While The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction was written in 1936, many people believe that the ideas in Walter Benjamin’s essay on reproduced artworks still resonate to this day.
In his article, the German philosopher suggested that a reproduction of a piece of art loses its aura; ‘its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be.’
As Benjamin was writing in pre-war Germany, he was mainly referring to photographs and posters of famous works, but even now, almost a century later, the text is still relevant.
Dr Grischka Petri of the University of Glasgow explained that even as things change, readers can find aspects that concern our own present times, meaning The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction will continue to be a relevant text.
He said: “Benjamin never, and he couldn’t have thought about social media and a different communication structure. He is always thinking in terms of the theatre, the artist, the actor, and even the film that he keeps writing about is a theatrical communicative structure.
“Now, we are not only the audience; we are also the producers and actors and… everything. That makes communication complicated and art as a privileged way of communication shares this new complexity.”
Petri is a Research Associate in History of Art and his main interests are art, law, and the cultural background of image reproduction. He originally read The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction as a student and now uses it in his teaching in Germany. While Petri agrees with Benjamin’s idea of art having an aura, he went on to explain that he doesn’t agree with the idea of its destruction when the original is reproduced.
He said: “I think the opposite might be true, because why do people put up posters of the Mona Lisa? People want to share something of the aura of the artwork. It’s more an inflation or fragmentation of aura. You can find bits and pieces of it everywhere; in unexpected and unusual places.”
He explained that the Mona Lisa is often cited when discussing art reproductions and that Benjamin also used it in his essay. Petri spoke of the Louvre and the problem of the security glass surrounding Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpiece.
He said: “Even if all the tourists were absent, you still wouldn’t be able to see it properly. Reproduction not only makes art more democratic but it can also give you new forms of experience.
“If I go to the Google Cultural Institute online I can look at works of art much more closely than I could at a museum, I really can go into single cracks and brush strokes, and I would ever be able to see that in real life.”
This is one of many examples of technology democratising art and making it more accessible. Artworks that are held in the Louvre in Paris, The National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C and the Museum of Modern Art in New York City can be viewed from across the world.
While this is obviously a wonderful thing, many people believe that simply viewing a reproduction or a photograph of an artwork, no matter how high its resolution is just not the same as seeing the piece in person.
Dr Petri said: “I think the lack of aura has more to do with the changed settings or structures of communication, and it’s precisely the lack of stage that makes the difference. Because the aura of a work of art in a museum is also the effect of the museum being a place of conservation of objects, so it’s the stage for an object.
“There are now other ways to consume, look at or perceive art that are not bound to this auratic, consecrating communicative structure. This can empower the audience.”
In his essay, Benjamin briefly comments on this democratisation of artworks and how art lovers can meet works halfway, whether it is in the form of a photograph or a phonograph record. However, the philosopher described this as something which jeopardises the original piece and ‘pries an object from its shell’.
He said: “The situations into which the product of mechanical reproduction can be brought may not touch the actual work of art, yet the quality of its presence is always depreciated.”
While Dr Petri doesn’t agree with this particular aspect of Benjamin’s text, he still reads it every year and makes new discoveries while doing so. It is essential to his teaching and to his students, and he believes that even as times continue to change, Walter Benjamin’s text will also continue to influence future generations.
Here is a full length article on the subject.