An Analysis of Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”
Arguments about the whether or not film was an art predate the birth of cinema itself, since the debates of whether or not photography was an art were abound before 1890. Upon the birth of cinema, the arguments about whether or not it was art began almost immediately.
However, one Modernist film theorist argued that the debate over whether or not film was art was ultimately a moot point. This theorist was Walter Benjamin. Benjamin was a cultural critic born in Berlin 1892. Fleeing Germany when the Nazi’s took over, he lived in Paris for a number of years before attempting to escape to Spain when the Nazi’s took France. He finally took his own life while trying to pass the border into Spain. Within his seminal essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Benjamin argues that photography and film have forever changed the conception of art, and so old world arguments about whether or not they are forms of art are pointless as these new forms cannot be critiqued or conceived of in regards to how art once was. Through the separation of art from theology, location, and point of origin, Benjamin argues that mechanically reproduced art has not only changed what art can be, but has changed the way that the world and society view art as well as changing the world and society themselves. Though his argument is dated and suffers from a lack of forward thinking in terms of technological advancements now common, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” is ultimately a convincing argument about the advancing of art from one stage to another, as well as its effect on society and politics.
Benjamin’s essay takes place within seventeen separated sections: a preface, fifteen segmented arguments, and an epilogue. Overall, Benjamin’s argument within the essay regards how the mediums of photography and film have affected society and politics. He explains that Marx approached the theory of capitalistic production with a forward thinking method that outlined and assumed a future method of capitalism. “The result was that one could expect it not only to exploit the proletariat with increasing intensity, the ultimately to create conditions which would make it possible to abolish capitalism itself.” Benjamin’s thesis is that photography and film have become the mediums of revolution as they have democratized both culture and politics, doing away with the Fascist sense of “creativity and genius, eternal value and mystery” with other art forms.
As Benjamin’s argument continues within the first few sections, he outlines how photography and art differ from previous art forms, and how these differences illustrate a progression in art. Within the first section of the essay, Benjamin writes, “In principle a work of art has always been reproducible. Man-made artifacts could always be imitated by men.” He then begins to outline the different forms that underscore the reproducibility of art, primarily in mechanical forms. Founding and stamping lead to woodcuts, woodcuts led to engraving and etching before lithography appeared, and lithography finally leads to photography. The form of photography, Benjamin argues, was a revolutionary invention that will begin to change the world both politically and culturally. He states, “Around 1900 technical reproduction had reached a standard that not only permitted it to reproduce all transmitted works of art and thus to cause the most profound change in their impact upon the public; it also had captured a place of its own among the artistic process”. Later, within the seventh segment of his essay, Benjamin will disagree with critics and pundits who have claimed that photography and film are not art forms. Or, rather, he will describe how hollow he finds these claims. “Earlier much futile though had been devoted to the question of whether photography is an art. The primary question – whether the very invention of photography had not transformed the entire nature of art – was not raised.” Asking himself that very question, Benjamin explains within his essay that the invention of photography had indeed transformed the entire nature of art in three primary ways: it separated art from cult (or the ritual of theology), it did away with the physical uniqueness of the object, and it created a sense of distance between the photographed subject and the viewer.
In theorizing the how photography and film have revolutionized the definition of art, Benjamin first outlines what characteristics and tropes older definitions of art had clung to. In defining these outdated tropes, he refers to the “aura” of art. In outdated thinking, artwork was defined by its uniqueness, or aura. Art was art because it was unique, and did not exist in another space or temporality. This, Benjamin postulates, was because artworks were initially created and utilized for cultic or religious ceremonies or places of worship. “It is significant that the existence of the work of art with reference to its aura is never entirely separated from ritual function.” Idols were works of art created in order to worship. Statues, carvings and engravings (and later paintings) were situated in temples and churches. These artworks were deemed authentic because they did not exist outside of the ritual of cult or theology. This created an element of tradition that attached itself to the concept and definition of art. Over time, art was moved away from the concept of theology, and the aura of art instead secularized itself, becoming during the Renaissance what Benjamin refers to as the “secularized cult of beauty.” What was once an object of worship due to its ties to cult and/or theology becomes an object of worship itself due to its authority as a piece of art within modern society. Art became something to be displayed and worshipped in its own right. Photography and film, meanwhile, revolutionized this aspect of art and demystified it. The mechanical reproduction of a piece of art makes any questions of authenticity invalid. As Benjamin states, “From a photographic negative, for example, one can make any number of prints; to ask for the ‘authentic’ print makes no sense.” Mechanical reproduction of art, or as an artistic medium in itself, removes this ritualistic aura from the definition of art and places the newer artistic mediums of photography and film within the political.
Another aspect of art revolutionized by photography and film, according to Benjamin (and closely tied to the ritualistic aspect of previous art forms) was the physical and temporal uniqueness of art. In or to see, appreciate, and consume art, society had to travel to these spaces where the works of art could be found. Because the artwork must be traveled to, and especially in terms of the cultic or theological underpinnings of its creation and display, artwork held sway over us. Art pieces had the authority, as they could only appear to us in one space and only within the time in which we were in that space. Photography, meanwhile, has done away with this aspect of art. Old world definitions of a piece of art’s aura no longer make sense in a world in which the mechanical reproduction of art makes it possible for statues and paintings to be copied and seen around the globe. Society no longer had to travel to consume art, as photography had democratized the process and brought art to the masses. This created an element of tradition that attached itself to the concept and definition of art.
This physical distance between the artwork at society meant that only the privileged classes would be able to travel and consume culture. Benjamin states, “The essentially distant object is the unapproachable one.” In Benjamin’s essay, the distance created by older artistic mediums ultimately serves to disassociate the consumer, or the proletariat in the case of Benjamin’s essay, from reality. Using the metaphor of a magician compared to a surgeon, Benjamin describes the difference between the painter (magician) and the cameraman (surgeon). The magician, he claims, keeps a natural distance between himself and the sick person and keeps his authority by doing so. Alternately, the surgeon actually penetrates the sick person’s body in an attempt to claim their authority. “Thus, for contemporary man the representation of reality by the film is incomparably more significant than that of the painter, since it offers…an aspect of reality which is free of all equipment.” Both the physical distance and the metaphorical distance between the painting, sculpture, etc. and society creates a form of authority over society at large. Meanwhile, photography and film have revolutionized this process by effectively penetrating further into society and brining culture to the masses.
Benjamin utilizes the fifteen segments of his essay in order to underscore the increasingly politicized placement of photography and film (due to their processes of mechanical reproduction) as new artistic mediums. However, whereas he espouses the remarkably democratizing elements of photography and film as revolutionary artistic mediums, he makes a further distinction within the epilogue to the essay. It is within the epilogue that Benjamin describes how this thesis is ultimately useless within a society ruled by Fascism, as well as the reason why this thesis is ultimately rendered moot. Whereas photography and film offer information to the proletariat within Marxist societies and democratization of culture within capitalistic or consumer societies, they merely render politics aesthetic within Fascist societies. This is due to the fact that Fascist societies force the masses to their knees in violation. When mechanically reproduced art offers aesthetics only to politics, this produces war. Benjamin states that, “If the natural utilization of productive forces is impeded by the property system, the increase in technical devices, in speed, and in the sources of energy will press for an unnatural utilization, and this is found in war.” So though the progression of art from ritualistic and cultic idols to the mechanical reproduction of photography and film have indeed revolutionized society by democratizing information and culture, Benjamin finally argues that utilizing these processes by aestheticizing politics can ultimately lead to an inverse of this revolutionary aspect of the mediums.
There are some points within Benjamin’s thesis that are ultimately unsatisfying, particularly in the context of our own modern society. The single most questionable concept within Benjamin’s work is his conceptualization of distraction. “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-minded one.” For Benjamin, distraction characterizes perception. The perception of film is interrupted by editing, shot composition, framing, etc. and servers to counter the contemplation of “auralistic” art so that the viewer critically (though absent-mindedly) views it instead of worshipping it. This is problematic in our contemporary society, however, as there is a broad spectrum of American cinema that is largely worshipped absent-mindedly instead of critiqued absent-mindedly. The cult of the film director (as directors such as George Lucas and James Cameron are not without their own “cults”) and event films (such as the hollow and synthetic Avatar) certainly serve as distractions, but not distractions that ultimately bring any sort of perception to the world at large. Contemporary Hollywood films serve largely as glossy, absent-minded distractions without critical or absent-minded critique. This also elucidates another issue within Benjamin’s theory, and that has to do with his lack of prognostic accounting for the future. Though he outlines Marx’s prognostic forecast for the future of capitalism within his preface, Benjamin offers no prognostic thoughts of his own outside of the immediate political climate of the time in which he wrote it.
That said, however, Benjamin’s argument is ultimately incredibly convincing. In explaining how photography and film have effectively revolutionized the world’s conception of art, he explicitly states that old world definitions of art are no longer useful. He very clearly outlines his reasoning by drawing upon the history of artistic creation by reasoning how these mediums disconnected art from the cultic or theological ritual, by separating art from location, and by closing the distance created by auralistic art forms. His argument is further strengthened by illustrating (though briefly) how mechanical reproduction emerged as a form of evolution, and how previous art forms or movements (such as Dadaism) were also greeted with questions about the veracity of their conceptualizations of art. Though Benjamin’s writing may seem distracted (ironically) and unfocused, his argument is definitely sound and reinforced by a number of evidential convincing arguments.
 Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” in Film Theory and Criticism edited by Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen (New York/Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009). P. 666.
 Ibid, 667.
 Ibid, P. 673.
 Ibid, P. 671.
 Ibid, P. 670.
 Ibid, P. 678.
 Ibid, P. 684.