In “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Walter Benjamin writes about the authenticity of art. The article is divided into four parts, each one describing an aspect of art and how/why it is reproduced and what that means in the context of human history and culture.
1. An important aspect to understand when studying Benjamin is the history of art reproduction throughout time. Reproducing art began as a way for students to practice their master’s craft or a way for the artist or a third party merchant to distribute his work. The technique began with founding and stamping in Ancient Greece, then came etching and engraving in the Middle Ages. In the 1800’s, the technique of lithography began. All of this history is important to the class because knowing where the technology we have today came from helps us to appreciate the techniques available to us.
2. The development of photography drastically changed art reproduction. It allowed for more rapid reproduction due to the speed of camera lenses compared to the slow pace of hand drawn works. The development of photography paved the way for sound film.
3. The last aspect I found to be important is that “Even the most perfect production of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be (218).” This means that the original work of art has “more authority” than its replicas.
There are two aspects of his writing that I felt could use more explanation:
1. He writes on page 219 in part III of his argument about an “aura” surrounding an original work of art. I thought it a strange way to describe art. He attempted to define “aura” by describing a summer afternoon and a shadow of a branch cast by the sun. I was lost. It was a cool example but I do not think it adequately defined his idea.
2. His arguments in part IV are also a bit vague. He opens by stating, “The uniqueness of a work of art is inseparable from its being imbedded in the fabric of tradition (220).” That makes sense. A work of art was created for a reason due to the culture surrounding the artist. However, Benjamin went on to discuss rituals and religion in a way that I felt distracted from his main argument. It just seemed like he went off on a tangent about ancient rituals and never found his way back to the main point of part IV.
If works of art are rooted in a particular time and place that is inseparable from the art itself, what is the point of reproducing it? In other words, why is reproducing art important if the reproductions are inherently lesser than the original?