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Walter Benjamin: The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction

Walter Benjamin points to the fact that by means of mechanical reproduction the unique existence of a work of  art at the place where it happens to be is no longer a given. The concept of authenticity is discussed at length and we learn that this has to do with uniqueness – Mechanical reproduction, as it were, robs the work of art of its aura – by which Benjamin means the subtle field of uniqueness which surround original works of art. 

(The word AURA having clearly religious connotations – today we might find it predominantly in esoteric and spiritual traditions, often described as a luminous radiation surrounding an object or a person… )

I found the historical derivation of art as originating in cult – magical or religious – and only later emancipated from ritual and based on, as Benjamin sees it, politics, interesting.

Cult value being replaced by exhibition value to which the invention of photography and especially film contributed. 

Benjamin wrote this essay in 1936 – and yet it is pertinent to this day and seems to anticipate and explain the postmodern ideology refuting the “cult of beauty” and replacing it by the ambiguous, the puzzling, the inexplicable….

What do I think about Benjamin’s viewpoint? History has in part shown that Benjamin was pointing to a development that was ( and is) indeed taking place – but art (painting, sculpture) has been created in the last 78 years that, despite ever better methods of mechanical reproduction, has lost none of its value as original, as the major art shows, auctions and exhibitions prove. On the contrary, one would think, mechanical reproduction contributes to an inflation of prices not only for original paintings, but original photographs as well…. as latest auction prices for first prints of photographers like Robert Frank show only too well…)

On the whole I agree with M. Warner Marien who writes: Benjamin was wrong about the special aura tha unique objects have. Far from destroying the aura, art reproductions served to increase it. Photographs of Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa roused people to want to see the original. …..(Warner Marien, 2002, p. 306)