Monday, April 13, 2009

1936: “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” by Walter Benjamin

The Author:
Walter Benjamin

Born into a wealthy Jewish family in Berlin in 1892, Benjamin (pronounced: BEN-ya-meen) moved to Switzerland during World War I to avoid being drafted into the German army. In 1919, he got his Ph.D. at the University of Bern. One year later, he returned to Berlin and wrote a second dissertation intended to earn him a faculty position in a German university. When the dissertation was rejected by examiners at the University of Frankfurt, Benjamin was forced to earn a living as an independent scholar. When Hitler rose to power in 1933, Benjamin moved to Paris and when the Nazis invaded France in 1940, he joined a group of Jewish refugees seeking to escape into Spain. When the Spanish police intercepted them at the border by, the 48-year-old Benjamin feared that he would be shipped to a concentration camp, so he committed suicide.

The Text:
"The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction"

First published in French in a Frankfurt Institute journal edited by Max Horkheimer, this essay “denounces theories that assert an auratic or ritualistic power of film” and argues that film “in contrast to painting or orchestral music … has revolutionary potential because it abolishes authenticity and aura and enjoins the participation of the audience.” (Leitch et al, 1164)

"… 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. … Instead of being based on ritual, [art] begins to be based on another practice—politics.” (Leitch et al, 1172)

“The aura which, on the stage, emanates from Macbeth, cannot be separated for the spectators from that of the actor. However . . .the aura that envelops the [film] actor vanishes, and with it the aura of the figure he portrays.” (1176)

“The film responds to the shriveling of the aura with an artificial build-up of the ‘personality’ outside the studio. The cult of the movie start, fostered by the money of the film industry, preserves not the unique aura of the person but the ‘spell of the personality,’ the phony spell of a commodity.” (1177) The image at left is from the 1936 film Modern Times, starring Charlie Chaplin.

“For centuries a small number of writers were confronted by many thousands of readers. This changed toward the end of the last century. . . . 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.” (1178)

“…that the masses seek distraction whereas art demands concentration from the spectator … is a commonplace. A closer look is needed here. …A man who concentrates before a work of art is absorbed by it. …In contrast, the distracted mass absorbs the work of art.” (1183)

Leitch, Vincent B, et al ed.
Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. New York: Norton, 2001.

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