Walter Benjamin wrote “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” in 1936 for a small circle of academics discussing art and mass media. The article was published in French in 1936, in German in 1955 and 1961, and in English in 1968. Benjamin argues that the work of art transforms over time and that historians must recognize this transformation. Art works in particular ways in the age of mechanical reproduction. Benjamin situates his analysis of the work of art in Marxist terms. Marx recognized commodities as history-less objects whose value was determined by exchange rather than their actual material form and the labor relations in their production.
A work of art has always been reproducible in the sense that replicas have always been made for craft, diffusion, and gain. Mechanical reproduction “represents something new” (218). Mechanical reproduction advanced from replicating small bronze statues and coins to the production of woodcuts, lithographs, and photographs. Photography was special because in this process of reproduction the artists’ hands were freed from reproduction. The photographer only needed his eye and the lens in the process of reproduction. Mechanically reproduced images and sounds culminated in film in the twentieth century. The “reproduction of works of art and the art of film” have had the most profound influence on art in its traditional form (220).
Mechanical reproductions of art lack unique existences and histories. The presence created by time, space, and history give a work of art is authenticity and authority. Mechanically reproduced artworks lack history, or the presence of the maker. Since mechanically reproduced artworks don’t have a specific history they can be “inserted into situations which would be out of reach for the original itself” (220). Thus, mechanically reproduced artworks lack authenticity and authority. “The authenticity of a thing is the essence of all that is transmissible from its beginning, ranging from its substantive duration to its testimony to the history which it has experienced” (221). When the historical testimony of an artwork is affected, the authority of the object is jeopardized. History matters for works of art. When history is eliminated “that which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art” (221).
The human sense of perception can be historicized to understand the current decay of aura in the age of mechanical reproduction. In the 1930s, Benjamin recognized that the human sense of perception relied on “the masses.” “Namely, the desire of contemporary masses to bring things ‘closer’ spatially and humanly, which is just as ardent as their bent toward overcoming the uniqueness of every reality by accepting its reproduction.” The masses wanted mechanically reproduced images in magazines and film. Benjamin argued that the masses’ sense perception was the “sense of the universal equality of thing.” Mechanical reproductions were sensed by the masses as equal works of art because the works of art had no particular histories. Art work was not unique.
For Benjamin, “The uniqueness of a work of art is inseparable from its being imbedded in the fabric of tradition” (223). This is exemplified by artwork in ritual. Artwork in ritual is thought of as unique and having aura because it is embedded in place, location, time, and a particular history. Mechanical reproduction posed a problem for artwork because “it emancipates the work of art from its parasitical dependence on ritual” (224). In other words, mechanical reproduction does not focus on the ritual and history of an object. Mechanical reproduction is based on the practice of politics.
Works of art have been received based on different value planes. One is the cult of value, which recognizes value as the existence of the material thing and ritual. The other is exhibition value which recognizes value based on the display of things. Exhibition vales does not favor ritual history. In the 1930s, people favored exhibition value. This changed the nature of the work of art, like photography and film, which took on a new function based on exhibition value.
Photography did not take on this new nature from the beginning. People favored photography at first for its cult value. Photographs created a “cult of remembrance of loved ones, absent or dead” where the cult value and aura resided in the photographed face. As men withdrew their faces from photographs, something changed. You could no longer see the cult value in images. Their meaning depended on the captions and other images that surrounded them, particularly in film. “When the age of mechanical reproduction separated art from its basis in cult, the semblance of its autonomy disappeared forever” (226). In other words, without history and ritual and cult value, art could not act of its own accord. The meaning of art had to be created by the other images which surrounded it. Films could be taken out of their actual context and create their own meaning, their own history.
The camera guided the audience’s interpretation of the film, not the actor’s aura. Benjamin argues that “for the first time—and this is the effect of the film—mas has to operate with his whole living person, yet forgoing it aura. For aura is tied to his presence; there can be no replica of it. The aura, which on stage, emanates from Macbeth, cannot be separated for the spectators from that of the actor. However, the singularity of the shot in the studio is that the camera is substituted for the public. Consequently, the aura that envelops the actor vanishes, and with it the aura of the figure he portrays” (229). The audience did not have a relationship with the actors themselves or the set. The camera guided reception and meaning. The cult of the actor (or the Hollywood persona) and films were commodities. They were taken out of history, out of time, place, and context. Capitalism set the agenda of films. While some films could “promote revolutionary criticism of social conditions, even of the distribution of property” the films that Benjamin was concerned with were not doing this. Benjamin concludes, “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 speculation” (232). Films could create a new reality with camera equipment, lighting, and machinery. The work of art was, indeed, to present a reality. “Thus, for contemporary man the presentation of reality by the film is incomparably more significant than that of the painter, since it offers, precisely because of the thorough going permeation of reality with mechanical equipment, an aspect of reality which is free of all equipment. And that is what one is entitled to as from a work of art” (234).
But, the “mechanical reproduction of art changed the reaction of the masses toward art” and transformed reality. Mechanical reproduction changed the way art worked. Film allowed art to be viewed by mass audiences. Individual reactions to this art were constrained and formed by the mass audience response. Films changed the ways and the numbers of people who reacted to art. The camera also introduced us “to unconscious optics as does psychoanalysis to unconscious impulse” (237). The camera was the meaning-maker. The camera was sinister. Mechanical reproduction was responsible for the loss of aura and for a “change in the mode of participation.” Mechanical reproduction meant that “the distracted mass absorbs the work of art.” Benjamin concluded “Reception in a state of distraction, which is increasingly noticeable in all fields of art and is symptomatic of profound changes in appreciation, finds in the film its true means of existence. The film with its shock effect meets this mode of reception halfway. The film makes the cult value recede into the background not only by putting the public in the position of the critic, but also by the fact that at the movies this position requires no attention. The public is an examiner, but an absent one.” The masses absorbed the realities created by film.
In the “Epilogue” Benjamin contextualizes his argument for the decay of aura in the age of mechanical reproduction. “The logical result of Fascism is the introduction of aesthetics into political life. The violation of the masses, whom Fascism, with its Führer cult, forces to their knees, has its own counterpart in the violation of an apparatus which is pressed into the production of ritual values.” Benjamin recognized that art as film had been commoditized. It lost its aura because there was no recognizable history in the making of the film. Fascists used history-less art to create their own history in films which created alternative realities. The masses bought into these realities because they could not recognize the production of film beyond its created aesthetics and commodity form. Mechanically reproduced art supported the Nazi party and controlled the distracted masses. Benjamin argued that Communism recognized this creation of history through history-less things. Benjamin called for this recognition by politicizing art.
Historians have read Benjamin as suggesting that mechanical reproduction decays the aura of mass reproduced art. And, this is his argument. But, scholars must be careful in their application of Benjamin to their projects. Benjamin recognized the decay of aura above all in film. Photography and lithography did not erode aura in the same way or to the same degree as film. Benjamin also recognized the decay of aura in a particular time and place. He argued that the mechanical reproduction of images via film hid the realities of twentieth-century Fascism, which created new realities through film. Film, as a commodity, did not have a history because its production was concealed. Film was used a propaganda to create new histories among the masses. Mechanical reproduction via film changed the form of art and its reception among the masses. Mechanically reproduced art concealed reality. Film was a means of control. Film lost it aura, or its history of production and in doing so it created something sinister, something with no authenticity.