The work of art in the age of mechanical production

Benjamin begins by suggesting that manual reproduction of art has always been possible and cites examples from roman times. Mechanical reproduction has progressed slowly, but in in leaps and bounds. The first way of mechanically producing art was the woodcut, developed before the printing of text. In the middle ages engraving and etching were developed, and lithography in the 19th Century. Benjamin cites lithography as being different from previous printing methods, and that it was more direct (Benjamin, 1999:72). Previous methods allowed large numbers of prints but lithography allowed an image to be changed more frequently – at the pace of text printing (Benjamin, 1999:73). Here Benjamin seems to use the term printing to mean printing text as opposed to a general description of the method. It is not entirely clear why lithography was so much easier to use; perhaps the tracing of the image on stone was simpler and more controllable than engraving (which requires some chemical dissolving), or woodcuts (which may be more difficult, making the image less refined?)

Lithography was soon overtaken by photography, which freed the hand from the major part of the reproduction method. Because it could be executed so quickly it was natural that it could change with and thereby accompany speech-  and foreshadowed the development of ‘talking’ films (Benjamin, 1999:73).

It is interesting to ponder the status of photography as ‘mechanical reproduction’. How do we distinguish manual and mechanical reproduction? It is not completely free of the hand- but neither is any reproduction method-so this will not suffice as a  criteria. Identical reproductions through photography are impossible, but they can be virtually identical- and this too applies to many other printing techniques. It seems that one needs to distinguish a photograph of an existing image from a photograph of a scene from ‘life’- a living scene. Whilst the reproduction of an existing image, such as a painting, from the direction and distance intended by the artist, seems very ‘mechanical’ and produces a virtually identical image (but see later for photography’s ability to revolutionise viewpoints and other aspects of seeing). However the capturing of a live image, such as a landscape or a portrait, seems to be a very different case. Here one is producing a very different image to that originally viewed through the camera- it is static, and is much less alive, and seems especially different from the original scene (for example it is viewed flat on a surface and can be touched directly). In this sense a photograph from life, if it is not less mechanical than a photograph of an existing flat (or static) image, seems at least a special case. Perhaps in this sense it is more akin to manual reproduction.

By 1900 technical reproduction had become so accurate that it could be used for all works of art. This had a great effect on how people viewed art, and also increased the value of reproduction as an artistic process in its own right (Benjamin, 1999:73).

Benjamin acknowledges that a perfect reproduction still lacks a uniqueness of time and place, amounting to a loss of a specific history (including any damage), and ownership (Benjamin, 1999:73). The idea of ownership, and provenance has become massively important to an art work’s monetary value.  I watched a TV programme recently in which ownership (for example by famous people) was described as one of the most important factors determining the astronomical figures famous art sells for. Specifically the fact that a Mark Rothko painting had been owned by the Rockefeller family contributed to its 50+ million dollar price at last auction.

Benjamin continues, stating that ‘The presence of the original is the prerequisite to the concept of authenticity’ (Benjamin, 1999:73). However, a distinction is drawn between manual and technical reproduction; a manual reproduction loses authority, but not so a technical reproduction, in the presence of the original. This is because when compared to a manual reproduction,  a technical reproduction  is less dependent on the original, and can increase the  public’s access to the work, admittedly via a copy.   Whilst the latter point is undeniable, I’m not sure I find the criteria of independence from the original either  useful or  consistent to distinguish the two reproductions. Benjamin now adds to the confusion, as he discusses that photography, being process reproduction (and therefore less dependent on the original) can bring out additional features or those hidden to the naked eye (Benjamin, 1999:74). The wording seems too imprecise.

The next paragraph seems a little repetitive, and unclearly stated at the very least.  Nevertheless, at this point Benjamin has established that when  original art is confronted with a mechanical reproduction ‘the quality of the its presence is always depreciated’, and that what is lost may be described as the aura .This process of reproduction both  ‘detaches the reproduced object from the domain of tradition’, and also reactivates each copy, completely  ‘shattering’ tradition (Benjamin, 1999:74).  In other words, in the age of mechanical reproduction we begin to think about art, previously dominated by originals and authenticity, in a very different and revolutionary way- which is to an extent mirrored in contemporary society and mass art forms- particularly film.

Benjamin believes that the masses are becoming more important in life (see also Alloway (2003), Hamilton (2003) and Karl Marx!). It is proposed that  the social bases for the loss of aura in contemporary life is due to the need of the masses to be closer to objects (both physically and humanly) and their need to overcome the uniqueness of realities. In other words Benjamin sees that the masses are adjusting their reality (both their thinking and perception) in a potentially limitless way (Benjamin, 1999:75).

The uniqueness of a work of art is uniquely connected with tradition, but the tradition can change.  For example the Greeks worshipped the statue of Venus as a deity, whilst in medaevil times it was seen as an idol (Benjamin, 1999:75).  Originally art was used for  ritual– initially magic, and subsequently religious. Benjamin states that ‘It is significant that the existence of the work of art with reference to its aura is never entirely separated from its ritual function’. The  example of Beauty is discussed. It’s origins were in sacred ritual, and though examples are not given one presumes this includes the beauty of religious subjects such as Mary, Jesus, the saints etc… Beauty continued as secularized ritual from Renaissance times, but Benjamin suggests that this idea reached a crisis point. With the development of the photograph, and social change we reached a crisis where the social function of art was questioned and devalued (Benjamin, 1999:76). This era to me, is probably Modernism, but does not name it. However, updating the idea of the ritual of beauty to the present day, Beauty is everywhere and has tremendous power over us, even if we think we know better. It is used in the entertainment industry to sell us films, and in advertising to sell us goods and services. It seems to be worshipped by the media.

However, in fine art Modernism did seem to rid art of its need for a story, or an illusion, for example in abstraction-but even abstract art can have a function- for example to shock.  Benjamin states that mechanical reproduction has removed the artwork from its dependence on ritual, and sees that ridding the artwork from ritual allows it to become political (Benjamin, 1999:76).

There are two polarities of art – Ritual and Exhibition. Ritual art included cave paintings and was not intended to be viewed -except by the spirits. Exhibition- the viewing of art images seems to be easier when ritual is removed. It’s easier to transfer a statue of a goddess to an exhibition if it’s removed from the temple it sits in ! (Benjamin, 1999:76). Reproduction of works of art changed its ability to be exhibited, how many could view it, and also the quality of the object. Film is cited as a good example-  where art is designed to be viewed, perhaps by more the better (think of Trashy commercial TV). It has no ritual function, and   its artistic value may be of secondary importance. (Benjamin, 1999:77).

The author now discusses Freudian theory in relation to our enriched perception through film. His book the Psychopathology of everyday life has enabled us to examine and analyse previously imperceptible things within our lives. Similarly film has enabled visual and acoustic perception to be analysed and understood more deeply, compared to a painting (to which it is more precise), or to a stage situation (because it can be ‘isolated more easily’.) (Benjamin, 1999:77).

Film allows us to use close-ups and reveal which can extend  ‘our comprenhension of the necessities which rule our lives’ (Benjamin, 1999:78).  It is empowering in this respect because it extends the scope of the areas we inhabit such as streets, offices, stations. He suggests that it can free us from the entrapment of the modern world (Benjamin, 1999:78), the type of world and its anxiety described by George Simmell (ref). Also the opportunity to observe via film is increased  revealing more than normal human vision can appreciate;  ‘the camera introduces us to unconscious optics as does psychanalysis to unconscious impulses…’ (Benjamin, 1999:78). As well as describing camera uses such as ‘slow mo’ and ‘close up’, these thoughts are pertinent to the use and development of different modalities of seeing, Computed tomography and Magnetic Resonance Imaging.

BLOG questions

How does he state his case for the removal of art’s elite nature?

Benjamin believes that there is always something more authentic about the original than a mechanical reproduction, but that a mechanical reproduction will  reactivate the image and make it more powerful and democratic. He distinguishes two polarities in art- ritual and exhibition. The former involved the rituals of magic and religion and was not reliant on vision by the masses. The latter involves the masses and depends upon art being seen by as many people as can see it.  We now live in a world where magic, and religion no longer dominate and technical reproduction has the potential  (there will be a small loss of aura) for a massive increase in  democratisation and political power. As the masses become more important in life the Exhibition element should be dominant to the ritual element (which is associated with elites- including artistic elites).

What do you make of his ideas of the ‘aura’ of the work?

I believe that Benjamin’s ideas about the aura are extremely useful and powerful. With it he explains our relationship with unique historical artefacts, based on how man previously lived his life in reverence to magic and religion, and which filled in the gaps of his knowledge, and made life easier to bear. Mechanical copies depreciate the aura of the original, but importantly, they are reactivated and re-energised in a way that makes them much more powerful and democratic, and of use to contemporary society. Films are a good example of this power, as they are so popular with ordinary people, are an important leisure activity, and can have a strong political message.

Does the improvement in the methods of reproduction, colour printing, digital imaging and television, strengthen or weaken is case?

I don’t really think so. His ideas about the aura are flexible enough to cope with the revolution in technological reproduction. He allows for a small reduction of aura when a work is reproduced- amounting to history and uniqueness. This is inevitable with art produced before mechanical reproduction was easy and widespread. In today’s world, where artist’s use techniques of reproduction much more widely- in order to disseminate their message to potentialy millions or billions of people, an artist may never produce one ‘original’ and the reliance on aura has been replaced by an increase in the artist’s political power and the democratisation of art. Benjamin believes that this is more important than the aura.

Does the failure of the soviet experiment alter the validity or otherwise of his case?

For the soviet experiment I will read ‘the Communist state’. This is a very complicated question. It’s answer depends upon how much of the failure depended on the ideals inherent in communism, and how much was dependent on it’s execution by weak and fallible people- ie. members of the human race. Communist states seem to fail due to man’s inability to avoid iniquity, hubris, war and destruction, not on an ideal of equality. Additionally they are often  supported by Western democracies, who affect the results. The soviet experiment may have failed due to the rise of a despotic leader Joseph Stalin, and how he treated his own people. As a model for politics, Benjamin’s aura is still valid, and would preclude any one powerful person (or a selected few) leading a state- this is not democratic.


Benjamin, W.(1999) ‘The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction’ in In visual culture: a reader. Evans, J and Hall, S (eds.). London. SAGE Publications.      p. 72-8

Berger, J (1972) ‘Chapter 1’ in Ways of Seeing. Great Britain, Penguin.   p.  7-34



Author: PhilHepArt

This site contains my BLOG for my Open College of the Art's module 'Understanding Visual Culture'. I am currently on Level 1 of the degree pathway BA Painting.

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