Sunday, May 5, 2013

Walter Benjamin – The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction – Summary and Review

"The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" (1936) is arguably Walter Benjamin's most notable essay. Benjamin's book attempts not only at analyzing the historical process that art goes through in the age of mechanical reproduction but also to see how art can formulate "revolutionary demands" towards political reality. "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" can therefore be understood as a programmatic study for understanding and realizing art's revolutionary potential.

Right from the onset of "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" Benjamin's Marxist approach and terminology are very much apparent. Benjamin uses the Marxist notion of dialectical materialism, which was very popular with the Frankfurt School, in discussing his thoughts about the ties between the aesthetic and the political.  Dialectical materialism holds that social changes are the result of power struggles that are present in all forms of material existence. When taking this line of thought to the field of art, Benjamin attempts at explaining how technological changes influenced art and how these relations might have social significance.

"The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" is also loyal to the Marxist hope of proletariat revolution, and Benjamin wishes to see how changes in the world of art can allow for revolutionary art which promotes social and political change. It should be noted that although Marxism is usually preoccupied with overthrowing Capitalism, Benjamin is more concerned with the "enemy" of his times – Fascism. Walter Benjamin saw how Nazi and Italian Fascism used various art forms in order to strengthen and justify their totalitarian rule. Benjamin tries to understand what allows the Fascist ideology to use art to its own needs, and asks what could be a course of action to free art from Fascist (or Capitalist) exploitation.

Walter Benjamin's "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" was and still is a huge influence not only on Marxist thought but also on art and culture studies which have turned to look at the ways technological advancements influence society through art. 

Additional topics:
Walter Benjamin's concept of "Aura" and Authenticity 
Reproduction and the loss of the Aura



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