Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” looks into the art of reproduction and its effect on the function of art. Due to mechanical reproduction, the definition of art becomes one based on reproducibility and not the essence of form or place.
Three Important Aspects
- In times when mechanical reproduction was impossible, reproductions were merely replicas of a work, but mechanical reproduction led to a change in the perception of art — from that which lacks “presence in time and space … [and] unique existence at the place where it happens to be” to something that can enter “situations which would be out of reach for the original itself” (218).
- Technical reproduction has led to a greater effect of a piece of art on the masses. Where replicas in the time before mechanical reproduction were often made as a form of study, art gradually became a consumable good. Most importantly, “technical reproduction had reached a standard that not only permitted it to reproduce all transmitted works of art and thus to cause the most profound change in their impact upon the public; it also had captured a place of its own among the artistic processes” (218).
- Perhaps the most telling quote Benjamin produces states that the mechanical mass production of art causes art itself to be at the mercy of an even greater convention than the process of creation: “Instead of being based on ritual, [art] begins to be based on another practice — politics” (220). Since the speed at which art is reproduced, and nearly in the exact form as the original, constantly increases, art must be created for consumption.
Two Misunderstood Aspects
- The concept of aura: On 218, it seems as though Benjamin is saying that the aura of a piece of art (or of a natural structure) is inseparable from the art itself, but he goes on to say on 219 that art is not as much a product of its aura: “if changes in the medium of contemporary perception can be comprehended as decay of the aura, it is possible to show its social causes.”
- The dependence on ritual: “Mechanical reproduction emancipates the work of art from its parasitical dependence on ritual” (220). Is not ritual (if not a ritual of tradition, then a ritual of the artist) an ingrained part of art? The separation of reproduction from this tradition makes sense, but ritual many times defines certain art forms.
If it is becomes possible to create exact copies of extremely old books (pre-printing press), do the originals lose some significance, or does the importance exist at a molecular level? What does this mean for the reproducible items of the future?