Walter Benjamin was a german frankfurt school marxist who wrote The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction in 1936 after he fled Germany in 1932, when Hitler took power. Benjamin wrote this work when Fascism and Nazism were on rise and the world was moving forward in the strong influence of mass production through capitalism.
Benjamin put forward the positives and negatives of mass reproduction of art while revealing its political arch. He states that the art everywhere is not just accessibility but a distraction too. Capitalism mass produces for profit and fascism uses mass produced art for distraction and manipulation. Mass production gave expression to the proletariat class without changing the real economic structure, where market and politics is dominated by bourgeois class or capitalists.
The purpose of his work is not to condemn accessibility of art but to be aware about the politicized use of mass production through distraction. This essay undertakes the purpose of advising to be conscious of romanticized diversions, to be mindful of hidden propaganda, to view art in the context and not in a vacuum.
Mechanical advancement such as photography and films made it easy to reproduce art which increased accessibility to the masses. Benjamin commented that due the easy and large-scale reproducibility of art, it lost its authenticity and uniqueness, which he called aura. The aura lies in the time-space context in which art is produced which compromises its traditional and ritual value. Benjamin states that with reproduction, the cult value of art is replaced by exhibit value, where popularity assumes monetary value. The aura of being original and of certain value to certain groups is destroyed because of reproduction and global reach.
Benjamin provides history of reproducibility of art through wood engraving and lithography. He states that photography and film revolutionized the reproduction of artworks in the market as it becomes easy to reproduce by capturing rather than making and manipulation introduced through digital editing which harms originality and authenticity.
The essay, divided into chapters, talks about fabrication and manipulation of art for political use as mass distraction. The art becomes free of sacred ritualism but gets engulfed in propaganda.
With accessibility, the popularity through mass consumption becomes valuable and the art becomes a commodity to put into use of conspicuous consumption, rather than an act of mesmerized indulgence.
Benjamin is in conversation with the reader, he is not writing to reveal but to wake. This work stands crucial in understanding the effect of mechanical evolution on the art and its relation with politics and society. The essay contains themes relating to massification of art, it does not judge the changes but in a pursuit to understand the course, reveals underlying realities of marriage of machine and art.
devaluation of art
This is a great work in understanding the change in value of artworks and criteria to decode this valuation. The historical artworks derive their value from the authenticity of the techniques used, the place they hold in context of time and space, the impact they brought in the society they were in. While the art in mechanical modern times is valued with popularity which is understood in monetary terms, nothing is invaluable as everything has a value measurement scale.
The technical reproducibility has destructed the uniqueness of an artwork and its authenticity as the market has taken over the expression.
Benjamin also does not side with art for the sake of art movement as he writes that art is a tool of expression, communication and at times, revolution. Thus he criticized making art for the sole purpose of performance.
democratization of art
In his work on devaluation of art, Benjamin does not forget that mechanical reproducibility has also democratized art, making it more accessible to different classes of people. It is at the confluence of democratization, politicization and technological advancements that he is urging the readers to be conscious of what they consume and how this consumption of art is taking place. He is not talking against accessibility but against distraction and manipulation that happens through production of artworks in the mechanical era.
relevance in present times
In the information era, where digitalisation of art is omnipresent, Benjamin’s work becomes highly relevant. The use of technology lets the people experience an alternate reality, the gap between imagination and realization is becoming minimal. Social media has become the biggest tool of distraction and manipulation. Art has become an important tool for politics and capitalists to use people as customers and data providers.
With artificial intelligence, art is becoming more mechanical and less humane. Individual accessibility has given rise to ‘view, likes and rating’ culture, where value is measured in reach and popularity without taking ‘impact’ into account.
The essay keeps reminding me of what Martin Scorsese says about Marvel movies that they are not real cinema.
The new high for an artist is not to be a performer but to be a brand. The intrinsic value has been replaced by zest to make a statement. The marketing and branding has become greater than experimentation with artistic capability.
Thus, this essay stays highly relevant with consideration to social, cultural and political aftermath of relation between art and technology.
The essay is very important and highly influential but one thing missing is the evolution of creativity, there are new art forms and new mindset of audiences. The original and authentic has still sustained its value while finding new terms of impact among foreign audiences. There is an audience for every type of art but the numbers affect the funding of an artwork and money and power has taken over the creativity. Maybe it was too early to assess the fragmentation among audiences.
There is no doubt that this essay is one of the most influential works with respect to art, society and politics and will stay relevant. Reading Culture Industry (Enlightenment as mass deception) by Adorno and Horkhiemer along with this essay, would provide a new edge to understanding the production of art in capitalistic society and its fascist nature.
The in depth analysis and conversational tone of the essay makes the word stay longer with the reader. As a sociology student and digital media user, it is one of the crucial works I have read.