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Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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“The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”: Prophetic Walter Benjamin

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

One of my favourite proverbs about the joys and struggles of writing comes from Walter Benjamin: ""In the areas with which we are concerned, insight only occurs as a lightning bolt. The text is the thunder-peal rolling long behind." Inspiration, when everything suddenly becomes clear, is a mere flash in the process of creativity, and everything after is the solemn grumble of getting that one idea onto the page in words (as of the last few weeks, when I seem to be finding writing unaccountably difficult, my intellect certainly seems stuck in this clouded and muggy phrase).

Rereading Benjamin's 1936 essay "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," though, moments of striking illumination abound. Benjamin's opening paragraph meditates on the way Marx's critique of capitalism was a prediction of how it would affect the proletariat, rather than an analysis of its conditions of the day. Coincidentally, read from the twenty-first century, Benjamin's work seems similarly prophetic.

Unlike the hand forgeries which preceded lithography, photography, film and audio recording, Benjamin argues that the nineteenth and twentieth centuries placed art in an era of mechanical reproduction, which necessarily changes our perception of art itself. In particular, Benjamin argues that the "aura" of an original, "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" is depreciated and lost in the reproduction. Further, the authentic work of art had its original value in ritual, and what mattered was the fact of its existence (visible to the spirits) not its display before man. In the age of reproduction, however, art is intended precisely for its own exhibition since the place of its birth, such as a temple or sacred site, is irrelevant when it can be copied and placed in any context; thus an alternative cult – the "theology of art" for the sake of art – is born.

Projecting these ideas, I wonder what Benjamin would have made of modern art. Benjamin observes that "From a photographic negative, for example, one can make any number of prints; to ask for the "authentic" print makes no sense." I suspect he would have welcomed Warhol's cloned visions of Marilyn Munroe or drinks cans as endorsing the concept that in an age of machine printing and photography, there can be no such image that is original, only versions of each other. On the other hand, consider contemporary installation art, which is criticised precisely for its self-indulgence, its theology of itself. Here, works such as Tracy Emin's "My Bed" alienate the masses because it cannot be reproduced for them to observe anywhere or anywhen other than the one particular gallery in which it is installed at that moment. Denying the possibility of mechanical reproduction, this restores the value of the original, precisely because of its dependence on context to give it credence as "art" rather than an artefact of the everyday. Once created and installed in a gallery, there can only be one unmade bed; once any other bed (the one I get out of each morning) is similarly "unmade," it lends value to the original, rather than (as mechanical reproduction does) depreciating or losing the essence of it. As Benjamin observes, "Confronted with its manual reproduction, which was usually branded as a forgery, the original preserved all its authority." To unmake a bed, as we are all capable of doing technically, is to acknowledge the "aura" of Emin's original act of unmaking as making a new artwork; it is this awareness that anything attempting to reproduce the original will actually be fake that underlies the comment that "I could have made that" and the counter-argument, "But you didn't".

In the literary arena, as well, Benjamin's work seems prescient, though because of its understanding of the history preceding its moment. Andrew Keen has just written a book entitled The Cult of the Amateur; its subtitle – How Today's Internet is Killing Our Culture – implies the empowering of the "cult of the amateur" as a new result of a recent technology which takes the possibility of reproduction to infinity. Keen argues that the world of Web 2.0, in which content is generated by the user rather than the traditional model of a single authoritative producer, calls into question the reliability of information, preventing true creativity and argument from flourishing. But is the age of the blog, You Tube and Wikipedia really as radical as Keen makes out? Here is Benjamin (remember, this is 1936, not 2006):

For centuries a small number of writers were confronted by many thousands of readers. This changed toward the end of the last century. With the increasing extension of the press, which kept placing new political, religious, scientific, professional, and local organs before the readers, an increasing number of readers became writers – at first, occasional ones. It began with the daily press opening to its readers space for "letters to the editor." And today there is hardly a gainfully employed European who could not, in principle, find an opportunity to publish somewhere or other comments on his work, grievances, documentary reports, or that sort of thing. Thus, the distinction between author and public is about to lose its basic character. The difference becomes merely functional; it may vary from case to case. At any moment the reader is ready to turn into a writer. As expert, which he had to become willy-nilly in an extremely specialized work process, even if only in some minor respect, the reader gains access to authorship. In the Soviet Union work itself is given a voice. To present it verbally is part of a man's ability to perform the work. Literary license is now founded on polytechnic rather than specialized training and thus becomes common property.

Not having read Keen's book (and not sure as a blogger that I want to), I am unable to comment on the validity of his polemic. But Benjamin does reminds us that rather than riding the crest of the radical web in our critiques, we ought to go back much further into the origins of mass (re)production in the nineteenth century. I suspect that Keen's complaints will turn out to have many precursors, and in being too wary of the future he may overlook the fact that he is himself the intellectual product of a collaborative past in which singular authorship was a misnomer.

What captivated me most about Benjamin's essay, however, were his comments on that other key interest on mine besides the literary, photography. Benjamin has much of interest to say on film and the relationship between the actor, camera and the viewer in comparison with that between actor, stage and audience in a theatre; he makes a comparable number of incisive remarks about the still image as well, remarks I hesitate to paraphrase, and thus fail to do justice to the wonderful fluidity of Benjamin's argument. Rather, I would quote one paragraph in full:

By close-ups of the things around us, by focusing on hidden details of familiar objects, by exploring common place milieus under the ingenious guidance of the camera, the film, on the one hand, extends our comprehension of the necessities which rule our lives; on the other hand, it manages to assure us of an immense and unexpected field of action. Our taverns and our metropolitan streets, our offices and furnished rooms, our railroad stations and our factories appeared to have us locked up hopelessly. Then came the film and burst this prison-world asunder by the dynamite of the tenth of a second, so that now, in the midst of its far-flung ruins and debris, we calmly and adventurously go traveling. With the close-up, space expands; with slow motion, movement is extended. The enlargement of a snapshot does not simply render more precise what in any case was visible, though unclear: it reveals entirely new structural formations of the subject. So, too, slow motion not only presents familiar qualities of movement but reveals in them entirely unknown ones "which, far from looking like retarded rapid movements, give the effect of singularly gliding, floating, supernatural motions." Evidently a different nature opens itself to the camera than opens to the naked eye – if only because an unconsciously penetrated space is substituted for a space consciously explored by man. Even if one has a general knowledge of the way people walk, one knows nothing of a person's posture during the fractional second of a stride. The act of reaching for a lighter or a spoon is familiar routine, yet we hardly know what really goes on between hand and metal, not to mention how this fluctuates with our moods. Here the camera intervenes with the resources of its lowerings and liftings, its interruptions and isolations, it extensions and accelerations, its enlargements and reductions. The camera introduces us to unconscious optics as does psychoanalysis to unconscious impulses.

That last sentence articulates what excites me most about photography. Whilst I enjoy taking landscapes and nature shots, there is inherent in these a nostalgia, which I identify after reading Benjamin's essay as the loss of the invisible aura of the scene: the context of the walk on which the landscape was shot, the wind in the hair and the cold flush of a cheek momentarily forgotten as a scene unfolds, the excitement of seeing the rare butterfly crossing the path. In contrast, photographing abstractions, using the lens to travel and make accessible the "unconscious optics" of the world, is creative in a way that is in itself original. The camera both isolates the world in its frame, and flattens two of its dimensions (time, and depth). Whilst they may not be the finest images, I love it when I am able to wield this visual scalpel to excise from the original scene, and to create something new, a work of art in the age of digital reproduction. Here are three such examples:

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Posted by Alistair at 4:53 pm


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