The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction

What follows is a quotation from Walter Benjamin’s 1935 essay [named above, “The Work of Art…”], a fast and loose paraphrase of the essay, and a link to an Englishing of the original, in its entirety. The quotation is excerpted from end note 5. 

“The definition of the aura as a ‘unique phenomenon of a distance however close it may be’ represents nothing but the formulation of the cult value of the work of art in categories of space and time perception. […] The essentially distant object is the unapproachable one. Unapproachability is indeed a major quality of the cult image. True to its nature, it remains ‘distant, however close it may be.’ The closeness which one may gain from its subject matter does not impair the distance which it retains in its appearance.” (Benjamin, 21)

According to Walter Benjamin, the work of art has an “aura” which is largely dependent on the historico-technological context. The earliest art, taking the form of cave-paintings and idols seemed to be interactions with the sacred first (B calls this cult value) and exhibitions for limited audiences second. Over time, evolving with the economic mode, we witness a shift toward exhibition value in the aesthetic experience, but there remains access to the aura in terms of a unique observer-work interface, entailing what B calls a reactionary response, which is entirely individual, conditioned by context, perspective and identity. However, in the age of mechanical reproduction, technology (e.g. photography, film) degrades the aura of the work of art by necessity in making possible a mass consumption of the art object, whose fractured (individualized) or unified (group) simultaneity engenders a progressive reaction, “characterized by the direct, intimate fusion of visual and emotional enjoyment with the orientation of the expert.” This “orientation of the expert” need not be thought of as access to the learned interpretations of professionals in the field, but rather reproducibility itself extending the potentiality of our comprehension. Take for example the close-up camera shot: “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. […] 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. The pejorative here is NOT that new art forms which emerge with technology, such as photography and film are bad because they tend to be correlated with passive mindless distraction rather than immersive concentration, instead the very mode of appropriation entails a severing from the aura of the work of art due to the current viewer’s lack of access to previous modes of being (and all the unique and constitutive limitations of experience), making it that much more difficult to avoid “progressive,” mediated interfaces with all art forms. Presumably, such access the the aura of the work of art is now only approximated through the insight of this conceptual sublimation.




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