The essay titled “The Work of art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” by Walter Benjamin is a work of cultural criticism, which posits that mechanical reproduction negatively affects the uniqueness, which he refers to as the aura, of the art. According to this scholar, due to mechanical production, art is now produced on the basis of the praxis of politics and not the traditional and ritualistic value it once had in past periods. As one reads the essay, one questions whether Benjamin’s notion of the destruction of aura in the age of mechanical reproduction is valid. By using various examples in modern society, this essay supports Benjamin’s argument that art is truly losing its aura and authenticity because of photographic reproduction.
Benjamin acknowledges that the emergence of mechanical reproduction is a transformative force in putting in the meaning of art in a given epoch. In helping the reader to understand this aura term, he indicates that it is the temporal embeddedness or place of a thing in a given space or time. Specifically, he indicates that “The uniqueness of a work of art is inseparable from its being embedded in the fabric of tradition” (Benjamin 1969, 6). Thus, when it becomes possible to shift this art object from where it is meant to be (the museum, as seen in traditional time), then it loses its uniqueness.
Benjamin implies that a work of art becomes authentic and acquires authority by placing them in historic contexts offered by the sacred houses that are associated with such knowledge, which are museums. The distance created between the observer and the artwork plays a significant role in developing the authentic and authoritative nature of the artwork. In traditional times, people had to travel to view art pieces. This pilgrimage to the art’s location contributes to the aura of the artwork and enhances the experience of the audience. The effort placed into viewing the art marked the observer’s dedication to the art piece, which became a form of worship; thus creating a cult-like culture that contributed to the aura of the art industry during the traditional times.
Benjamin’s argument is valid because many of the art pieces created in the past are considered to be more valuable than modern-day art. Although the artists who created these antiques have a role to play in the value given to these art pieces, the time and location associated with them also contribute to their overall aura. For instance, the uniqueness of the artworks by artists such as Leonardo Da Vinci and Sandro Botticelli, among others, can be associated with their locations. People could only view the works they created if they went to museums or other designated places. There was no other way of gaining access to their works other than specifically appointed locations. However, in contemporary times, the emergence of technology has given people access to artworks regardless of their location. People no longer have to travel to specific locations to view these art pieces. By accessing a digital gadget, the average person has access to any art piece of their interest.
Other than one’s ability to view these art pieces without going to unique places such as museums, people also have access to the copies of an art piece rather than the original artwork. Due to the advancements of technology, art pieces can be used reproduced from the original piece, which defeats the purpose of uniqueness. In traditional times, one could only find one piece of the created work. However, mechanical reproduction has “watered down” this concept because people can now print an image of the Mona Lisa painting, for example, frame it and perceive it as a form of artwork at home. Although the original is in Louvre Museum, people can still view it as copies in their home setting or images on the internet. They do not have to travel to this museum to observe it as was the case in the past. Similarly, when contemporary artists create works, they do not sell the original piece. They sell copies of the original, which presents a mass-production aspect. Thus, the piece work is not associated with a given location or time, but it is found in as many places as the sales made. When a product is mass-produced, it defeats the object of uniqueness; hence the validity of Benjamin’s argument.
The current digital age also affirms Benjamin’s argument in diverse ways. This scholar has placed emphasis on location and time. However, social media platforms have made it hard to identify the origin or destination of a given form of art. If photographs, plays, films, paintings, sculptures, and dances, among others, are considered to be a form of art, then it has become difficult to identify their origin. Anyone can post any form of art on a social media platform and once it goes viral, the concept of location becomes irrelevant. Once a form of art goes viral after being posted on a social media platform, it becomes challenging to identify its origin, the purpose of the artwork, and other similar factors that were often associated with traditional pieces of art. An entity is considered unique if it is one of its kind, but such works on social media platforms allow opportunities for mass production, which defeats the purpose of creating something unique.
The work by Devi indicates that “with the emergence of technologically reproduced art forms, human perception also developed new modes of reception and sensibilities subverting the conventional categories of perception” (2015, 11). According to this author, these technologies did not necessarily alter the uniqueness of art as argued by Benjamin. In many instances, the uniqueness of an object is subjective as one thing is seen as unique by one person may not trigger the same views in another individual. Thus, the people in contemporary society do not perceive art in the same way as those in traditional times. Members of contemporary society have adjusted their view of the world and integrated the changes occurring. They can, therefore, find the uniqueness or aura of the artwork regardless of the technologies involved.
Devi’s argument makes sense today because people have to accept that they cannot do away with technology and neither can they revert to traditional times. They have to appreciate artworks in these times and identify how to acknowledge their uniqueness. However, one has to understand that Benjamin does not argue against modern technology, as he starts his essay by phrasing a quote by Paul Valéry, who presents some advantages of technology in the art world. Rather, Benjamin is indicating that mechanical reproduction has made some changes that differentiate the experiences of traditional and modern art forms.
The essay affirms that art is truly losing its aura and authenticity because of photographic reproduction. Through the emergence of social media platforms, and the ability to make copies of an original piece of artwork, technology has eliminated the uniqueness that comes with creating a piece of artwork. The act of mass-producing an object or product defeats the purpose of developing something unique. One is said to have something unique because it is believed that it cannot be found anywhere else. However, when artworks appear on social media platforms, on the internet, in galleries and other locations, it defeats the purpose of uniqueness, as Benjamin indicates.
Benjamin, W. (1969). The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction. Hanna Arendt, Harry Zohn. Illuminations. New York, NY: Schocken Books.
Devi, S. D. (2015). Perception and Mediation: A Critique of Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. IOSR Journal of Humanities and Social Science, 20, 3, 11-16.Order Now