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Walter Benjamin was a German writer, philosopher, radio broadcaster, translator, essayist, and critic, who was born on 15th of July, 1892, in Berlin, Germany (Encyclopaedia Britannica). Born to a well-to-do family of Jewish origin, Benjamin was able to attend the most lucrative schools in Germany such as Kaiser Friedrich School and the University of Bern where he was awarded his last doctorate. Unlike most Jews, Benjamin was not a supporter of the Judaism religious propaganda, but instead, he appreciated its influence in regards to spiritual and cultural factors. He was also a critical commentator on the works that were put out in German literature whereby he discussed and speculated on “tragedy” as a decisive aspect of German romanticism. Most of his famous works on Western Marxism and aesthetic theory include Illuminationen Goethes Wahlverwasntschaften’, ‘Kritik der Gewalt’ and “Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner Technischen Reproduzierbarkeit” among many other ones. In literal terms, numerous critics and writers that existed in the same age and times as Walter Benjamin were greatly impacted by the works that he put out whereby in some occasions he would critic the works of other critics (Encyclopaedia Britannica). His essays and articles on the media are also memorable mentions as they have been a critical factor in shaping the way cultural production and media of the 21st-century has come to develop itself regarding how they are carried out and operating ways respectively. Therefore, this essay will strive to discuss how Walter Benjamin’s idea ended up impacting the understanding of today’s people in the media and cultural production (Encyclopaedia Britannica).
Analysis: The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction
Art is an integral part of our society today. Over time, it has evolved from simple expressions to complicated modern expression aided by technological advancements that have seen creations unimaginable before. The tools and imaginations have also found a way into our cultures and our life’s outlook as everything seems possible now than never before. The rise of photography and the art of film changed everything for the better, or is it for the worse? In the age of enlightenment and information, society is not the same. The media has manipulated technology to achieve goals that are progressive and retrogressive in equal measure. The powerful have tools to capture and enslave the greater population of poor people.
One of the most important essays that Benjamin wrote in regards to film production is the “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” of the year 1936 which is going to be the first and foremost source information for this article. In the essay above, Benjamin took time to discuss ways in which photographs became meaningful after they are made or instead, ways in which meaning is produced from art through specific shifts that he outlined (2010). The author illustrates how a film is produced, how these ways manipulate the viewers of the film and thirdly, the beliefs and structures of values that were yet to be obtained by the viewers that will be merged by depictions from the film (Benjamin, 2010). Benjamin proposes a process in which film and photography can be read taking into account both of their making of their material and the way in which the making of the material alters or supersedes ways of criticism that had been there earlier (Benjamin, 2010).
The article discusses how the world is filled with an aura the human eye seeks to identify with each time. The author defines the urge of a human in need to connect with nature directly or a need to reduce the space between the eye and the beauty beyond perceived by the same eye. It is our cultural practice to want to break the chains and distance between us and what we see thus the rise of the inventions such as that of the camera. The lens can capture things beyond our reach to our arms’ length. We have intrinsic drives that take us to the heights of our inventions.
“The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” was written in Paris, France where Benjamin was residing after fleeing Germany upon the rise of the Nazis. The 15 steps as discussed by Benjamin are what this paper will use in discussing the impacts of his essay on people’s understanding of media and production. Benjamin commences by first discussing creative reproductions that have been existing or were done in the past. As argued by Benjamin, speed was the main difference that is notable between photography and prior reproduction forms that were in existence (Knizek, 1993). He then brings the reader to the fact that at the beginning there was just a photograph and the artist’s need to want more, saw him or her be able to develop a picture that could move and have sound thus the birth of motion pictures. The need that Benjamin discussed was that of the artist wanting to do more with his or her eyes rather than his or her hands. At this juncture, people have been able to regard mechanical imitation as a form of art in its right, rather than just a way of imitating art that is already in place (2010).
Next, Benjamin discusses how in the ancient days a photograph was only regarded as having worth or recognized only if it was the original one. Anything else that was made as an imitation of this original photograph was regarded as fake or forgery. He then goes on ahead to claim that this is not the same as any form of art that has been developed using mechanical reproduction due to two specific explanations. Benjamin brings the reader to the fact that lens of a camera produces art from its theme whereby; the theme on its own is not art at all. From this assertion, one can depict the point that Benjamin is trying to relay and that is works of mechanical reproduction cannot be labeled as “original” work of art (Knizek, 1993). This was because the lens of the camera could be set or adjusted in such a way that they were able to catch details that the eyes of the viewer or audience could not catch if it were on the original picture. The second explanation that Benjamin gives is that art created through mechanical reproduction is not limited to a particular space or time as it is with photographs or paintings (Peim, 2007). This reason is due to the claim that these productions are a way in which people can hear and see things from a dissimilar place and time. With this, Benjamin states that mechanically reproduced art lacks originality and uses the term “aura” to illustrate what these creations lack. The old paintings and photographs had “aura” around them in the sense that whoever looks at them gets sucked into and becomes part of what they are viewing (Peim, 2007).
In addition to people not being able to trace the origin of photographs, Benjamin also discussed the ways in which the human need to seek “aura” from photographs has seen them splattering photographs and pictures of places in books and magazines so as to satisfy the said need. The author is also quick to point out that photographs or pictures in the magazines lack the atmosphere that can be experienced if one was at the original scene. This was due to the two causes in which humans choose to process and perceive information that has been relayed to them, and they are “historical” and “natural.” As it is with ritual, the function of art has a connection with ritual when speaking from a historical point of view. However, over time and years that followed, this changed as art could be reproduced mechanically and in huge amounts that the original piece becomes forgotten leading to art being regarded as not having a sense of art around it meaning it lacked a function in social terms. Humans were mainly the reason as to why original and authentic art was losing meaning while at the same time trying to give sense to their mistakes.
This according to Benjamin was part of the reason as to why art ended up losing its aesthetic power. Mechanical reproduced art lacked authenticity as earlier stated; it lacked the story and experience of the journey that it had been through since its conception to the present time at which one was viewing it (Burk-Morss, 1992). To further clarify this point, Benjamin was able to compare the feeling of looking at an original piece of art further indulging in the discussion of aura whereby he defined aura as the feeling or sensation that one feels or is captivated by whenever he or she is marveling at the greatness of nature, in this case mountain ranges, or any other thing that has authenticity and originality in regards to its presence (Benjamin, 2010). This was correct if the reader does choose to view the explanation from a literal point of view. The old ritual of storytelling had also been dumbed down due to the emergence of the print media. The print media saw stories and news collected from people being put down or printed on paper whereby people had to purchase the newspaper or book to get the story. In such cases, the person that did the story was not the source and he or she had to add or subtract certain information from the original narration to get more and more people to read it. At the time that mechanical reproduction came into the picture, newspaper success was most regarded or gauged on how many copies it had managed to sell not from the authenticity of whatever news that was published in it. This given an example of putting sales above authenticity is an excellent one in regards to how print media changed everything and its involvement in the killing of the “ritual” (Benjamin et al., 2006)
From everything that Benjamin wrote and discussed, it is imperative to note the immense steps that modern day media and film production companies have taken in a bid to go back to the old ritual of maintaining art and giving it a meaning. This result has been a significant impact that has finally seen the relevant parties come up with ways that film reproduction does indeed maintain an air of originality that was absent in the past mechanical reproduction. Kang (2014) asserts that Walter Benjamin’s hypothetical inputs in people being able to understand the media more profoundly are still applicable in today’s world. First, Kang discusses flânerie as it was illustrated by Benjamin (2014). Kang takes time to help the reader get a clear and vivid picture that Benjamin was painting with flanerie discussion in which the leisurely walk of a 19th-century shopper down an alley filled with different shops selling different things has come to be a metaphor of a 21st-century person aimlessly surfing the web from one link to the other with no specific thing that he or she is searching for (2014).
Benjamin was also able to shape the way in which print and visual communication work in today’s world as he was able to quickly demonstrate on how the community was disintegrated socially due to the emergence of print media and the ultimate move to a social arrangement of a nonconformist. The uniqueness of art objects and images was no longer present as the transition to a more digital world saw originality lose its true meaning (Benjamin et al., 2006). They were replaced by reproducibility and Transitoriness and were the main cause in the way the perception of the masses changed which was evident in their consciousness. Mechanical reproduction had changed everything as Benjamin had pointed out and as discussed in this article. Works and products of automated production lacked the magical authority, an authenticity that was quite evident with the original artwork. This ideology can in one or the other be accredited to the production’s industry steps in trying to ensure that films provide vivid pictures and scenarios that can someway have an “aura” of originality that the viewers or audiences can vividly relate too (Hansen, 1987).
Some experts have also argued that the article by the famous critic could have been the main reason as to why works of art have come to be treasured and regarded as priceless in the 21st-century. In the 21st-century, it is evident from art exhibitions and prices on paintings and portraits that art has come to be valued more than it was during the era that mechanical production went into the picture. Portraits and paintings by old and modern artists such as Leonardo DaVinci, Basquiat, and many others, are now held with high regards and sold at steep prices. Some of these portraits such as the Mona Lisa have numerous duplicates and imitations, but still the original piece is respected and regarded as a great piece of art as it was with art in the old days before the age of mechanical reproduction.
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From the evidence discussed above, it is imperative to state that Walter Benjamin’s ideologies and theories had a significant impact on how people came to be able to understand the media and cultural production. However, from all the fifteen points that he discussed in his essay in trying to explain how mechanical reproduction had changed and spoiled the traditional art’s originality and authenticity, he still had hopes that the media could one day be liberated as the possibilities were there. It was important the change that had happened reproducibility was only so that the technology of communication tools could be brought closer to the people. One is also able to depict his argument that the main reason as to why these changes took place was only so that a certain political end could be progressively met. If this critically acclaimed essay had not been written, then specific progressive changes would not have been made by the media houses and people would still have continued to be “brainwashed” as Benjamin had feared. Writers had come to lose meaning as they were in some particular way on the same level as the readers they were trying to communicate with which is the same case as is with films whereby the viewers perceive themselves as the co-authors. Walter Benjamin was indeed a genius, and his works continue to empower and give meaning to the different lives of people and issues in the modern-day world. Schools and institutions should, therefore, take the mandate of educating students on the works of this great thinker.
- Benjamin, W. (2010). The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, California: CreateSpace Publishing. Print
- Benjamin, W. et al. (2006). Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings, Volume 3: 1935-1938, Massachusetts: Belknap Press. Print
- Buck-Morss, S. (1992). “Aesthetics and Anaesthetics: Walter Benjamin’s Artwork Essay Reconsidered.” October 62: 3-41.
- Encyclopaedia Britannica. “WALTER BENJAMIN,” retrieved 12th January, 2018 from https://www.britannica.com/biography/Walter-Benjamin
- Hansen, M. (1987). “Benjamin, Cinema, and Experience: ‘The Blue Flower in the Land of Technology.’” New German Critique 40: pgs179-224
- Kang, J. (2014). Walter Benjamin and the Media: The Spectacle of Modernity, New Jersey: Wiley. Print
- Knizek, I. (1993). “Walter Benjamin and the Mechanical Reproducibility of Art Works Revisited.” British Journal of Aesthetics 33: pgs357-66.
- Peim, N. (2007). “Walter Benjamin in the Age of Digital Reproduction: Aura in Education: A Rereading of ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’,” Journal of Philosophy of Education, Volume 41, Issue 3; Pages 363–380