Benjamin makes an important observation. The reproduction of an artwork is not like the original, however, note that Benjamin chooses here to think of photography of art, and not of photography by itself. He considers the artwork as reproducible via photography, and concentrates on the difference between the reproduction and the original, identifying authenticity and aura of the artwork as qualities that are lost in the process of reproduction (Samuel, 1996). Aura and authenticity are vague concepts, in my view, and I associate them with an old view on art in which a Master realizes a singular work of art, and distils magic on a canvas. However, it is true that the concepts of aura and authenticity can, in many particular instances be filled in concretely, and they are therefore useful. More examples would have been appropriate. To me the most important point at this junction is that photographs are reproducible independent of their application (Taylor, 1997). It is one of their most important characteristics, here applied only to the reproducible reproduction of a work of art. In fact the paragraph show that Benjamin is only concerned with a particular application of photography, namely in art. His essay cannot be read as an analysis of photography proper, although it contains important elements for such an undertaking. In particular, anything photographed becomes a mechanically reproducible image. That is an important characteristic of the act of photographing (Walter, 1988).
Modes of perception change. Aura is associated to distance. By reproduction, distances gets smaller, sameness is extracted from uniqueness, the work of art becomes repeatable and transitory. The reverence for true art is again manifest in the description of what photographical reproduction does to the artwork, perhaps, to make the transition clearer, Benjamin consciously exaggerates the starting point (Samuel, 1996). However, that is unnecessary and refers to a very classic view on art. I often want to be close, feel close is taken in by the artwork, are emotionally touched by its mastery. Moreover, associating repeatability to transistorize does not make little sense, nor does associating art to eternity make sense, although again, it is a classic mistake. Eternity is a concept that I won’t easily fit into my lifetime. It is a negation of the finitude that we are familiar with in our lives, and that I should cherish. Benjamin makes the very important point that our perception of art changed through its reproducibility. That is certainly true, and needs to be analyzed in more detail (Taylor, 1997).
The uniqueness of the work of art is determined by its basis in ritual. Art in the age of reproducibility is revolutionized. It is based not anymore on ritual, but politics. Ritual is advanced as a prerequisite for art. Without ritual, art becomes a goal in and of itself. However, there is nothing wrong with that, and I believe that art has gained its independency of ritual, and that it deserved to do so (Walter, 1988).
The stress on the cult value of works of art has shifted to their exhibition value. Photography and film are ideally suited for realizing that shift. Again an acute and visionary observation, a further analysis of the consequences of this fact, both negative and positive, is necessary (Theodor, 1997).
From some cult value in early photography portraits, fleeting human presence via at get photography has become evidence for a historical process. Perhaps, when photographs were less widely spread, they kept cult value. However, they were always ideally suited for exhibition, and they still are, even the eldest ones.
Certainly, it is true that we must not ask whether photography is an art, for various reasons. The technological innovation underlying photography and film revolutionized our vision, and we must undertake the definition of new categories to cope with its advent, instead of trying to fit them into an old dictionary. However, it is also insufficient to ask how photography as a technique of reproduction has changed art. It has changed art in more drastic ways than as a means of reproduction. It seems that Benjamin underestimates still the importance of photography (Taylor, 1997).
The actor is tested optically by cinematography. The audience is not in personal contact, but takes the position of the camera, the optical tester. The approach contradicts the cult value.
In film, the actor loses his person, his here and now. The best acting is where the actor acts as little as possible losing his aura entirely, the actor need not identify with a role. Indeed, the best acting is often minimal and I believe this is partly due to the viewer’s capability for empathy and her imagination (Samuel, 1996).
The screen actor confronts the consumer. Capital sets the fashion. Film is only revolutionary in its criticism of the traditional concepts of art. Everybody can be filmed, everybody writes. The masses are involved. The revolt of the masses is a fact and I associate it to a rise of the overall standard of living rather than to one particular facet of technological revolution and the breadth of its manifestation is, by nature, large (Theodor, 1997).
Vision of reality is one via apparatuses, diminishing distance and increasing detail. Our daily perception of reality has remained more or less constant, from our ape days until now, and the influence of apparatuses on our daily lives should not be exaggerated. Their technological importance, and their importance in scientific discovery, of course, can hardly be overestimated and it is true that to some degree, the associated sense of possibility has influenced popular culture (Walter, 1988).
Pleasure becomes fused with expert appraisal, in the relation of the masses with art. Simultaneous mass reception of painting is unthinkable, and does not naturally confront masses directly. Art is again associated to an elite, individual activity, while it is essential that culture is public, and only in its publicity and public value, it can be culture. However, it is clear that a reaction of the masses cannot replace an expert opinion, when better informed, based on a broader interpretation, a finer analysis of distinguishing characteristics, etcetera, the larger public should take time to listen to experts, but should by no means be excused from an attempt to shape an informed opinion (Taylor, 1997). Any suggestion to that effect is tantamount to cultural suicide.
Film sharpens and deepens our optical and auditory impressions. Artistic uses and scientific uses of photography are identical, as will be demonstrated by film. My field of vision is enlarged, our eye is sharpened. We see things we could not see before, discovering the optical unconscious. Benjamin rightly estimates that photography and film have influenced and enlarged our visual perception. This society has developed a far more subtle visual language, due to the omnipresence of imagery and a linguistic analysis of visual language in contemporary imagery is called for (Walter, 1988).
Dadaists destroyed the aura of art and outraged the public. Film is shock replaced by shock. The analysis of cinema is certainly not simplified by the continuous visual attack on our brain during viewing. The analysis of film should be approached with caution, time delay, and a stop button.
The artist enters the painting the masses absorb the work of art. Concentration is contrasted with distraction. The public is a distracted examiner. Benjamin again uses a classic image of art in which the artist loses himself in the painting, contrasted with the masses devouring art. The latter is a more optimistic view on art than we are used to from Benjamin. Fascism allows masses to express themselves, not changing the property relations and war delivers the artistic gratification of a sense of perception altered by technology (Samuel, 1996).
The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility points towards very important consequences of the invention and pervasiveness of photography. Benjamin wrote an essay about art and about the influence of photography on art. He identifies technological reproducibility as a paramount feature of photography. His concept of art is classical, and his essay seems to have a pessimist undertone about the influence of modern media on the experience and social consequences of art. He rightly identifies the strong influence of photography and film on our modes of perception. By contrast I would like to argue that photography and its reproducibility are still underestimated in this essay, where its function is too often narrowed down to the reproduction of art. I wish to stress the necessity of a linguistic analysis of visual imagery and a more thorough study of the special relationship between art and politics, from the perspective of quieter times. It is necessary to understand photography and film better, to better control its potentially destructive use. Clearly, photography has made fine art more democratically accessible to a much wider public and the influence of this fact on art should not be overestimated, whereas art is bought by a small fraction of the people that have been reached by photography and it is true that expert critics and potential buyers have gained easier access to art works through photography, but it would be fair to conclude from this that better art has gotten a better chance of getting the upper hand, not only in the market, but everywhere worldwide (Theodor, 1997). The influence of the public at large on the expert critics and buyers exists but should not be exaggerated. We should not confuse products of distraction and entertainment with the production of works of art. Though it is extremely interesting to analyze precisely the way in which Benjamin identifies, like a visionary, salient features of technological and cultural streams during his lifetime, more than half a decade later it should strongly be recognized that his analysis is dated (Samuel, 1996).
Samuel, W. (1996) Mass Mediauras: Form Techniques Media, Manchester: NLB Publishers
Taylor, Ronald, T. (1997) Aesthetics and Politics (Translator editor), New York: Guilford Press
Theodor, A. (1997) Aesthetic Theory. Edited by Gretel Adorno and Rolf Tiedemann, Translated and edited with an Introduction by Robert Robert Hullot-Kentor, Minneapolis: University press
Walter, B. (1988) The Author as Producer, in Twentieth-Century Literary Theory. Edited and introduced by Newton, New York: St. Martin’s Press