Response to Walter Benjamin’s Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction

This is a response to Walter Benjamin’s Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction for Comm Lab @ ITP.

I had to brush up on my Marxist fundamentals, which I haven’t really engaged in depth since my undergrad political science classes, to understand some of the historical/political references that Benjamin was making.  This sent me on an hours-long quest looking up articles and reading articles online related to the issues Benjamin brings up.  I find the essay prophetic, as if Benjamin can somehow look into the future and see Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia and even more obviously propagandistic films like The Eternal Jew.

Benjamin writes: “For the first time in world history, mechanical reproduction emancipates the work of art from its parasitical dependence on ritual.”  And he continues, “Instead of being based on ritual, it begins to be based on another practice — politics.”  I don’t think politics can be viewed as something separate from ritual.  Politics and religion have always been linked.  Also, in political narratives that legitimize power, there are invocations of “cult value” or “instruments of magic,” be it a “founding myth” of a state or nation, or in the idolization of certain historical founder figures.  To me, they are two sides of the same coin.

“This is the situation of politics which Fascism is rendering aesthetic.  Communism responds by politicizing art.”

These are the last two lines of the essay.  Maybe I’m not understanding nuance here, but aren’t these the same thing?  Both Fascism and Communism are mixing the art with politics or politics with art.  I believe that art and politics have always been bedfellows and that the role of artists is to comment upon and engage with their societies and times.  Sure, politicians and others can use art as a means of persuasion or propaganda, but others can similarly use art as a means of resistance against coercion and hegemony.  The innovation of mechanical reproduction, or in our times, digital distribution and network communication make art an even more powerful and even more dangerous two-edged sword and tool for oppression and for liberation.

I don’t necessarily agree that there is a decline of the aura in art, but instead, I think that the ritual value and the aura of art have changed.  There is still a ritualistic quality to going to see a movie at the cinema as an “event” or happening.  Or the ritual fetishistic quality of unwrapping an album or CD recording and playing it for the first time.  In fact, even with MP3s replacing CDs and movies available to download on demand, there is still an aura attached to the real thing.  Audiophiles and DJs still appreciate the qualities of vinyl or CDs over MP3s.  Even with the ubiquitousness of music through the popularization of iPods and other MP3 players, live music shows are still an event, a spectacle, something with an aura that has ritual value.  In fact, the relative banality of ubiquitous mechanically/digitally reproduced music probably makes us appreciate live shows even more.  Probably the same goes with movies.  Sure, I can BitTorrent a movie and watch it on my laptop to avoid paying money to see it in a theater (but of course I wouldn’t because that would be unethical and even illegal), but there is still a lingering aura in seeing it in a theater, for the immersive experience and for the ritual social value of experiencing it with friends or a date.

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  • Charles Loughhead

    A small and perhaps unnecessary observation regarding Benjamin’s famous remark about art and its function in Communism versus Fascism: He was, of course, arguing that the politicization of art should be one of the aims of Communism, whereas Fascism had, in a sense, turned politics into an aesthetic in the service of control. A nice, if too quaint, distinction, if I may be so presumptuous as to say so. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” is probably Benjamin’s most well-known work, but, personally, I find it rather bloodless. I much prefer his fiction– “Berlin Childhood” is extraordinary (though unlikely to be assigned as part of your ITP curriculum).