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

Illuminations in a book that contains essays from Walter Benjamin, in particular I wanted to read The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction as it was addressed in my first practice run that I would benefit from Benjamin’s perspective in association to photojournalism and industrialisation. However I also considered that there might be some points that are relevant to the mass image culture which is a concept I have addressed in my research paper. My notes and evaluation can be seen below:

  • ‘In principle a work of art has always been reproducable’
  • Reproduction in writing would resemble a similar story
  • Lithography enabled graphic art to resemble reality and keep up with the pace of painting
  • The eye can perceive faster than the pen can draw, pictorial reproduction needed to speed up to suit visual culture and speech
  • In 1900 technical reproduction reached the standard where it had prominence and place in society
  • A perfect reproduction is lacking in presence in time and space – the original has a unique existence in the world
  • A reproduction loose authority
  • In photographic reproduction, the process can bring out details that were previously unseen in a status that is out of reach for the individual
  • ‘Aura’ is defined as a unique phenomenon of distance (you are in the aura of a distant mountain)
  • The significance of ‘masses’ culture is that it reduces the distance, or the desire to be close through seeing a likeness
  • By seeking this likeness/these reproductions we ‘pry an object from it’s shell’ and ‘destroy its aura’
  • Uniqueness of art is also its ‘tradition’ (ritual function)
  • Reproduction draws art away from the dependance on tradition
  • There is also a cult value seen in art
  • Photography and film are new forms of art that have different artistic functions
  • In photography, exhibition value displaces cult value, the early portrait resembled cult values especially for memorial purposes
  • As the exhibition value grew the stance changed and broke out into new mediums
  • Images appeared to have a hidden political value ‘captions became obligatory’
  • Primary question in 19th Century debates as to whether photography is still art, has it completely transformed the nature of art?
  • The camera presents a performance of the subject – this performance is tested out by the camera, the audience takes the stance of the critic (moving image)
  • The distinction between audience/author/writer is being diminished
  • Mechanical reproduction of art changes the reaction of the mass audience towards art – ‘the conventional is uncritically enjoyed’
  • Individual reactions are predetermined by the opinion of the masses – simultaneous mass/collective experience
  • Dadaism is all about the literal pictorial representation
  • The slow nature of the painting allows for contemplation but the quick pace of film and photography doesn’t allow this time to interpret and reflect because the viewer is just confronted with more material almost immediatly
  • Duhamel ‘I can no longer think what I want to think. My thoughts have been replaced by moving images’
  • Quantity has transmuted quality, the mass dynamic has changed the dynamic of society – masses seek distraction whereas art demands the attention of the individual
  • Distraction means avoiding difficult situations whereas art seeks to tackle the difficult


As expected this essay gave me a better incite into the psychology and ideology behind the mass image culture that I will definitely be addressing in my research paper and independent blog posts. The concept of ‘aura’ being established and diminished through distance is really interesting, for example we no longer feel the need to go and see the world because we can summon a photographic reproduction of it. Aura is definitely a concept I will be addressing in my research paper in relation to the saturation seen in the mass image culture, photojournalists struggle to produce anything that can be perceived and interpreted as new because everything has already been photographed. The idea of the masses looking for this collective experience of distraction I believe is heavily relevant in the digital age – the audience are trying to avoid challenging content by seeking content that can be easily consumed. Photojournalists such as Benjamin Lowy have perhaps contributed to this distraction by producing soft, comfortable photographs which references image-based social media. In addition to this the idea that reproduction and photography had to adapt to keep up with the desired speed of the audience is very interesting and can be applied to digital photography, if anything we can speculate that from analogue to digital, this speed has vastly accelerated. In addition to this the affordable, user friendly smartphone has facilitated the consumer to contribute their own pictorial representation, now they don’t have to wait for professional photojournalism to publish content because they can produce and publish their own. I had identified that Marshall McLuhan would be my leading writer in association to the mass image culture however is is evident that Benjamin’s essay, although it could be perceived as outdated, presents ideology that is perceptive and highly relevant. Overall I have gained a beneficial, historic perspective of photography, photojournalism and the mass image culture which I will definitely be integrating in my research paper.



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