December 25, 2012
As Christmas is upon us, it may be a good time to reflect on the culture of consumerism that has enraptured the globe. In Walter Benjamin’s The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility, Benjamin discusses the mass reproduction of art and its effect on what Benjamin coined as the “aura” of the art itself in which the artwork’s presence in time and space is lost through the means of reproduction. The reproduction strips the artwork of its function as an individual unit. Although Benjamin’s discourse focuses on art itself, using film and photography as his main examples, his analysis is applicable to the culture industry itself. Popular culture is created to function in the best interests of the economy and everything is filtered by the culture industry.The selection mechanism as to what is authoritatively produced and distributed to the masses is contingent upon investment capital and those who control it. Traces of spontaneity are controlled due to the dependency upon such vast amount of capital in order to be widely distributed. Culture itself is manufactured. Consumers are classified, labeled, and organized by the manufacturers who view them only as statistics in which more capital, money, and power can be gained through further distribution of reproductive cultural entities.
Benjamin begins his discourse with a quote that summarizes how innovation and technology have been constantly transforming culture. “Our fine arts were developed, their types and uses were established, in times very different from the present, by men whose power of action upon things was insignificant in comparison with ours,” (Benjamin, 1051,). The quote from Paul Valery alludes to the transformation of art due to technological breakthroughs that revolutionized the distribution and techniques of art itself.
Access to art was severely limited due to technological constraints thus limiting art itself due to the cultural constraints that such confinement, in terms of exposure, caused. Benjamin’s discourse begins with a sense of optimism, which deteriorates as the capitalist mode of production—and its cultural effects—are discussed. With such widespread reproduction of art and culture itself, the aura of the artwork itself is lost along the way as what is considered to be art becomes disillusioned amongst widespread reproduction with alternate motives.
Through the capitalist mode of production, art becomes intended to suit capitalist interests rather than being a unique form of individual expression. Benjamin states that such conditions of mass production “neutralized a number of traditional concepts—such as creativity and genius, eternal value and mystery,” (Benjamin, 1052) Benjamin goes on to quote Paul Valery once again in the first part of his discourse, stating that auditory and visual images became marginalized to something hardly more than a sign.
The aura of an artwork is lost during reproduction. It loses its “unique existence in a particular place,” (Benjamin, 1053). The copying of the artwork detaches its essence from the artist and loses that personal connection. Famous artist Pablo Picasso said that “Art is a form of magic designed as a mediator between this strange hostile world and us.” Most recently in our culture technological innovations have distorted art and disrupted the function that art serves as a mediator in understanding the world we live in. “By replicating the work many times over it substitutes mass existence for a unique existence,” (Benjamin, 1054).
Technological innovations have led to the emergence of new art forms such as film and photography. In doing so traditional concepts of art have been overthrown and production has overflowed the cultural filter so that art as a form itself loses its own aura. The traditional concept of the definition of art is transformed by such technological reproduction but at the cost of its essence.
Art was becoming so reproduced that it took on different goals and approaches such as Dadaist’s attempt at counterculture, which eventually was culminated with the surrealist movement. In a more modern sense art has been developed into so many forms of entertainment to the point in which the aura is so far removed that it lacks any artistic qualities or skills as technological advancements replace or remove these things. Due to the mass reproduction of art, art has transcended beyond its function as a specialized field of humanism for better or worse.
Quality has been sacrificed for quantity as mass reproductions of imagery serve different functions without focusing on aesthetic representation in the form of beauty. Mass reproduction has outmoded the primary necessity for art to inhibit specialized techniques and training. Such exploitative motives ruin art and serve popular culture only as a means to reinforce elitism amongst the established power. Benjamin cites egalitarianism as the ideological condition for the constant decay of art. ‘
Benjamin cites two circumstances, “the desire of the present day masses to ‘get closer’ to things spatially and humanly, and their equally passionate concern for overcoming each thing’s uniqueness by assimilating it as a reproduction” (Benjamin, 1055) as reasons for the loss of the aura in question. Capitalist motives are the root for such ideologies to gain influence over the masses in order to fuel reproduction. Benjamin cites the phrase “l’art pour l’art” which means “art for art’s sake,” which was a sentiment to preserve the aura as a reaction to the first revolutionary means of reproduction and many counter culture movements have emerged since then.
Benjamin’s discourse advocates a sense of optimism with the emergence of culture industry and its role in transforming art. Benjamin cites massive active participation as a positive aspect of technological reproduction. He refutes notions that popular culture is a form of escapism from the drudgeries of capitalism that causes the masses to be docile and subservient to the elite. Benjamin argues that by advocating contemplation and absorption of such art forms, such art forms are gradually understood and mastered, in other words through dialectics. By constantly searching for truth and maintaining an open mind for resolutions between disagreements, the masses could transcend such seemingly destructive influences as popular culture.
Popular culture serves capitalist interests because of the industries that depend upon it for reproduction. Such industries are indebted to particular ideologies that were formed in order to preserve and further influence upon the masses. Popular culture is an authoritative outlet for such extensions of influence.
Michael Sainato writes from Albany, New York.