Walter Benjamin: The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction
Somewhere I have some notes on this mind-numbing article, but I can’t find them. It’s probably because I carried this thing around with me for almost two weeks, as I slowly, slowly forced myself to read it. When I finally got to the blessed end, my response was . . . nothing? I have next to nothing to say about this article. It has next to nothing to say to me.
First of all, the political angle seems utterly forced. If you lop off the preface and epilogue, the essay seems less absurd, more grounded in reality. Instead of contextualizing Benjamin’s arguments, the comments about Marxism and Fascism push the discussion out of context, from the matter-of-fact, yeah-duh realm of “films are different from paintings” to the what-the-fuck-are-you-talking-about realm of “everything can be explained by Marxist theory, including your sandwich.” I’ll have the roast Capitalist Pig with frisée on ciabatta, please. Thank you. Sentences like,
However, theses about the art of the proletariat after its assumption of power or about the art of a classless society would have less bearing on these demands than theses about the developmental tendencies of art under present conditions of production.
make my brain shut right off. I must have restarted reading this piece four times; finally, the only way I got past the first page was to just turn it over. Skipped it. Gave up on trying to make sense of it. Moved on.
This kind of thing makes me feel like I’m growing senile. Help! I’m turning into my mother!
It also makes me wonder if it’s just a translation issue. “Aura”? Are you kidding me? Surely there was a better word available—a word that means something, a word that does not automatically invoke the sensation of being bullshitted. If we’re supposed to take this “aura” concept seriously, the translator needs to find a word that’s not loaded down with the weight of all that is woo-woo.
Probably another reason why I found this essay mind-numbing is that I just. don’t. care. about. film. I watch, like, four movies a year, and those are all on Netflix. I can’t remember what was the last movie I saw in a theater—Art School Confidential, maybe? To which I was dragged. Before that, I think it was Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Honest. Not a movie person. Even when I was TA’ing a film class in college, I don’t think I ever watched more than half of the movies that were under discussion. It wasn’t necessary to see the films in order to mark up students’ papers: if the paper’s good, you don’t need to have seen the film.
Similarly, if the essay’s good, you don’t have to be already up to your neck in Marxist art theory to find it relevant.
The essay is not good.
The question my mind kept coming back to, as I drifted in and out of sleep while trying to read this thing, was, What does this have to do with our class? The best I could come up with was that bit about how at a play, the audience identifies with the actors, while at a film, they identify with the camera. So . . . something about interactivity, and what’s interactive versus what’s mock-interactive . . . ?
The other thing I kept coming back to was, He’s piling an awful lot of cultural significance on top of traditional art. Not just the aura nonsense, but also the stuff about cult and ritual. Maybe this is my perspective only because I’m from an era that has radio and TV and movies and computers, or maybe it’s because I grew up in an artist’s family, but I don’t find art important. Not in and of itself. Individual works, or parts of works, might be moving or thought-provoking, but art by itself? A lot of it is shite. The idea of it having any cult significance? Unless Benjamin is talking about religious icons, I don’t see it. And if he’s talking about something else, he fails to explain what that something else is.
One of my favorite lines in the whole string:
An analysis of art in the age of mechanical reproduction must do justice to these relationships, for they lead us to an all-important insight: for the first time in world history, mechanical reproduction emancipates the work of art from its parasitical dependence on ritual.
Those are strong words, Walter. And completely meaningless ones. Awesome.
Another fave: “Artistic production begins with ceremonial objects designed to serve in a cult.”
This, I’m certain, is just an instance of awkward translation. The verb tense is confusing. Why present tense? Why not “Artistic production began”? Because that’s what he goes on to mean. So, here, the translator is just making him sound like an ass.
Much as in the aura argument, Benjamin’s invoking, in §xiii, of Freud as some kind of master of scientific investigation, undermines whatever it is he’s trying to say. So, as the film reveals to us visual details that normally go unnoticed, so psychoanalysis supposedly reveals psychological details that we otherwise don’t perceive.
Yes, we don’t perceive them because they’re not there. It’s amazing to me that people still talk about psychoanalysis, when to me, it’s always seemed that Freud might just as well have been talking about astrology or cloudbusters. I mean, he just fucking made stuff up about his patients. He generated ideas about how people behave in his head and then managed to convince himself—and thousands of other suckers—that his ideas could be seen in living, breathing action.
I don’t know. I’m trying to make it sound here like I have some kind of overall response to what Benjamin is saying. But, really, I don’t have a response to his argument because I can’t find his argument. He says a bunch of stuff, a few words on each page may spark a glimmer of recognition in my brain, but otherwise he might as well be talking about 1930s German politics, for all that I can relate to it. Oh, wait—he is talking aboit 1930s German politics, at least in part. Right.