work of art

The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction

The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit) is a 1936 essay by German cultural critic Walter Benjamin, which has been influential in the fields of cultural studies and media theory. It was produced, Benjamin wrote, in the effort to describe a theory of art that would be "useful for the formulation of revolutionary demands in the politics of art". In the absence of any traditional, ritualistic value, art in the age of mechanical reproduction would inherently be based on the practice of politics. It is the most frequently cited of Benjamin's essays.

Aura

Benjamin used the word "aura" to refer to the sense of awe and reverence one presumably experienced in the presence of unique works of art. According to Benjamin, this aura inheres not in the object itself but rather in external attributes such as its known line of ownership, its restricted exhibition, its publicized authenticity, or its cultural value. Aura is thus indicative of art's traditional association with primitive, feudal, or bourgeois structures of power and its further association with magic and (religious or secular) ritual. With the advent of art's mechanical reproducibility, and the development of forms of art (such as film) in which there is no actual original, the experience of art could be freed from place and ritual and instead brought under the gaze and control of a mass audience, leading to a shattering of the aura. "For the first time in world history," Benjamin wrote, "mechanical reproduction emancipates the work of art from its parasitical dependence on ritual."

Politics of Art

Other Frankfurt School writers, most notably Benjamin's friend Theodor Adorno, worried about the resulting "distracted" relation to art characteristic of mass consumption, and argued that in losing the aura, we had also lost a space for potentially revolutionary reflection and imagination. In contrast, Benjamin argued that the withering of the aura was a more complicated historical development, an ambiguous force that also had the potential for democratizing both access to cultural objects and a critical attitude toward them. "Instead of being based on ritual, [art] begins to be based on another practice - politics." For Benjamin, the politicization of art should be the goal of Communism; in contrast to Fascism which aestheticized politics for the purpose of social control.

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