Walter Benjamin
Walter Benjamin vers 1928
Born 1892

Berlin, Germany

Relevant Work "The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility"


(NATC, 2nd ed.)

Biography Edit

  • Walter Benjamin was born into a wealthy Jewish family in Berlin in 1892.
  • He was educated by private tutors and attended boarding school before studying at the University of Freiburg.
  • Benjamin received his doctorate from the university in Berne, Switzerland in 1919.
  • Benjamin wrote articles for German publications, works that often reflected his Marxist views, and researched for his own never-completed historical work on nineteenth-century Paris called "Arcades Project."
  • A section of "Arcades Project" and some over articles appeared in the journal of the Institute for Social Research at the University of Frankfurt, but his politics and methods eventually turned acquaintances and friends from the institution away.
  • After the German invasion of France in 1940, in attempting an escape to Spain, Benjamin was stopped at the border in the Pyrenees where he committed suicide in order to avoid being sent back to a concentration camp in France.
  • For a time, Benjamin's name fell into obscurity.
  • In 1955 Adorno sponsored a collection of Benjamin's work, which spurred renewed attention.
  • Since the 1970s Benjamin has become one of the most highly esteemed critics of the 20th Century (NATC).

"The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility" Edit

Background and Historical Context Edit

During a visit to Moscow around 1926-27, Benjamin observed firsthand the achievements and limitations of the Bolshevik Revolution. When he wrote and published this piece for the Frankfurt Institute, World War II was ongoing at the time.

There are several versions and translations of the essay, and scholars continue to debate which is the closest to Benjamin's intentions and is the best rendering. Benjamin began the essay in the mid-1930s, completing the first version in 1935. He then prepared a second version that appeared in French translation in 1936: the latter text was the only version published in his lifetime. However, Benjamin continued to revise the essay, as he did most of his work, up to the spring of 1939 (NATC).    

Key Words and Terms Edit

Aura: the unique quality traditionally attributed to an artwork, giving it a special status equivalent to that of a sacred object in religious ritual (1048).

Cult Value: value attributed to art seen by few, such as religious artifacts kept in temples. The value lies in the presence of the artifact rather than the viewing of it. (1057) In the rise of Exhibition value, it faces near extinction. Its last refuge is the human countenance, where the uniqueness of human's expressions evoke auras (1058).

Exhibition Value: an art's ability to be displayed (1057)

Key Quotations Edit

"The whole sphere of authenticity eludes technological--and, of course, not only technological--reproducibility. But whereas the authentic work retains its full authority in the face of reproduction made by hand, which it generally brands a forgery, this is not the case with technological reproduction" (1053). "But as soon as the criterion of authenticity ceases to be applied to artistic production, the whole social function of art is revolutionized. Instead of being founded on ritual, it is based on a different practice: politics" (1057).

"The reception of works of art varies in character, but in general two polar types stand out: one accentuates the artwork's cult value; the other, its exhibition value" (1057). "...the audience to take the position of a critic, without experiencing any personal contact with the actor. The audience's empathy with the actor is really an empathy with the camera. Consequently, the audience takes the position of the camera; its approach is that of testing" (1060).

Discussion Edit

Although pupils have been making replicas of their masters' works for centuries, technology has changed the way reproduction is done and the timeliness of the art. The "authenticity" of art has always had to do with their "unique existence in a particular time" (NATC 1053). However, technological reproduction has substituted the unique existence for a mass existence (1054). One can zoom in or zoom out on an art (such as photography) and copies of the original art can be placed at situations where the original can't be (1054). The social function of art is then revolutionized and is focused on a different practice: politics (1057). With these new abilities to manipulate art, Benjamin speaks about subjectivity of photography and film. In photography, one can choose a certain part, zoom in on a certain thing, to make it the focus. By doing so, the photographer is consciously omitting other parts. Similarly to film, the camera person (director) is leading the viewer to where they want the viewer to look and to notice. This then plays into politics via propaganda. As one is manipulating how a situation looks, one can utilize the art to conform to and promote different ideologies.

Major Criticism and Reception Edit

Walter Benjamin, and specifically "The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility," are said to be essential studies in the Humanities discipline. Several like-minded thinkers created the International Walter Benjamin Society that hosts events dedicated to the discussion of Walter Benjamin and other related topics.

Related Works Edit

  • Dalida Maria Benfield: "Decolonizing the Digital/Digital Decolonization: Introductory Notes"
  • John Unsworth: "What Is Humanities Computing, and What Is Not?"
  • Esther Leslie, Walter Benjamin: Overpowering Conformisn (2000).
  • Graeme Gilloch, Walter Benjamin: Critical Constellations (2002).
  • David S. Ferris, editor, The Cambridge Companion to Walter Benjamin (2004).

References Edit

-Leitch, Vincent B., editor. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 2nd ed., W.W. Norton & Co., 2010.