Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”
In these sections, Benjamin questions the traditional and historical creations of art versus mechanical reproduction. He argues that original works have a uniqueness or aura that is missing from the reproductions that follow them. Additionally, he claims that as original art loses its authenticity the more it is reproduced, the art is increasingly removed from its historical context.
In the first section, Benjamin describes the reproduction process as it has advanced since ancient times, where students could make replicas of their teachers’ works. Benjamin specifically focuses on the development of lithography, followed by photography and film. He explains how these last two advancements influenced the speed of reproduction: “Since the eye perceives more swiftly than the hand can draw, the process of pictorial reproduction was accelerated so enormously that it could keep pace with speech” (217). With film, the camera could record and thereby “reproduce” what an actor was saying at virtually the same time he was saying it. Speed became an important factor in defining “art”. Also, art became more complex because its ability to be reproduced distinguished it from its traditional forms.
Furthermore, Benjamin dichotomizes a work of art’s authenticity with its reproducibility. First, he introduces the concept of art within its cultural context, i.e. “its presence in time and space” (218). Original works are, obviously, connected to their time and place in history because of their physicality. One can pick up an original book from the eighteenth century and immediately know the book is very old, if not the exact century from which it came. However, a modern copy of this same book would not look, feel, or smell this old, unless it was reproduced in a conscious way to continue those sensations.
The original copy would be authentic; Benjamin refers to this authenticity as a work’s “aura”. He writes, “that which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art” (219). This might summarize his whole argument. The aura of a work is lost when that work is mechanically reproduced. Its uniqueness is substituted for its mass reproduction and subsequently, individuals’ understanding of the work’s context is significantly hindered.
What does Benjamin mean by “traditional art”? My guess is that it relates to original works—those not reproduced. In Section IV, he relates the authenticity of a work to its context. There he seems to indicate that a work’s value lies in its context: “the unique value of the ‘authentic’ work of art has its basis in ritual, the location of its original use value” (220). However, I can’t find anywhere in the text where he specifies what he means by all of these terms (traditional, original, unique, and authentic).
I am also confused by the third section. In the second section, Benjamin seems to be arguing that an object’s aura is lost once it is reproduced. Though in the third section he writes, “To pry an object from its shell, to destroy its aura, is the mark of a perception whose ‘sense of the universal equality of things’ has increased to such a degree that it extracts it even from a unique object by means of reproduction” (219-20). What? I suspect he is critiquing human perception, claiming that this perception is flawed because of reproduction processes. Humans see objects through an equalizing lens, instead of recognizing the uniqueness of things. Yet it is unclear here if this is indeed his assertion.
Is the authenticity or “aura” of a work of art lost when it is mechanically reproduced, or does some authenticity always remain? A reproduction is not an original. However, there might be some middle ground, especially as digital technologies advance, where a reproduction carries the aura of the original—whatever this aura might be.