In his essay, “The Work of Art In The Age of Mechanical Reproduction”, Walter Benjamin discusses a shift in perception and its affects in the wake of the advent of film and photography in the twentieth century. He writes of the sense changes within humanity’s entire mode of existence; the way we look and see the visual work of art has is different now and its consequences remain to be determined. How does human sense perception related to history? Is it a universal perspective that is being critiqued here? Can there be a universal perspective in the first place?
Benjamin here attempts to mark something specific about the modern age; of the effects of modernity on the work of art in particular. Film and photography point to this movement. Benjamin writes of the loss of the aura through the mechanical reproduction of art itself. The aura for Benjamin represents the originality and authenticity of a work of art that has not been reproduced. A painting as an aura while a photograph does not; the photograph is an image of an image while the painting remains utterly original.
The sense of the aura is lost on film and the reproducible image itself demonstrates a historical shift that we have to take account of even if when we don’t necessarily notice it. What does it mean when the aura is lost? How does it function and how does it come about? Benjamin writes of the loss of the aura as a loss of a singular authority within the work of art itself. But what comes through in this new space left by the death to the aura? How does the mechanically reproduced work of art manage to make up for this void?
As Benjamin continues, a tension between new modes of perception and the aura arise. The removal of authority within the original work of art infers a loss of authority, however, in regards to mass consumption, this liberation is not necessarily contingent. The cameraman, for example, intervenes with what we see in a way which a painting can never do. It directs the eye towards a specific place and a specific story; at the same time it is radical and revolutionary it is also totalitarian. It guides us to a particular side of a story and leaves other parts out. It dulls our perception towards the work of art and introduces distraction as a mode of reception. The location of anything we might call the aura has to be moved into a mythological space; into the cult of genius. This cult of genius relates back to the cultish characteristic of the aura itself; in its absence there is a grabbling for a replacement. What does it mean to place an aura on “someone” or “something”? Is it even necessary to reclaim the aura in the first place? The mystical cult of the original in broken with the loss of the aura, and now every one can go to a gallery, a museum, the theater or the cinema. A whole new appreciation of art is introduced while at the same time, a whole new mode of deception and distraction also enters.
For Benjamin, the aura is dead and it exists in an improbable and mystical space. But in the making of our own myths therein lies an aesthetic interpretation of these reproducible images; there is a temporal world that is there for you, where you do not truly participate. The object consumes man at the same time man consumes it. Mass consumption revels in this consequence of the loss of the aura. For Benjamin, a distance from the aura is a good thing. The loss of the aura has the potential to open up the politicization of art, whether or not that opening is detrimental or beneficial is yet to be determined. However, it allows for us to raise political questions in regards to the reproducible image which can be used in one way or another.
Yet Benjamin makes it clear that in this new age of mechanical reproduction the contemplation of a screen and the nature of the film itself has changed in such a way that the individual no longer contemplates the film per say; the film contemplates them. A constantly moving image in the disjunction of the physical arrest of watching a moving image move, changes the structure of perception itself. Within the reproducibility of images there is an increase of submission towards the film itself. In and of itself this marks a symptom and not a cause of something terrible that is happening. How can we think of subjectivity in the age of mechanical reproduction? What does it mean to reflect back onto ourselves after being absorbed by these inauthentic and politicized images? What does the aestheticization of the work of art mean now when the aura is lost?
“During long periods of history, the mode of human sense perception changes with humanity’s entire mode of existence. The manner in which human sense perception is organized, the medium in which it is accomplished, is determined not only by nature but by historical circumstances as well” (Benjamin, 222).
“The surgeon represents the polar opposite of the magician. The magician heals a stick person by the laying on of hands; the surgeon cuts into the patient’s body. The magician maintains the natural distance between the patient and himself; though he reduces it very slightly by the laying on of hands, he greatly increases it by virtue of his authority. The surgeon does exactly the reverse; he greatly diminishes the distance between himself and the patient by penetrating into the patient’s body, and increases it but little by the caution with which his hand moves among the organs. In short, in contrast to the magician—who is still hidden in the medical practitioner—the surgeon at the decisive moment abstains from facing the patient man to man; rather , it is through the operation that he penetrates into him” (Benjamin, 233).
“The act of reaching for a lighter or a spoon is familiar routine, yet we hardly know what really goes on between hand and metal, not to mention how this fluctuates with our moods. Here the camera intervenes with the resources of its lowerings and liftings, its interruptions and isolations, its extensions and accelerations, its enlargements and reductions. The camera introduces us to unconscious optics as does psychoanalysis to unconscious impulses”(Benjamin, 237).
“Let us compare the screen on which a film unfolds with the canvas of a painting. The painting invites the spectator to contemplation; before it the spectator can abandon himself to his associations. Before the movie frame he cannot do so. No sooner has his eye grasped a scene than it is already changed. It cannot be arrested….The spectator’s process of association in the view of these images is indeed interrupted by their constant, sudden change. This constitutes the shock effect of the film, which, like all shocks, should be cushioned by heightened presence of mind. By means of its technical structure, the film has taken the physical shock effect out of the wrappers in which Dadaism had, as it were, kept it inside the moral shock effect” (Benjamin, 238).
“The distracted person too, can form habits. More, the ability to master certain tasks in a state of distraction proves that their solution has become a matter of habit. Distraction is provided by art presents a covert control of the extent to which new tasks have become soluble by apperception. Since, moreover, individuals are tempted to avoid such tasks, art will tackle the most difficult and most important ones where it is able to mobilize the masses. Today it does so in film. Reception in a state of distraction, which is increasing noticeably in all fields of art and is symptomatic of profound changes in apperception, finds in the film its true means of exercise”(Benjamin, 240).
“Mankind, which in Homer’s time was an object of contemplation for the Olympian gods, is now one for itself. Its self-alienation has reached such a degree that it can experience its own destruction as aesthetic pleasure of the first order. This is the situation of politics which Fascism is rendering aesthetic. Communism responds by politicizing art”(Benjamin, 242).