The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction

Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit (1936); The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction

The basic argument of this essay is that modern art develops as a response to new modes of technological reproduction (lithography, photography and film).

Benjamin argues that these mechanical processes deprive the artwork of its ‘aura’. The ‘aura’ is (was) the ritual status of the artwork as a ‘genuine’, unique object produced by the hand of the artist. Mechanical reproduction destroys the aura because it enables multiple copies to be created by mechanical means; this strips the artwork of its uniqueness. Benjamin is essentially positive about the passing of the aura, but he also fears about fascism's ability to pervert the new media and - perhaps - he has a little bit of residual nostalgia for the ritual function of art.

Benjamin is essentially positive about the passing of the aura because:

    • it makes art both more accessible and more democratic; it means that art is judged by a mass of people and not just by a narrow clique of critics;

    • it has led to the politicisation of art (paragraph 4) (which he thinks is important);

    • it emancipates art from religion (paragraph 5).

Benjamin is particularly positive about film because film actors perform for the camera and this enables the audience to assume a more objective stance (see sections 8-10).

He is also positive about the new form of distracted perception brought about by new media (in the penultimate paragraph).

Benjamin’s idea that modern art develops in response to technology can also be applied to literature and music. In the field of literature, modernist writers found themselves in competition with new forms of textual mass media such as telegrams, newspapers, advertisements and popular music. In the field of music, avant-garde theorists such as Luigi Russolo (1883-1947; The Art of Noises, 1913) developed the idea that music could be formed by industrial noises.

English Translation

Click here for the translation by Harry Zohn

Further Reading

Susan Buck-Morss, ‘Aesthetics and Anaesthetics. Walter Benjamin’s Art-Work Essay Reconsidered’, October 62 (Fall 1992), 3-41

Ivan Soll, ‘Mechanical Reproducibility and the Reconceptualisation of Art: Thoughts in the Wake of Walter Benjamin’, New Comparison. A Journal of Comparative and General Literary Studies 18 (Autumn 1994), 24-41