Thursday, March 05, 2009

Walter Benjamin and The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction

Walter Benjamin (1892-1940) was associated with the Frankfurt School but developed his own social and literary philosophy. A Marxist critic, he fits into the preoccupation with how the ramifications of art, literature, the city and architecture function in relationship with humans who want to make sense of the social changes of the 19th and 20th centuries. Benjamin's reputation (despite his early and tragic death on the Spanish border as he was escaping from the Nazis) has steadily increased, and his writings are almost mandatory for anyone interested in critical/cultural theory/studies and/or in urban studies.

His Arcades Project, conceived in Paris in 1927 and stopped short because of his death, is his major work. The Belknap edition (1999) presents more than 1,000 pages of what Benjamin called "exposés," "sketches," and "drafts," (there is very little drawing in them, actually) and are replete with comments on literary, social, and cultural quotations of the time. The Arcades Project is probably the best in-depth study of the "arcades," the Paris shopping malls of the mid-1800s, as the city was undergoing industrialization. There is more than one interest in the book; in fact, the reader is breathlessly taken from one topic to the other in dizzying fashion: "catacombs," "Iron Constructions," "The Collector," "The Interior, The Trace," "Baudelaire," "Prostitution," "Mirrors," "Conspiracies," "Marx," and "Photography" are some of the chapters in this almost Surrealist collage.

To Benjamin goes the credit of reviving and reshaping the concept of the "Flâneur," the "man who walks long and aimlessly through the streets," (417) a creation of Paris, with the arcades as his preferred ambulatory haunts. The flâneur's experience can be summed up in the "colportage phenomenon of space," (418) a "peddling" of the different sights, smells, sensations, and perceptions experienced in the space of the city. Likewise, Benjamin's book is a colportage, a montage of literary, historical, social, and cultural images revolving around the Parisian arcades. An amazing product, the Arcades Project predates Fredric Jameson's Postmodernism, or the Logic of Late Capitalism not only in its form but also in its underlying attempt at multi-disciplinarity.

Benjamin's contribution to the emergence of new media technologies and the accompanying reconsideration of their relationship to art is best examplified in a famous (if not prophetic) essay in 1935-36 entitled "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction." As a Marxist, Benjamin had to formulate a politics of art which would satisfy the demands of popular productive criticism, and the essay is based on the assumption that, as the means of reproduction become more and more available and hence cheaper, the "aura" which surrounded, for centuries (millennia?) famous works of art would gradually disappear. This aura, he argues, is unnecessary and not inherent to the work of art, and is the product of a bourgeois understanding of wealth; the "uniqueness" and "originality" of works of art have always acted as yet another class barrier between the haves and the have-nots, and what modern technologies of reproduction (remember this is still the 1930s) have done is precisely the opposite of what "high art" was supposed to do, namely, the preservation of art in the sanctum of ritualized elitism.

With photography and film quickly becoming the means of disseminating previously jealously-guarded works of art, mass audiences have suddenly found themselves partaking of this "aura" with the result that art was precisely freed from its illusory but golden cage and re-installed where it should have always been, among the people. As such, reproduction, a better alternative to mere (flawed) imitation, marks a momentous change in hitherto traditionalist concepts of art:

In principle a work of art has always been reproducible. Man-made artifacts could always be imitated by men. Replicas were made by pupils in practice of their craft, by masters for diffusing their works, and, finally, by third parties in the pursuit of gain. Mechanical reproduction of a work of art, however, represents something new.

Of course, the concept of art and its imitation and/or reproduction revolves around the idea of the "original." And "original" entails another, intimately related term, that of "authenticity." Who better than those in power are to be the guardians of such authenticity? The possession, ritualization, and occultation of works of art (to be displayed to audiences only under the richest of pageantry) goes hand-in-hand with a possession, ritualization, and occultation of power, and the keeping of the former guarantees the survival of the latter. It is no wonder, then, to see the "best" works of art guarded against the prying eyes of the masses in palaces, castles, and places of worship. As the sole custodians of the canons of "high art" and "high taste," centers of powers have been able, if only by searching for, collecting, and keeping original works of art, to safeguard, by the same token, their claims of lineage, descendance, and hence their supposedly unalienable rights to govern and oppress with impunity.

But then, if the "presence of the original is the prerequisite to the concept of authenticity," as Benjamin writes in the essay, then the absence of this original also means that the concept of authenticity has to undergo a drastic change, if not a total eclipse and disappearance altogether. By removing the original, the concept of a "copy" as well as that of a "reproduction" make no sense anymore and, in a somehow perverted way, all instances of a work of art suddenly become originals or, in the strange absence of the term, suddenly become...art. Real art, art meant for consumption and not for display only, art for all, art that can be transformed, art that can be edited and adapted. In a word, art freed from its fetters and practiced, thus becoming actual government of one's self in society and in the polis:

For the first time in world history, mechanical reproduction emancipates the work of art from its parasitical dependence on ritual. To an ever greater degree the work of art reproduced becomes the work of art designed for reproducibility. From a photographic negative, for example, one can make any number of prints; to ask for the “authentic” print makes no sense. But the instant the criterion of authenticity ceases to be applicable to artistic production, the total function of art is reversed. Instead of being based on ritual, it begins to be based on another practice – politics.

Of course, I am writing from the vantage point of a 21st-century person using a digital technology which has actually, and not only theoretically, massively altered these notions of original and copy. What is the original of a digital photograph? Are there differences between originals and copies, other than the date/time of creation (and even these can be easily changed)? Who owns originals? What happens to an original when it is edited and saved as another copy, sometimes by the same author? If an original is sent to one hundred persons, do they all have copies or do they all have originals?

It is clear that, as we are entering the digital age, the ritualized "aura" which, for millennia, had served the ideological and economic interests of the self-appointed elite, has slowly come to a grinding halt. New terms must now replace the old binaries which created and sustained the illusions sometimes cherished by the very masses they were meant to enslave.

But then again, are we being, with Benjamin, too optimistic? Maybe Theodor Adorno's problem with "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" stemmed from his own concept of the "culture industry," almost diametrically opposed to the view that the popularization of art is the first step in the journey towards emancipation. The masses, instead of being liberated from the aura of ritual, may have been, in a cunning sleight-of-hand effected, this time not by the traditional centers of power but by the more prosaic holders of economic wealth, sent back to the grazing fields of pseudo-artistic and pseudo-cultural homogeneity and conformism.

The essay can be found here.