I studied Walter Benjamin’s highly influential 1936 essay ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ for one of my previous courses Understanding Visual Culture. (I hope that my studies for that course will support me with CS.) I find the notion that the aura of a work of art is destroyed through the process of mechanical reproduction a compelling one – even if the commodification of visual culture and photography continues at a seemingly increasing rate. (I have made some notes about the phenomenon of NFTs below which is interesting to compare with Benjamin’s essay.) Perhaps Benjamin’s ideas, such as the democratisation and accessibility of art will be achieved through digital technology? Certainly the means to make images and publish these are now open to anyone with access to a smartphone and the internet – although the potential is there it seems that we are still some way from this being truly accessible with traditional powerful institutions trying there best to protect their status.
Benjamin’s work and ideas outside of this essay are also extremely influential in other parts of photography and visual culture theory, and I suspect that this is work that will repay further study and be important for my dissertation.
Below are some quotes that resonated with me as part of my research:
Walter Benjamin: The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. (Evans and Hall, 1999: 72-79)
“In principle a work of art has always been reproducible…Mechanical reproduction of a work of art, however, represents something new.” (p. 72)
“For the first time in the process of pictorial reproduction, photography freed the hand of the most important artistic functions which henceforth devolved only upon the eye looking into a lens.” (p. 73)
“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 processes. For the study of this standard nothing is more revealing than the nature of repercussions that these two different manifestations – the reproduction of works of art of the film – have had on art in its traditional form.” (p. 73)
“Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be.” (p. 73)
“The presence of the original is the prerequisite to the concept of authenticity.” (p. 73)
“The situations into which the product of mechanical reproduction can be brought may not touch the actual work of art, yet the quality of its presence is always depreciated.” (p. 74)
“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.” (p. 74)
“One might subsume the eliminated element in the term ‘aura’ and go on to say: that which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art. This is a symptomatic process whose significance points beyond the realm of art. One might generalize by saying: the technique of reproduction detaches the reproduced object from the domain of tradition.” (p. 74)
“if changes in the medium of contemporary perception can be comprehended as decay of the aura, it is possible to show its social causes.” (p. 75)
“Every day the urge grows stronger to get old of an object at very close range by way of its likeness, it reproduction. Unmistakably, reproduction as offered by picture magazines and newsreels differs from the image seen be the unarmed eye. Uniqueness and permanence are as closely linked in the latter as are transitoriness and reproducibility in the former. To pry an object from its shell, to destroy its aura, is the mark of a perception whose ‘sense of the universal equality of things’ has increased to such a degree that it extracts it even from a unique object by means of reproduction. Thus is manifested in the field of perception what in the theoretical sphere is noticeable in the increasing importance of statistics. The adjustment of reality to the masses and of the masses to reality is a process if unlimited scope as much for thinking as for perception.” (p. 75)
“The uniqueness of a work of art is inseparable from it being imbedded in the fabric of tradition.” (p. 75)
“Originally the contextual integration of in tradition found its expression in the cult. We know that the earliest art works originated in the service of a ritual – first the magical, then the religious kind. It is significant that the existence of the work of art with reference to its aura is never entirely separated from its ritual function.” (p. 76)
“An analysis of art in the age of mechanical reproduction must do justice to these relationships, for they lead us to an all-important insight: for the first time in world history, mechanical reproduction emancipates the work of art from its parasitical dependence on ritual. To an ever greater degree the work of art reproduced becomes the work of art designed for reproducibility. From a photographic negative, for example, one can make any number of prints; to ask for the ‘authentic’ print makes no sense. But the instant the criterion of authenticity ceases to be applicable to artistic production, the total function of art is reversed. Instead of being based on ritual, it begins to be based on another practice – politics.” (p. 76)
“Works of art are received and valued on different planes. Two polar types stand out: with one, the accent is on the cult value; with the other, on the exhibition value of the work. Artistic production begins with ceremonial objects destined to serve in a cult…With the emancipation of the various art practices from ritual go increasing opportunities for the exhibition of their products.” (p. 76)
“With the different methods of technical reproduction of a work of art, its fitness for exhibition increased to such an extent that the quantitative shift between its poles turned into a qualitative transformation of its nature.” (p. 77)
Arguably, it is only with the prevalence of digital media that works of art truly achieve the democratic status that Benjamin envisaged. The current trend/hype surrounding non-fungible tokens (NFTs) has led me to consider how this relates to Benjamin’s paper and the seemingly endless pursuit of capitalist commodification. Hern (2021) states that NFTs can be thought of as ‘bitcoin for art’, that is, a way to make a seemingly infinitely reproducible digital artwork collectible. (Hern’s article here gives a thorough explanation about how this works.) On the surface this could be seem as a positive in that it should in theory allow for digital artists to prevent copyright theft. In reality, NFTs are often worse than simply stealing an artists work online as NFTs often end up controlled (and profited) by people who have nothing to do with their creation (and there is nothing to stop this being the case.)
Haigney (2021) sees the “NFT craze” as a new form of “the strange practice of” collecting. In the art world the collector is both fetishised and feted as “at once a connoisseur and…entrepreneur” and a driver of the art world through capital and investment. Collectors accumulate for many reasons: “love of art, love of the game of collecting, love of money.” But, the most crucial aspect of collecting is possession – something that NFTs allow of digital assets that previously were difficult to monetise.
Associated Press (2021) Christie’s auctions ‘first digital-only artwork’ for $70m. The Guardian, 12th March 2021. At: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2021/mar/11/christies-first-digital-only-artwork-70m-nft-beeple (accessed 12th April 2021)
Badger, G. (2001) The Genius of Photography: How Photography Has Changed Our Lives.London: Quadrille Publishing.
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Benjamin, W. (1999) Illuminations. London: Pimlico
Benjamin, W. (1999) ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ In: Evans, J. and Hall, S. (ed.) Visual Culture: The Reader. London: Sage. pp. 72-79
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Haigney, S. (2021) A jpeg for $70m: welcome to the strange world of cryptocurrency art. The Guardian, 17th March 2021. At: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2021/mar/17/cryptocurrency–at-digital-only-artwork-nfts-collecting (accessed 12th April 2021)
Hern, A. (2021) Non-fungible tokens are revolutionising the art world – and art theft. The Guardian, 12th March 2021. At: https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2021/mar/12/non-fungible-tokens-revolutionising-art-world-theft?CMP=Share_iOSApp_Other (accessed 12th April 2021)
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Pipkin, E. (2021) Here is the article you can send to people when they say “but the environmental issues with cryptoart will be solved soon, right?” Medium. At: https://everestpipkin.medium.com/but-the-environmental-issues-with-cryptoart-1128ef72e6a3(accessed 12th April 2021)
Pooke, G. and Newall, D. (2008) The Basics: Art History. Oxford: Routledge.
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Silverman, J. (2021) Trophy homes and $2.5million tweets: how the idle rich spent their pandemic year. The New Republic, 10th March 2021. At: https://newrepublic.com/article/161655/trophy-homes-25-million-tweets-idle-rich-spent-pandemic-year (accessed 12th April 2021)
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