Benjamin, Walter · The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction

Benjamin’s seminal essay influenced so many other theorists covered in this course that they all sort of overlap at times. According to him, a work of art has an aura produced by the hand of the artist. With mechanical reproduction, that aura is easily diminished. All art exists within time and space – time being its physical representation and space being its ownership. Reproductions do not have that and therefore do not have the authenticity or aura that originals have.

Reproductions are not a new phenomenon in art history. Copies exist in a couple different ways. With technical reproduction, a copy of a piece is put into places where it could not normally be, like with a recording of a symphony. Manual reproduction, where a copy is manually made by an artist, is not as harmful either. Process and photographic reproduction are where things not normally visible to the naked eye are enhanced and made visible. It is when a reproduction is made without the touch of an artist through mass production when it becomes really harmful. There is no tradition and no uniqueness and is made specifically for profit.

Benjamin gives the example of a shadow of a branch while lazing on a summer afternoon. Its aura is in part from its unattainability and distance from the viewer. Wanting to see and have things as close as possible are linked to reproducibility and profit. The ritual and tradition of making, its cult value as Benjamin says, is replaced with politics and exhibition value. Making reproductions, like in photography and film, just in order to exhibit and profit removes the artistic function from the work. They are not artists, but machines.

So what makes a work of art valuable and are prints and copies really that bad?

Andy Warhol. Lana Turner, 1986.

Andy Warhol essentially exploded the lines between authenticity and reproductions through the use of celebrity, pop culture, advertising, and the cult of the artist. As much as I tire of seeing Marilyn or that iconic banana and Campbell’s soup can, I recognize the enormous impact that he and his Factory achieved in changing the art world forever.

Sherrie Levine’s After Walker Evans: 4 (1981), where she re-photographed and appropriated images by Walker Evans is a commentary on representation, the authority of the male artist, and art as commodity. Her work is the definition of postmodernism and conceptualism. Now, according to Benjamin, does her work have artistic or exhibition value? An aura? I wish he were alive to see the art world today.

Daniel Johnston. Oh Shut Up And Look At Me For Once, 2003

What would he have thought of Outsider Art? Art that has been created by self-taught people with no knowledge of the art world? According to Benjamin, is there a hierarchy to the art world with Outsider art at the top and photographic prints at the bottom? I saw Daniel Johnston perform live and it felt weirdly exploitative, like he was performing just to make his guardians some money. Although I love his art and music, just like with a lot of other Outsider artists, are they really that outsider and where are the lines between hobbyist, amateur, and professional artist, if any?

Benjamin’s essay has me thinking about how art is circulated and reproduced through technology, i.e. in the form of memes. There is no exhibition value, no money being made, but it is accessible and everything is all at once and not at a distance. What would he have thought?