Thoughts on 'The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction'

Wednesday October 20, 2010

The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction
Walter Benjamin 1936 (Full text)

I read this essay after seeing it mentioned in Program or Be Programmed by Douglas Rushkoff. After reading it, I think Rushkoff rather misinterpreted Benjamin's essay. But then, the essay is not very good; it's rather hard to get a clear or concise interpretation out of it.

I was interested in the essay because Rushkoff described it as being about the relationship between art (like paintings) and photography/mass-production, which is a relationship I have been interested in for some time. Benjamin does talk about it a bit, but really seems to spend more time bogged down in film, which was comparatively new and novel at the time of Benjamin's writing.

Benjamin is also bogged down by Marxism. It's like reading something by a serious religious believer; he can't finish a sentence without "by the will of God" or "the means of production"...

My most serious gripe, though, is that it just doesn't have a clear point. It's got a preface, 15 parts, and an epilogue, and some of the parts do contain more or less unified ideas, but I'm left wondering exactly what the point is. I hope this is not my deficiency as a reader. The style is such that you can, if you want, pull a number of ideas out of it, certainly, but it doesn't seem to have clear message.

Aside: This generally reminds me of and informs an idea I've been thinking about for a while. How does writing particularly function to convey thought? It allows for preparation and editing, so that an author can distill his ideas, organize them into an outline, and then expand them into explanation for the reader. The reader can then carefully read and distill out the ideas into his own outline form, and we should hope that the author's outline and the reader's outline are similar. Importantly, the process is substantially different from just speaking extemporaneously. But this Benjamin's essay (and, by the way, my thoughts here) bear more of a resemblance to loosely organized meandering speech. Bertrand Russell also wrote that he writes all at one go, without preparing and without editing afterward. Of course I doubt he could say that of his mathematical proofs, etc. But I wonder what might be the differences or benefits/drawbacks of the two methods of writing, and if perhaps the more organized, structural approach is a more recent phenomenon. I would like to expand on this idea further, perhaps in a longer piece on language. I would like to expand on this idea further, perhaps

If I was forced to try to give a thesis for the Benjamin's essay, it would be something like "mass production and with it socialism lead art to be more political." And that's just not very interesting. A little interesting, but I get the feeling he has propaganda posters in mind more than really interesting conceptual art.

That said, there are definitely interesting things about Benjamin's essay. Some quotes have particular relevance.

"Thus, the distinction between author and public is about to lose its basic character."

Benjamin was talking about letters to the editor or being an extra in a film, but now with blogs, commenting everywhere, and the Internet generally, this seems prescient. One more like this:

"The greatly increased mass of participants has produced a change in the mode of participation."

"Magician and surgeon compare to painter and cameraman. The painter maintains in his work a natural distance from reality, the cameraman penetrates deeply into its web. There is a tremendous difference between the pictures they obtain. That of the painter is a total one, that of the cameraman consists of multiple fragments which are assembled under a new law. Thus, for contemporary man the representation of reality by the film is incomparably more significant than that of the painter, since it offers, precisely because of the thoroughgoing permeation of reality with mechanical equipment, an aspect of reality which is free of all equipment. And that is what one is entitled to ask from a work of art."

One big theme is art being originally a cult, magic, religious thing - functional, in that sense, not just for looking at. More modern art is obviously just for exhibition. (The bit about assembly is largely because he's thinking of film and editing here.) I think Benjamin has something here, although I don't think he necessarily needs to go all the way to magic when decorative arts is far enough.

"Dadaism is film." (Crude paraphrase.)

Benjamin says that art pushes the boundaries of the available media, so that crazy-looking Dadaist "paintings" were really trying to achieve the rushing moment-by-moment effect of film. Kind of a neat idea. So what's next, then?

Benjamin compares architecture to film. This makes sense in that everybody sort of lives in its environment, without always consciously considering it. You're just in the building, you just have the TV on, something like that. He also comments that in a similar way everybody becomes a critic, saying:

"The public is an examiner, but an absent-minded one."

Benjamin also has some political ideas, as mentioned above. Some are interesting.

"Fascism sees its salvation in giving these masses not their right, but instead a chance to express themselves."

Seems relevant when everyone can publish their ideas to their heart's content, but the political system seems if anything even more unresponsive and opaque.

"Only war makes it possible to mobilize all of today’s technical resources while maintaining the property system."

This reminded me of 1984, with its perpetual war. Is that what we're doing now, with wars continuing on even with little or no press coverage?

“'Fiat ars – pereat mundus', says Fascism, and, as Marinetti admits, expects war to supply the artistic gratification of a sense perception that has been changed by technology. This is evidently the consummation of “l’art pour l’art.” Mankind, which in Homer’s time was an object of contemplation for the Olympian gods, now is one for itself. Its self-alienation has reached such a degree that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order. This is the situation of politics which Fascism is rendering aesthetic. Communism responds by politicizing art."

This is the very end of the piece. I looked up the Latin: let art be created, though the world is destroyed. Benjamin doesn't think war is beautiful, and in this I think I agree with him. Mostly. Have you seen those cool jets?

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