You are on page 1of 11

ISSN 0007-0904




No. 1 I have subsequently re-read the two versions of Benjamin's essay. and it has behind it the not inconsiderable 'l< prestige of a gifted literary critic enhanced by the halo of martyrdom as victim !. u.]. the art work's aura and particularly the mechanism of its withering and final destruction as a consequence of mechanical reproduction. I have myself expressed my disagreement with some of its tenets in a Spanish-language paper. I For the proper understanding of the Benjaminian concept of aura. the knowledge of the conditions of its use by him are essential. None ._S British journal of Aesthetics. j. this time in their original German 4 including the French translation 3 and the accompanying copious 'observations'. As to the second point of my inquiry.! of Nazism's anti-semitic fury.< the less its very title is so challengingly and provocatively intriguing that it i. Benja min can al wa ys be co unted on to » : p ro vid e a catch y tu rn o f ph rase. . It is eas y to let o n esel f b e s ed uced b y the flow o f Benj a min's orator y to jjj accept his main postulate that mechanical reproduction destroys the aura of works of art. they are quoted again and again in spite o f their questionable premisses. 6 Nevertheless.. ! invites d wellin g o n . The lexicographic meaning is obviously of little use here. Benjamin himself explains the meaning he intends to convey. October i g g f he prima "> ™' -'~ WALTER BENJAMIN AND THE MECHANICAL REPRODUCIBILITY OF ART WORKS REVISITED Ian Kmzek T HERE AR E essays which seem to have a perennial life. This is hard to explain because its main thesis is so obviously flawed. 'The Work of Art in the Age of its Mechanical Reproducibility' 1 by Walter Benjamin is one of them. 2 I was then mainly interested in the ontological identity of Benjamin's Mechanical Reproductions because of his cavalier disregard of these categories. in what follows I want to dwell once more on the key issues of Benjamin's hypothesis. Benjamin never made it quite clear as to how or why mechanical reproductions can extinguish the aura surrounding works of art. The first concept and its aesthetic relevance has always been questionable but has been willy-nilly tolerated without much searching. Fortunately. I'd. Fu rther mo re. First he introduces the concept of authenti© Oxford University Press 1993 357 .

284). If. it is. II It is not to be doubted that Benjamin's kind of aura may actually enhance the enjoyment of art for viewers so inclined. attributable to the will of the artist. Unfortunately. p. 386). In general terms its existence as a psychological phenomenon can hardly be denied. Benjamin's colleague in the Frankfurt School. He also anticipates possible objections to Benjamin's explanation of the appeal of art by reference to that of nature. however. p.7 and later stresses 'its objective signification beyond all subjective intention'. It seems that Theodor Adorno. however. In the same context he stresses its 'fleeting and elusive' character. And he identifies it with 'atmosphere'. Benjamin's aura misleads and distracts the beholder from the true aesthetic values. as evocation and associations which are normally triggered by something in them. to clarify this concept of aura he only succeeded in blurring it through the introduction of an allegory or metaphor meant to evoke. you experience the aura of these mountains or that branch' (WAAMR. Since. compositional. 285). you follow with your eyes a mountain range on the horizon or a branch which casts its shadow over you. communicate or stimulate a feeling putativcly adhering to the concepts quoted in the preceding paragraph: 'the unique phenomenon of a distance. Adorno helps out by claiming that 'perceiving nature's aura means to become conscious of that quality in nature which is the defining clement of a work of art' (AT.. an extra-aesthetic feature. i. claiming that it is 'an objective signification beyond all subjective intentions'. indeed. 386). ranging from its substantive duration to its testimony to the history which it has experienced' (WAAMR. some philosophers may wince at the idea of explaining the appeal of art by reference to that of nature. p.e. doubts about both its ontology and fitness for the purpose assigned to it by Benjamin incr-eased. formal. . however close it may be. while resting on a summer afternoon. p. It is significant that immediately after quoting in toto his poetic allegory of the aura. It is its relevance in aesthetic apperception that is in doubt. by which he means the 'essence of all that is transmissible from its beginning. In spite of my initially sympathetic attitude to the Benjaminian concept of aura. This amounts in fact to a philosophical upgrading of Benjamin's poetic but unhelpful definition.358 THE MECHANICAL REPRODUCIBIL1TY OF ART WORKS REVISITED city. A few lines later he clarifies his own understanding of aura still more. was not quite happy with Benjamin's use of this term. art and nature (AT. he claims that what Benjamin calls aura is something familiar to artistic experience. tcxtural or structural and even from those that arc volitional. he identifies it as an element common to both. It differs in many important aspects from other imaginary products of contemplation of art works. But I came to distrust Benjamin's type of aura because it refers to something which is not in the work of art.

239) and which he will four years later introduce into his Reprodticibility essay. this could also provide us with an answer to the dilemma posed by the mechanism of the alleged withering and ultimate disappearance of the aura. Ill For the proper understanding of Benjaminian aura. p. . Hopefully. for instance. . Benjamin identifies aura with the relative obscurity of these early photographs out of which. p. because it seems that Atget's photographs possess something which they share with good paintings: this peculiar and ineffable . p. It should go without saying that if such superimposition happens in connection with pictorial art. 237) as a consequence of low-light intensity of the photographic lenses of that period. one is immediately tempted to dissent from Benjamin's dictum.IAN KNIZEK 35<J Adorno might have felt something of the above. 'light makes its way out only with some difficulty' (KGP. . we have to find the genesis of his use of the term. (KGP. all references to aura are of pejorative nature and they clash with the allegorical and poetic definition which Benjamin offers two pages later (KGP. Subsequently. he cleans this atmosphere: he prepares the liberation of the object from the aura' (KGP. p. IV Contemplating Atgetian plates in the New York Museum of Modern Art with all the attention they deserve. p.) 'Empty is the Port d'Arcueil. in other words. This liberation consists inter alia in the exclusion of humanity from his views of Parisian scenes. the courtyards. (KGP. We can hardly do better than to refer to an essay which Benjamin published four years earlier (18 September 1931) under the title   Little History of Piwtography * The concept of aura occurs for the first time almost exactly at the middle point of the photographic essay. In an important passage (AT.) Benjamin uses it here to characterize the tragic mood of the nineteenth-century petit bourgeois salon portraiture with all its ambience of false pretentiousness and ridiculous paraphernalia. it is indispensable to discover its origin m his thoughts. 240. 239). p. they are not lonely but moodless'. . it can reduce even the greatest works of art to the category of entertainment. 66) he warns against the artificial superimposition of aura which would amount to a falsification as happened so often with commercial film. empty the fatuous stairways. Benjamin then proceeds to praise Atget's photography for having 'disinfected the sticky atmosphere of the conventional portrait photography . as he says. 229. What also seems meaningful to him is Atget's rejection of images associated with the romantic music of city names. the cafe terraces . Here.

Atget imparts to his views a quality which reality itself does not exhibit: the sometimes melancholic mood. But Benjamin has to deny that these plates might have acquired an aura because the acceptance of such a view would be fatal to his theory.) Such and similar statements arc not very enlightening in the sense sought above. We have to grant to Benjamin that mechanical reproductions of works of art may lack authenticity in the strict sense of his definitional allegory.) But this is not true in the broader sense of his earlier definition (WAAMR. Born in } 892 Benjamin was old enough to experience the effects of this kind of inflation in post-World-War I Germany of the twenties which every day rendered its currency practically worthless. to languish) and its ultimate destruction as a consequence of reproduction is nowhere explicated. But this psychological connection with the alleged decay of the art work's aura appears to be too pat and indeed trivial. unthought and devoid of human life. even allowing for the fact that we quoted them out of context. pp. And even the absence of human beings. is a gain rather than a loss because it allows the observer to transport himself to another dimension.160 THE MECHANICAL REPRODUCIB1LITY OF ART WORKS REVISITED something which frequently confuses even sophisticated critics. 285. which Benjamin correctly observes. (WAAMR.. a certain halo of associations and evocations which only an artist can impart to inanimate objects. the notion of its withering (his term is verkiimmern. p. Far from depriving them of something as Benjamin claims. It is the why and how this happens which Benjamin never makes clear. if we are to consider Atget's plates as works of art.) By now they don't even lack authenticity which is an obligatory component of Benjaminian aura. (WAAMR. the feeling of solitude which is not loneliness. (WAAMR. He comes considerably closer to providing a reason when he implies that (at least in the eyes of some) the original art works might become 'cheapened' by unbounded copying. p. 284. 285. 284) as 'all that is transmissible' including its perman- . 284-285.) One may easily think in this context of Gresham's law. literally to become stunted. of the devaluation of currencies induced by uncontrolled operation of printing presses. that is. V If Benjamin's concept of aura is vague and problem-ridden. and it might be unjust to attribute it to a man of Benjamin's intellectual sophistication. In addition to all that. that aura withers in the age of mechanical reproduction (because) the technique of reproduction detaches the reproduced object from the domain of tradition. He mentions it several times in the first half of his essay but he seems to take it as a self-evident fact claiming. p. p. the Atgetian oeuvrc has acquired in the course of the years an aura of its own and entirely fitting Benjamin's own characterization. (WAAMR. for instance.

as well as rupestrial cave drawings. Especially meaningful is the statement that Atget's images 'suck the aura of reality like water of a sinking ship'. There is then no very good reason why even reproductions cannot appropriate for themselves the features composing the work's 'authenticity'. 240) and not the photography or the act of photographing that caused it. Nor is there necessarily a conflict with Adorno's common-scnsical identification of'aura' with 'atmosphere' (AT. these features can be transmitted or transferred to reproductions by imagination. In other words.IAN KNIZEK 361 ence and performance in history.. 239. p. Rather. It occurs in connection with his exaltation of Atget's photographs and of their auratic lack. i. pp. VI There is. exclusion of humanity or shunning city names (KGP.e. There are no indications at the present time that the surge of mechanical reproductions has affected in any way the western cultural heritage. p. (KGP. What adds to this disabling difficulty is the existence of thousands of canvases and fresco paintings decorating dark walls of blackened and distant vaults of innumerable churches and palaces. an earlier clue to Benjamin's theory concerning the mechanism of de-aurating. 386) of works of art. however. here geographic inaccessibility is compounded with visual unapproachability. And curiously Benjamin himself provides some of the arguments to support the view that interest in great historical works of art should not decline as a consequence of mechanical multiplication but on the contrary is bound to flourish. owing to their sequestration in museums and private collections spread over widely separate and generally privileged areas not easily accessible to all. (KGP.) We are perfectly aware of the fact that in times both long and not so long past. .) ft seems therefore that Benjamin could have easily arrived at his subsequent and so far-reaching conclusions by extrapolating from his above subjective judgement to generalize the putative de-aurating effect of photography as reproductive process par excellence. humanity at large has had few opportunities to contemplate and interiorize many of the great works of pictorial art. 229 ff. they are communicated through oral tradition or art-historical research. p. Unfortunately for Benjamin. wilful setting of the stage. Such features are imaginary and not perceptual. usually badly illuminated. nor are they regional qualities. he does not stop to entertain another and much more plausible alternative: conceding for the moment the claim that there has indeed been a loss of aura in Atget's transposition of the reality of certain city streets to his photographs. it was hisv""Atget's.

Although this last part of Benjamin's thesis is in general terms plausible. This differs signally from the main conclusion of the Reproducibility text. It might be difficult to visualize a painting so abstruse as to require a mastery over it. Because photographic reproductions of art works facilitate their grasp and apprehension. a sculpture and above all a work of architecture through a photograph.We have to assume that the majority of art lovers get to know their works of art almost exclusively through their mechanical reproductions. testify to the increased interest in or consciousness of art. even if we cannot possibly vouch for a simultaneous enhancement of aesthetic sensibility. (KGP.) This is particularly true of pictorial works of large dimensions. VII An important feature connected with Benjamin's Reproducibility thesis is his disdain for photography as art or. (liquidated) without . He takes for granted that it is easier to grasp a painting. . which are hard to grasp and comprehend by means of a single undeviating glance. We may accept the first half of Benjamin's statement without having to go along with the second. And the enormous proliferation of art books and reproductions easily demonstrable through the existence of a l l those bookshops which today constitute an obligatory premium adjoining expositions. p. galleries or museums. better to say. We may. Significant and readily acceptable is his denial that the improved apprehendabihty of art works through their photographs as compared with a direct examination of the real thing. . Jerome Stolnitz (p. speak of popularization through reproduction for which Benjamin himself provides a partial explication. which is necessarily involved in viewing large expanses of paint. Obviously. What Benjamin claims here is undoubtedly true: that photographic reproductions are indissolubly linked with size reduction of the image which assists men to gain a dominion over the art work without which they could have had no use for it. it is not easy to square it with the main postulate of the Reproducibility essay. his reluctance to concede to photography the category of art. their final effect should be one of making them more accessible and therefore enhance their universal appeal. Walter Benjamin was not always a consistent thinker. both murals and vault decorations. could be owing to a decay of aesthetic sensibility of contemporary humanity. loses the perception of continuity. 243. indeed. there are others that make this task more difficult. whereas scanning. 346) has revealed Benjamin's overall strategy: 'Deflate the value of high art for aesthetic experience and all the other economia come tumbling down . We have to accept that while some of the conclusions of   Little History of Photography' help us to clarify certain obscure points of the Reproducibility text.

though particularly important 'status'. Jerome Stolnitz (p. part of Baudelaire's statement of 1875 that photography 'must return to its essential task to be the servant to the Arts and Sciences'. e . The development of this thought can be traced to the 'Little History of Photography'. We may begin with his inept choice of . the series of reasons why Benjamin has chosen to limit his endeavour to visual arts and the film and why after mentioning a "phonograph record in the same breath as a photograph he refuses to occupy himself with the former again. he contrasts the Art of Photography with Art as Photography. i . Here (page 229) and in the context of the discussion of the aesthetic value of the discipline in question. This has resulted in an increased popularity of serious music. This Benjamin admits. Benjamin must have become aware that even in his lifetime mechanical reproductions of music had already reached a respectable level of technical perfection. There might have been a second reason for his not following up on his initial hint initiated by coupling the phonographic record with a photograph. He dismisses this contemptuously 'as more or less artistic confection'.further effort'. books and phonographic records. It could be that Benjamin did not feel himself at home in the realm of music. Another set of explications exists however. Benjamin must have been familiar with the historical effects of the Guttenbergian revolution. Some of them are relatively free of Benjamin's all-embracing orthodox ideology. is owing to his awareness that the historical evidence of their appearance and performance in time would contradict his a priori conclusions. 246. Benjamin has to devalue photography. We have also observed that he was not quite fortunate in his excursion into the field of the visual art of painting. .'' In a similar fashion. (KGP. I wish to propose here that Benjamin's refusal to support his main thesis b*y reference to the two most ubiquitous Reproducibility examples. for instance. strips works of art of their aura and devalues them. Let's consider. with obvious satisfaction. p. namely deny it the status of art because otherwise he would experience difficulties in grounding his mam argument that reproduction. Nevertheless. but brushes it off claiming for it a special. 350) answers his own question as to how Benjamin got himself into these messes. The case of print is similar as printed books may be considered a prima-facic example of reproduction. A partial answer is that Benjamin reasons the way he does under the compulsion of an ideology. And he extols the value of art works' reproductions for their function in art and attributes to them greater importance than to Art Photography. And on the next page cites.) VIII In his spirited refutation. photography in this case.

Having been predominantly a literary critic. we must take seriously Adorno's contradicting Benjamin's belief that mass reproduction will become the master art in the age of industrialization (AT. On the other hand his castigating Benjamin for dialectic shortcomings in his work. X Most damaging for Benjamin's Reproducibility thesis is the opinion of Bertolt Brecht for the simple reason that it comes from another Marxist colleague. 205-206). (WAAMR. Benjamin falls short of presenting a theory or a hypothesis. it is closer to a prophecy with all its fallacies and pitfalls or. He qualifies it as full of mysticism within an anti-mystical posture.64 THE MECHANICAL REPRODUCIB1UTY OF ART WORKS REVISITED the works of Hans Arp as an example of those Dadaist works which 'became an instrument of ballistic' using an equally unfortunate metaphor. 309). together with the cultic. But awareness of the pitfalls of indiscriminate generalization should not keep us from recalling Clive Bell's essay in which he points out the difficulties the literary man encounters in trying to grasp works of pictorial art and do them justice. its truth value would be subject to verification by means of. while undoubtedly important in the context of historical materialism. As to the critical views expressed by fellow-Marxist writers. pp. And when he comes to mention examples of pictorial art. pp. a fanciful extrapolation from questionable premisses. is irrelevant for the judgement of the truth of his thesis. p. While admitting the literary origin of surrealism we don't have to accept Benjamin's insinuation that this painter's aims were to represent the perceptual features of the scene painted by him (S. In this respect too it fails.. among other things. 'In this form is the con- . Whatever it is he offers. In the above sense even dissenting voices are of marginal importance especially when they come from those who disagree with him on ideological grounds. we should not perhaps blame him too much for this particular literary bias. it decays owing to the reproducibility of art works. He betrays this weakness in his earlier essay (2 January 1929) about Surrealism" 1 where his treatment is mostly literary. And even if it were one. In an almost sarcastic entry of 25 July in his Work Diary12 Brecht writes that Benjamin has discovered aura in his analysis of the film where. perhaps better. 296. matching it with empirical data. his approach to the paintings of Chirico is again literary and entirely negative." Briefly.) IX A certain lack of teel for the visual art of painting informs almost every one of his ventures into that field. 297. Even such an extrapolation would not be exempt from the necessity of empirical verification.

3 My views were almost instantly challenged byjuan Acha in 'Lectura ingenua de un texto de Walter Benjamin'. p.2. Inc. 'On the Apparent Demise . PP. that it could have easily been the result of simple rivalry. 105. 4 Walter Benjamin. edited by Gretel Adorno and Rolf Tiedemann (Suhrkamp. 281-300. 709-739.) 8 Walter Benjamin. The circumstances of this outburst. Adorno. And so for instance he has many insightful things to say about film and film making. But to ponder about them I leave to more congenial minds. 1974). pp. Hannah Arendt writes in her 1968 introduction to Benjamin's work (Stolmtz.) ' Jerome Stolnitz. (later WAAMR) in Berel Lang and Forrest Williams. 431-471. Mexico 06500. entered into the work journal on 25 July 1938. in Gesammelte Scliriflen. 2.Acha accuses me of'naive reading of a historic materialist's text' owing to my alleged 'idealistic-objectivist' mili tancy. '' Rolf Tiedemann and Hermann Schweppenhauser. however. Since Benjamin himself collaborated on its preparation he is unlikely to have had any objection to this wording. 7 Tbeodor W. 1974). pp. 709-739. translated by Piere Klossowski (Suhrkamp. eds. D. 1972). Marxism and Art (David McKay Co. 1973)> P. concluding an essay on such a negative note leaves one with an ashy taste in the mouth.ception of historical materialism adapted' he writes. 'La ontologia de las reproducciones mecamcas de Walter Benjamin'. Vol. Ian Knizek. REFERENCES \ The available English language translation bears a slightly but significantly different title. Panuco No. 38-41. In fact. This phrasing follows that of the earlier French translation 'L'oeuvre d'art a l'epoque de sa reproduction mecamsee'. Plural. 117).4°^· (Later AT. German Ori ginal: Aesthetische Theorie. In this context his doctrinal reprehension is only of marginal concern. 'Das Kunstwerk im Zeit- alter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit' in Gesammelte Schrifteu 1. pp. pp. 237. once he leaves the vulnerable issue of loss of aura owing to mechanical reproduction. namely 'The Work of Art 111 the Age of Mechanical Reproduction'. 2 Ian Knizek. It seems. is not known. And then adds: ' I t is quite horrible'. 11 Walter Benjamin. Angelus Novus: Ausgewahlle   Schriften ( Little History of Photography') (Suhrkamp. Aesthetic Theory. p. 'Anmerkungen' in Gesammelte Schriften (Suhrkamp. No. Mexico. edited by Rolf Tiedemann and Hermann Schweppenhauser (Suhrkamp. Plural. 386. pp. Brecht's censure is important above all because it articulates doubts which many non-Marxist workers in the field of theoretical aesthetics and art history have developed while reading Benjamin's Reproducibility essay. he can be quite lucid. 1984). 1966).. that he wrote his essay in order to outdo Brecht in radicalism. No. And it may be so because there is more in Benjamin's Reproducibility piece than what has been found objectionable.. 229 ff. Nevertheless. Translated by C.F..4°—49. 187 (April !987). pp. 'L'oeuvre d'art a l'epoque de sa reproduction mecanisee'. 185 (February 1987). 'Kleine Geschichte der Photographie'. (Later KGP. Lenhardt (Routledge & Kegan Paul. 1974).

1X-23. Vol.) . 1 (Suhrkamp. iyjK~iy4i (Siilirkainp. 1933). Gesom- ' 2 Bertolt Breclu.of Kcally High Art'. pp. "The "Difference" oi Literature'. (Later S. 197. New York (29 November   345—3sK. 1. p.1). Vol.'°- 2 1 5 . 4 (1 y s). pp. XL11I. journal of Aesthetics and " Clivc bell. 'Dor Surrealism'. New Republic. Ail Criticism. Arheitsjourtial (Work Diary) niche Sclirijien. P. 1966). No. Vol. Walter Benjamin.