The Work Of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction

The first work that I read written by Benjamin was his essay on The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. The essay explains that mechanical reproduction devalues the aura (uniqueness) of an art object. The aura of a work of art derives from authenticity (uniqueness) and locale (physical and cultural). Below I selected some paragraphs that we discussed at length during the Theory of Literature course:

“In even the most perfect reproduction, one thing is lacking: the here and now of the work of art-its unique existence in a particular place. It is this unique existence-and nothing else-that bears the mark of the his­tory to which the work has been subject.”

On Aura

“One might focus these aspects of the artwork in the concept of the aura, and go on to say: what withers in the age of the technological reproducibility of the work of art is the latter’s aura. This process is symptomatic; its significance extends far beyond the realm of art. It might be stated as a general formula that the technology of reproduction detaches the reproduced object from the sphere of tradition. By replicat­ing the work many times over, it substitutes a mass existence for a unique existence. And in permitting the reproduction to reach the recipient in his or her own situation, it actualizes that which is reproduced. These two processes lead to a massive upheaval in the domain of objects handed down from the past – shattering of tradition which is the reverse side of the present crisis and renewal of humanity. Both processes are intimately related to the mass movements of our day.”

What, then, is the aura? A strange tissue of space and time: the unique apparition of a distance, however near it may be. To follow with the eye-while resting on a summer afternoon-a mountain range on the horizon or a branch that casts its shadow on the beholder is to breathe the aura of those mountains, of that branch. In the light of this description, we can readily grasp the social basis of the aura’s present decay. It rests on two circumstances, both linked to the increasing emergence of the masses and the growing intensity of their movements. Namely: the desire ofthe present-day masses to “get closer” to things, and their equally pas­sionate concern for overcoming each thing’s uniqueness [Oberwindung des Einmaligen jeder Gegebenheit] by assimilating it as a reproduction. Every day the urge grows stronger to get hold of an object at close range in an image [Bild], or, better, in a facsimile, a reproduction. And the reproduction, as offered by illustrated magazines and newsreels, differs unmistakably from the image. “

On Perception

On Uniqueness

“The uniqueness of the work of art is identical to its embeddedness in the context of tradition. Of course, this tradition itself is thoroughly alive and extremely changeable. An ancient statue of Venus, for instance, ex­isted in a traditional context for the Greeks (who made it an object of worship) that was different from the context in which it existed for medieval clerics (who viewed it as a sinister idol). But what was equally evident to both was its uniqueness-that is, its aura. Originally, the embeddedness of an artwork in the context of tradition found expression in a cult. As we know, the earliest artworks originated in the service of rituals-first magical, then religious. And it is highly significant that the artwork’s auratic mode of existence is never entirely severed from its rit­ual function. In other words: the unique value of the “authentic” work of art always has its basis in ritual.”

On Film

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