3/ DUSCUSS BENJAMIN’S THEORY THAT THE ‘AURA’ OF ART DECAYS IN THE AGE OF MECHANICAL REPRODUCTION.


Walter Benjamin published his interpretation of Marxism in relation to aesthetics in his essay ‘The work of art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’. Although it was first available in 1936, in the Frankfurt Institution Journal, it was not until 1973 that the influential essay was translated in Illuminations, edited by H. Arendt. Therefore, there was a delay in Benjamin’s recognition as a significant developer of late modernism and postmodern thought. The very fact that Benjamin’s ideas laid untouched for over a generation prove that he was in every sense ahead of his time; in the 1930s, Benjamin was hypothesising, with no knowledge of today’s technological advances - such as digital cameras, how technological reproductions would alter not only our appraisal of arts but also our concept of ‘reality’.


Unlike his Frankfurt school contemporaries, Theodor Adorno and Georg Lukacs, Benjamin did not equate the ‘Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ with negative implications for the art world. Instead, he argued new technologies would have a liberating and democratising effect on society thus politicising art. His theory supposed that such consequences would free people from the ‘Capitalist Culture Industry’. Today, Benjamin can be credited with laying down the foundations for modern theorists, such as Marshall McLuhan, Jean Baudrillard and Paul Virilio.


In short, Benjamin’s essay first attempts to define the ‘aura’ surrounding art until 20th Century and then analyse how this ‘aura’ crumbles due to new technologies. Alongside this, he believed the 20th Century had turned culture into an industry and therefore art had become a commodity. He declares each stage of art reproduction equates to another stage in its loss of aura. Since mechanical reproduction allows art to be criticised and interpreted by diverse cultures Benjamin concludes that mass reproduction results in changing attitudes towards art. “That which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art. This is a symptomatic process whose significance point beyond the realm of art.”[1] Although Benjamin wrote in other works that the loss of aura was not necessarily a good thing, he only concentrates on its positive aspects in ‘The Work of Art’. “The social basis of the decay of aura was in Benjamin’s view the ‘sense of the universal equality of things’ which imbued the contemporary masses.”[2]


Benjamin’s definition of art’s ‘aura’ is explained as “the phenomena of distance, however close (an object) may be”.[3] In other words, the aura of an artwork enables one to stand in front of it, yet at the same time feel distance due to its uniqueness and splendour. He uses an example of distant mountains as keeping their ‘aura’, since they have not been mechanically reproduced. Benjamin associates art’s ‘aura’ with both its ‘authenticity’ and ‘authority’. Pre-20th Century artworks’ aura, authenticity and authority stemmed from the lack of technology for reproduction. Such artworks were one-offs produced for a wealthy patron, royalty or the church, therefore art’s production was dominated by the rich and powerful - a system entirely lacking democracy. New technologies and reproductions allow this tradition of artistic control to be turned on its head.


Benjamin holds historic and religious ‘ritual’, which once surrounded art, partly responsible for its ‘aura’. He claims this is fundamental in analysing art of reproduction since the work of art has been removed from its parasitical dependence on tradition. The development of new technologies, especially film and photography, allow the mass public to realise that there is little mystification in creating art; Benjamin appears to draw on Weber’s concept of the inevitable ‘Entzuaberung’ or ‘demagification’ of the technological world. He metaphorically explains this in terms of a magician and surgeon: a painter is to a cameraman what a magician is to a surgeon. The painter/magician keeps their distance from reality/the patient maintaining their ‘aura’ by virtue of their authority; on the other hand, cameraman/surgeon reduces any distance with mechanical equipment and therefore removes any ‘auratic authority’.


In light of this, he argues mechanical reproduction destroys art’s previous auratic characteristic of uniqueness. Therefore the manner of reception of art changes too - the ‘distance’, once defined by a works ‘aura’ is removed. Mechanical reproduction changes a work of art from a unique distant object surrounded by