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October 4, 2013

Essay on Mechanical Reproduction

Mechanical Reproduction
     The concept of mechanical reproduction was first introduced in the 20th century by a famous German cultural critic known as Walter Benjamin in his article which was entitled as The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. The article has been of extreme prominence in the fields of humanities, cultural studies, and media theory and art history. The crux of the article that was written by Benjamin revolved around the fundamental doctrine regarding the useful formulation of revolutionary demands in the politics of art.
 He further accentuates that in upcoming times if the principles of art are not dictated by any ritualistic or traditional value, then the only remaining element that would gain control of art and artistry in the age of mechanical reproduction would be politics and its subsequent injunctions. The article even though was published in the year 1936 but has emerged as the interrelation of the diverse development that has taken place under the banner of capitalism in technological, political and social grounds.
In addition to this one of the other key contributions made by Benjamin in the field of art was through the work known as Aura in which he discusses the adverse ramifications of technological renaissance upon the methods that were used for the proliferation of art and artwork before the invasion of the industrial revolution.
 In addition to this it is also worth mentioning that a major portion of the discussion would also involve an analysis of the ideas and perspectives of different scholars like Clement Greenberg and Arthur Danto on this issue in order to develop a thorough idea about the perceptions that each one of them has regarding the idea and concept of mechanical reproduction and its influence that it has upon art and artwork.
The Aura of Walter Benjamin
     The concept of aura is one of the most prominent and highly influential contributions that have been made by Benjamin in the field of art and artwork. Benjamin defines aura as a complex and sophisticated web of space and time with sometimes paradoxical interpretations like “a distance as close as it can be.”
 However apart from all this Benjamin describes aura as something which is inaccessible and elusive in terms of existence, something that is highly valued but is completely deceptive and out of reach. With the standards of judging and assessing aura there is no doubt about the fact that the aura Benjamin talks about or admires is completely non-existent and he further says that modern and contemporary technological innovation has actually played a pivotal role in the diminishing and subsequent eradication of these standards of artistic work.
 He focuses his argument on the central notion of technological intervention by saying that photography and photographs at one point of time was based upon attempts of imitation from painting but with the invasion of technological devices into the field the entire field of photography was able to pave its own direction leading to the formation of a completely new field and profession and thus at the same time facilitating the destruction and consequent erosion of the fundamental structure upon which the pillars of art and art work stood upon.
Benjamin also strongly criticizes the existence of printing presses as in his opinion the presence of printing press has actually made the production of books and other literary material with the accessibility and availability of every individual transforming the entire art and talent of book writing into an industry which is run and operated on the principles of business and commerce and commercialism than the essence and integrity which should be the prime principle of an art such as book writing and books itself.
 In addition to this Benjamin also believes that with the transformation of this art into a flourishing industry with the emergence of printing presses many people from diverse backgrounds have also entered the field of writing which have no experience or proper writing skills are also plaguing it, hence further catalyzing the crumbling the pedestal of the presence and appeal of art which was earlier disseminated by means of this art.
Since Benjamin has repeatedly defined aura as something which cannot be accessed or something which is intangible in nature the presence of aura has been defined and synonymously interpreted in terms of magic and occult influences. One of the salient features in Benjamin’s commentary on Aura details this connection by saying that the obliteration of aura through mechanical reproduction provides a passage of the artwork which regards and labels it as cult whether it is practiced on a religious scale or is demonstrated in the form of museums and cinematic work.
 The transition of artwork from churches and cathedrals to theaters and cinema work manifests that in each of the artwork of each phase the ideological doctrine that dictates the way art needs to be designed and presented plays an extremely vital and crucial role and this ideological influence has overwhelmingly been influenced by the occult or the magical value of the artwork. The commentary that he provides in Aura clearly manifests that for him the assessment and analysis of art must not be executed in terms of its depiction of the social reality that it presents in the form of class antagonism, but on the contrary it must be analyzed in terms of the ideology that it reflects in terms of the technique and methods that have been applied for the representation of the desired task and piece of art.
 He presented that something like art is highly intellectual in terms of its presentation and admired and advocated the opinion of his contemporary Bretch who use to say that intellectuals “not supply the production apparatus without, within the limits of the possible, changing that apparatus in the direction of socialism.”
\On the other hand Walter through his works also provides a comprehensive glimpse that with the increasing circumference of democratization and unprecedented innovations that are taking place in the communications media the value and benchmarks on which the quality of art and its work are assessed will gradually diminish.(McManus, 2006)  
 In his essay Walter Benjamin discusses art mainly before the 20th century, and specifically, the aura of that art. Aura, as Mr. Benjamin describes it, is simply uniqueness in time and space. His observations have had tremendous effects on how mechanically reproduced art is viewed. Clement Greenberg feels that mechanical reproduction (Kitsch) is a lesser form of art, because it is not one of a kind.(Greenberg, 1999)
On the other hand, Arthur Dantowas open to new ideas and didn't have to make mechanical reproduction fit into any specific category. Both critics/ philosophers are at polar opposites in the evaluation of mechanical reproduction in the art world.(Danto, 1992)
Benjamin argues that there has been a decay of artistic aura under the impact of media and new cultural technologies and advances; that there are changes in the essence of the art itself. He argues that because of mechanical reproduction, art has lost some of its authenticity in the industry driven culture of the 20th century. In the view of Benjamin, a shift of attitudes toward art has taken place as a result of the introduction of mechanical reproduction.
A reproduction is quite independent from the original in that the artist has many choices in the way he chooses to present it. In doing so the artist creates a new context to show his/her work and a new way to view it, making it authentic.
"And in permitting the reproduction to meet the beholder or listener in his own particular situation, it reactivates the object reproduced."(Benjamin)  Greenberg believed that art's reproduction lacks the presence and personality in a specific time and place that marks a work of art as authentic.
 Mechanical reproduction is seen not as aft but as a mere copy or forgery of the original intent of the artist. A copy is merely that, and not another work of art. The idea of reaching a larger audience of educated as well as uneducated people is what Greenberg desperately tried to avoid.
Only the sophisticated wealthy individuals were good enough to participate in the art world.
In his narrowed view on art he addresses mechanical reproduction and directly relates it to kitsch. "Kitsch changes accordingly to style, but remains always the same."
Kitsch is a way to express an idea to the general public in the form of artistic expression but Greenberg believes that it ruins the artistic integrity and negates the consideration of its content. He doesn't want the art world to be homogerized, but categorized and labeled to fit his personal criteria.
Danto argues that a production (or many) is just as valid as the so-called original. His view is similar to Benjamin's in that; the work(s) of art reproduced are reinterpreted in the venue it is presented in.
The social economical time frame in which the reproductions are presented can create a whole new feeling for the art, from its original intent and perception. The audience, as well as the venue that the work is displayed in will also affect the way that the work is interpreted.
"Danto concluded that neither resemblance to the world nor, conversely, uniqueness can stand as a criterion for a successful work of art."
This is a profound approach into understanding truly open ideas of art and its interpretations. His relation to the resemblance of the real world is a great example of why it is impossible to define good or bad art (or successful).
Anyone can make a unique piece of art but to try to determine its success and or its intent is an unavoidable and unattainable battle. It always depends on the context in which you are viewing it and the viewer themselves.
Mechanical reproduction is an essential tool for the artist to inform the public as well as help the artists create a number of works of art to support themselves.
Unfortunately some critics like Greenberg do not agree on informing the public or supporting a struggling artist. Walter Benjamin's theory on the ever-changing aspects of new cultural technologies and advancement in art is what is needed to understand why art can be viewed in so many different ways.
 Arthur Danto has a strong understanding of what Benjamin was saying, but was able to apply it to contemporary times and expand to create his own interpretations. In evaluating art it is crucial to understand all side of the argument to fully arrive at an educated decision and not based on personal preferences. (Harrison, Wood, 2003)
Benjamin argues that art mainly because it was placed in religious ritual in the past which led it to acquiring a kind of 'aura' giving its products a unique status. He claims that the authority or autonomy of original works of art comes from their non-reproducibility (except as fakes) and this gives them a magical aura, a charismatic radiance that environs authentic art objects making them appear like holy residues; distinctive, irreplaceable and thus priceless, made by the hands of genius.
He argues that this kind of aura fizzles out due to  mass reproduction; coming out in vastly-distributed books, posters, postcards, T-shirts, etc. Nevertheless, it is necessary that these reproductions should not be underrated or looked upon as lesser copies. In fact, some commentators state that reproductions have become so rampant and part of our experience that the original copy is nowhere to be found. They nearly become non-existent.
 Past types of reproduction, such as woodcuts, etching, lithography, and so on, could imitate original objects, but photography was different: "From today, painting is dead!" claimed artist Paul Delaroche on seeing his first Daguerreotype in 1839.
Photography replaced the traditional roles of painting, directly depicting landscapes, the still life and making portraits, etc; doubtless making portrait artists such as Delaroche became redundant.
"For the first time in the process of pictorial reproduction, photography freed the hand of the most important artistic functions which henceforth devolved only upon the eye looking into a lens".(Benjamin)

Both photography and film discovered the things that the world had not seen before and altered the conditions in which art is appreciated, freeing it of "its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be". Therefore art is no longer framed in the same terms.

The aura makes the (art) object 'distant' from ordinary people largely due to its physical setting (in the buildings of the ruling classes). Benjamin is aware of "the desire of the contemporary masses to bring things closer spatially and humanly".
Mechanical reproduction allows objects to come into close range "by way of its likeness, its reproduction". This effect is determined largely by the material characteristics intrinsic to mechanical reproduction (such as the use of close-ups, slow motion, etc) as well as its transmutability - art comes to you, you no longer need to go to it.

In this way, "the technique of reproduction detaches the reproduced object from tradition" and brings art closer to the 'masses'. Paul Valéry, quoted in the essay, seems to prefigure an image of the 'couch potato' with remote control in hand:
"Just as water, gas and electricity are brought into our houses from far off to satisfy our needs in response to a minimal effort, so we shall be supplied with visual or auditory images, which will appear and disappear at a simple movement of the hand, hardly more than a sign."

The essay hails the upshot of mechanization on the arts as a progressive development and accentuates the democratic and participatory aspects of such changes. This process will free the work of art from its reliance on ritual and originality, removing it from the realm of tradition and bring about the liberation of art production.

So much so, it can safely be said that, the work of art reproduced becomes the work of art intended for reproducibility. From a photographic negative for example, one can reproduce any number of prints making the claim of ‘authentic’ prink implausible. However, the moment the principle of authenticity ceases to be applicable to any artistic production; the entire function of art is inverted. Instead of being based on ritual, it begins to invite another practice - politics.

The title of the essay refers not simply to 'art' but to the 'artwork/work of art' - not just the image but the object formed through work - the commodity. It is however invested with value (associated with the labor of its production). The mechanical reproduction of art wipes out the individuality of art as being a commodity.
What is significant to learn about new technological forms is the ways in which the commodity or the form of art is endangered with a bourgeois concept of creativity and 'good' taste. Both Dada and Surrealism shared this dislike for the work of art with aura.
Such threats to all that we believe to be 'great and good' have to be integrated into the (art) system by capitalism to protect its control and health of its institutions; it seeks to re-frame these changing conditions. A consumerist aura has now extended to anything with a nimbus of the remnant - anything including nostalgic value, or indeed with the charm of the 'new' - especially where technology is attributed to as the reason of progress.

The invention of photography ensued crisis in art as it attempted to deal with the loss of aura by having recourse to purist forms of aesthetics; the l'art pour l'art movement (associated with the poet Mallarmé). Value judgments between the artistic virtues of painting and photography entirely do not address the issue that mechanical reproduction had transformed the very nature of art all at once.
Benjamin says, "Earlier much futile thought had been devoted to the question of whether photography is an art. The primary question - whether the very invention of photography had not transformed the nature of art - was not raised. Soon the film theoreticians asked the same ill-considered question with regard to film".

The 'aura' fizzles out when art is reproduced many a times though it still serves to easily distribute the product even more widely substituting art's ritual value with its exhibition value. Technological and social changes have made allowances for a work of art to be appreciated differently.(Hopkins, 200)

Just as the work of art no longer exists purely in its essence and in time and space, its meaning is made all the more transmittable. Subsequently, "Mechanical reproduction of art changes the reaction of the masses towards art". Everyone becomes a connoisseur in the new arts; a "worker-correspondent", an 'art' critic - and not before time. It brings things closer- the idea of academic critical distance (of the art historian, for instance) becomes old-fashioned.

This result will be seen most glaringly in the medium of photography and, by extension in cinema- tography. Benjamin returns to his distinction between traditional and modern technologies, comparing the painter to a magician and the film-maker/photographer to a surgeon."The painter maintains in his work a natural distance from reality, the cameraman penetrates deeply into its web". Benjamin also understands the contemporary masses' "ardent bent towards overcoming the uniqueness of every reality by accepting its reproduction."

All the way through the essay, Benjamin speculates on the unusual rapport between mass reproduction and the reproduction of the masses in newsreels; about how "the mass is a matrix from which all traditional behavior toward works of art issues today in a new form". Benjamin is thinking here of the 'Kino Pravda' newsreels of Dziga Vertov and the documentaries of Joris Ivens. He believes that these new consumer-as-producer relations are intrinsic in the new media.

He makes a rough distinction between the products of mainstream Hollywood and Socialist film, contrasting the ways Soviet films use ordinary people as actors with those of Hollywood that supports only the 'star system'. Keep this dissimilarity in view, he points out that the changes in technology do not determine a political direction (therefore this argument is not technological-determinist!).
There is both a potential to dislocate and rediscover aura in every aspect of technological change. He acknowledges that the 'aura' can be retained through restricted copies (editions) and when it is viewed in restricted locations.
Certainly, multi-million dollar prices for originals may be said to be relative to their availability in mass reproduction that has made them all the more desirable to own. He clearly prefers a situation where "... work itself is given a voice".

Under these (idyllic) circumstances, the audience begins to identify with the camera (rather than performer) endorsing a crucial stance by means of its collective viewing. This is significant for the author to realize that his relationship with the audience is not always the same.
"Thus, the distinction between author and public is about to lose its basic character. The difference becomes merely functional; it may vary from case to case. At any moment the reader is ready to turn into a writer."(Benjamin)

The essay ends with a plea for the survival of 'politics of aesthetics' as opposed to an 'aesthetics of politics' which mirrors the Futurists' confusion of the freedom of expression with the expression of freedom. The essay ends with a warning. "Its (Mankind's) self-alienation has reached such a degree that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order. This is the situation of politics which Fascism is rendering aesthetic. Communism responds by politicising art."(Benjamin)

1. Arthur C. Danto (1992)  Beyond the Brillo Box “Visual arts in post historical perspective.
(Harper Collins Canada Ltd 33-54.
2. Arthur Danto (2004) Art Criticism After the End of Art. www.amo.unikoeln.
de/dornrnloads/art-criticism odf
3. Clement Greenberg (1999) Homemade Esthetics: observations on art and taste. Oxford University Press, 65-7l.
4. David Hopkins: After Modem Art: 1945 - 2000 Oxford, Oxford University
Press 2000 5-36.
5. James W. McManus (2006) "The end of Art" and Art's post-Historical self, California
6. Charles Harrison & Paul Wood (2003) Art in Theory : The Anthology of Changing Ideas (
Malden, Blackwell Publishing

7. Benjamin, Walter, (2002), “Mechanical Reproduction”, Chico,


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