Sunday, May 5, 2013

Walter Benjamin on the Aestheticization of Politics

One of Walter Benjamin's most notable ides in "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" is that of the aestheticization of politics. This notion is discussed by Benjamin through the concept of "aura" and its loss (see: loss of the aura). The loss of the aure, the onetimness of the work of art which establishes a certain relation to it, is described by Benjamin is a part of a material process of technological and therefore cultural change which is not restricted to art alone. Art only heralds this change which degenerates the experience of authenticity and the shift into mass consumerism of aesthetics. The new forms of art, photography and cinema, bring about a new type of collective reception. In a sense, for Benjamin, you are how you see your art, and you are something completely different when you stand in front of original art than when you are sitting in front of the TV.

Fascism and capitalism exploit this function of art to their own needs by using its logic. Through the conditions of reception formed by the aura. Capitalism uses the force of the aura to position the individual as self contained, self dependant and able (as opposed to his true social condition) while fascism uses it to completely erase the individual. Both capitalism and fascism practice what Benjamin calls aestheticization of politics.

The Marxist counteraction to the aestheticization of politics according to Benjamin should be the politicization of the aesthetic. The politicization of the aesthetic is conducted in two manners: by identifying and resisting the ways art is exploited and by identifying its revolutionary potential. "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" is in itself such an attempt to politicize aesthetics. The structure of culture is, for Benjamin, the structure of society. While in fascism the art comes from the leader, Marxist art should originate from the people.

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Walter Benjamin on Aesthetics and Politics "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction"

The first four chapters of Walter Benjamin's "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" relate to the changing social function of art and the loss of the aura in the age of changing reproduction technologies. As a Marxist, Benjamin view changes in art as indications of changes in the economical base of material power relations. This is why Benjamin employs the theory of dialecticalmaterialism in "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" for the sake of analyzing the changes that art goes through in the 20th century.

Walter Benjamin describes the uses of new forms of art as a dialectic struggle between new forms of cultural production. He contradicts fascist uses of art to revolutionary uses of art through two aphorisms: the fascist tactics are characterized by the aestheticization of politics while the communist counter-reaction is characterized by the politicization of the aesthetics. Benjamin himself is of course all for the politicization of art and "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" is essentially an attempt to point to art's revolutionary potential.

An interesting point raised by Benjamin in "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" is the relations between capitalism and fascism. Capitalism and fascism meet at the point of alienation. Marx held that under capitalism the worker is alienated from his own products of work. In fascism this alienation is radicalized by the complete deletion of the individual function. The epitome of fascism according to Benjamin is the aestheticization of war which turns violence into an aesthetic product. This augments alienation since humanity can now joyfully witness its own destruction. People's alienation from their own products blinds them from seeing how these products bear their doom. The aestheticised war turns it away from the political realm into the realm of art where it can be consumed rather than discussed.

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Reproduction and the loss of the Aura in Walter Benjamin's "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction"

In his famous "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" Walter Benjamin uses the concept of "aura" to designate the quality of originality and authenticity of the aesthetic experience of an original work of art (to learn more about Benjamin's concepts of aura and authenticity see separate post).

According to Benjamin and the thesis he promotes on "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" advanced reproduction and distribution techniques that have evolved in the early 20th century have had a significant impact on the art world. What Benjamin is arguing is that the social function of art has changed with the appearance of technology based art like the cinema. This historical process is explained by Benjamin as the loss of the aura and the degeneration of art which has its aesthetic value determined by its originality or one-timeness.

Photography and then cinema lead the way in the degeneration of the aura. These mediums are, according to Benjamin, the central agents in the process of the transformation of art's social function. Mechanical reproduction is faster: faster to produce, faster to distribute. Machinery such as the camera assumes the place of the artist of craftsman and denies any authorship of a unique original.

Mechanical reproduction bridges the space-time gap between the subject and object of the aesthetic experience. It makes the artwork the viewer's contemporary. The loss of the aura is accompanied and affected by the mass reproduction and the "flattening" of the work of art. Mass reproduction of art sets the stage for a new type of human perception: collective perception which according to Benjamin allows for the politicization of art later in "The Work of Art in the Age of MechanicalReproduction".

The medium for Walter Benjamin is not only the message but also an agent of social and political change. The new type of mechanically reproduced work of art is widely accessible for the masses and it thus positions people in a whole new relation to it. Benjamin, in chapter 12 of "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction", gives the example of how cinema is consumed when situated in a group on the one hand and as anonymous on the other hand. The crowed regulated itself and in that the individual's position towards the film. This notion is obviously linked to the Frankfurt School notion about the culture industry.   

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Walter Benjamin's concept of "Aura" and Authenticity in "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction"

 "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" wasn't the first place in which Walter Benjamin introduced his famous concept of "Aure" and his related discussion on authenticity in art, but it was however in which Benjamin fully developed his discussion of the aura.

"Aura" is a name offered by Benjamin in "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" and elsewhere to designate the one-time experience of a certain object.  Benjamin discusses the different terms for the appearance of the unique and authentic aura. In essence, the aura is the "one-timeness" of the experience, the situation in which the subject meets the object that cannot be reproduced. A similar expression to that of Benjamin's aura is that of "aesthetic experience" albeit Benjamin stresses the unique one-time experience. For Benjamin, an aura can be possessed only the original work of art. The aura distinguished the viewer from the work and creates the necessary detachment for a true aesthetic experience.
This detachment is what allows, according to Benjamin in "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction", the authenticity of the artwork. The work of art according to Benjamin bears its terms and times of creation which make up its originality and authenticity. These contexts of creation that are born by the original work of art maintain the distance between it and the viewer and maintain the disposition required for a true appreciation of art. Replicas, according to Benjamin, lack the authentic aura of the original. In a sense, Benjamin is fetishistic in attributing the original work of art traits that duplications lack.

Benjamin's ideas about the aura and its relations to authenticity can account, for example, for why original works of art are valued in millions of dollars while anyone can purchase a reproduction for just a few dollars. The reproduction of works of art in modern times causes, according to Benjamin in "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction", the loss of the aura and the loss of authenticity in the aesthetic experience.

see also:

Reproduction and the loss of the Aura
aesthetic and the political


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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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