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Walter Benjamin -- The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (Original)

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Thomas Mulherin

on 4 December 2013

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Transcript of Walter Benjamin -- The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (Original)

Walter Benjamin
"The Work of Art in the Age of its Mechanical Reproduction" (1936)

The Decline of the Aura
The decline of the aura is the direct result of the advent of mechanical reproduction.
What is reproduction?
1. In general: imitation or copying

2. Specifically: a method of imitating or copying artworks

3. Comes in different modes, e.g. manual reproduction and mechanical reproduction

4. Mechanical reproduction is ambiguous...
Sometimes Benjamin uses it to mean "the imitation of artworks by mechanical means"...
...such as founding, stamping, woodcuts, printing, engraving, etching, and lithography
But other times, he uses it to refer to independent methods of artistic production...
...such as film and photography.
5. Reproduction develops historically
What is the Aura?
1. Benjamin defines it for us as the "unique phenomenon of a distance, however close [something] may be"...

2. Hence it's a *perceptual* category, not a metaphysical category.

3. The term is intended to capture all that we try to speak of in terms of "authenticity" and other such categories.
What has an aura?
1. Artworks, of course...

2. ...but also natural objects...

3. ...and human beings.
The latter two help make some sense of Benjamin's definition of the aura as the "unique phenomenon of a distance, however close [something] may be," particularly when you combine them with one of his other characterizations of the aura, as "its presence in space and time, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be."
Where does art get its aura?
1. Not simply in virtue of having a unique existence in space and time...
2. Rather, it's a function of what Benjamin calls the "cult-value" of a work of art.
Cult value?!
1. In Das Kapital, Marx defines 'use-values' as things that satisfy human needs.

2. Cult-value (and exhibition value) are two special kinds of use-values.

3. Something is or has a cult-value if it satisfies certain religious needs by serving a ritual function...

4. ...while something is or has exhibition-value if it satisfies the need for "simultaneous, collective experience" (§ XII).

5. Cult-value and exhibition-value are related dialectically; as the presence of one increases, the presence of the other decreases.

6. In typical Marxist fashion, these changes are driven by changes in the economic base (i.e., the advent of mechanical reproduction).
The notion that art's auratic nature depends on cult-value is why Benjamin emphasizes that authenticity (part of what we experience in an aura) depends upon being “imbedded in the fabric of tradition” (§ IV).
How does reproduction destroy the aura?
It shatters the tradition that grounds the aura, and in two ways:

(a) it "substitutes a plurality of copies for a unique existence" (§ II)

(b) it "reactivates" the object outside of this tradition (§ II)
Why would you want to destroy the aura?
This is a perceptual change, and its driven by our desires to:

(a) bring things closer to us spatially and temporally

(b) overcome uniqueness and accept reproduction

In short, the destruction of the aura is part of the “adjustment of reality to the masses and of the masses to reality” (§ III)
Mechanical Reproduction as Method of Artistic Production
Two instances of this for WB:

1. photography

2. film
The importance of these arts lies in their effects on perception.
1. Perception is historical, and changes with the economic base (§ III).

2. Mechanical reproduction brings several perceptual changes with it:
a. makes things visible as interchangeable (§ III)

b. makes reality more susceptible to analysis (§ XIII)

c. deepens our ability to assimilate knowledge (§§ XIII and XIV)
Why is the increase in exhibition-value tied to politics? (§ VI)
What is the political value of the changes in perception effected by the work of art?
What is the difference between fascism and communism in terms of the relationship between art and politics?
The various methods of reproduction can be ordered in terms of their contributions to the scope and efficiency of reproduction.
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