Benjamin, Walter

Assigned: Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility” (976-96). Also read the editors’ introduction (973-76).

“The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility” (1936-39/1955)


1. On 976-77 (“When Marx undertook his analysis…”), Walter Benjamin points to the long delay between the time when the “conditions of production” (977) change in a given society and the time when “all areas of culture” finally show the effects of such changes. Now that this has occurred in much of 1930s Europe, what kind of “theses” (theoretical statements set forth to be explored) does he suggest would be most useful to build up in the service of anti-fascist, revolutionary “demands in the politics of art” (977)?

Section I

2. On 977-78 (“In principle, the work of art…”), how does Benjamin trace the increasing sophistication of “technological reproducibility” (977) in connection with works of art? In particular, what transformative possibilities did lithography, photography, and film bring with them upon introduction? What thesis about “technological reproduction” does Benjamin arrive at based on his comments here, and what two “manifestations” (978) of this capacity does he promise to study in the coming sections?

Section II

3. On 978-79 (“In even the most perfect reproduction…”), why, according to Benjamin, does the technological reproducibility of an artwork undermine the power of that artwork’s “authenticity” (978)? How does Benjamin define “authenticity” (979), and what two reasons does he give for its devaluation once technological reproducibility becomes possible? (978-79) How does he formally state the effects wrought by “the technology of reproduction” (979) upon original, traditional works of art? With regard to film specifically, how does it portend in Benjamin’s own era (mainly, the 1920s-30s) “the liquidation of the value of tradition in cultural heritage” (979)?

Section III

4. On 980-81 (“Just as the entire mode of existence…”), Benjamin writes that just as people’s overall existence changes over time, so does their “mode of perception” (980). How does he explain the meaning of the term “aura” (980), and how, in his view, does “technological reproducibility” destroy the aura of a work of art?  What prompts ordinary people (“the masses”) to embrace this destruction rather than respect the auratic quality of original art? (980) Finally, how, according to Benjamin, do “the masses” (981) thereby align themselves with reality?

Section IV

5. On 981-82 (“The uniqueness of the work…”), Benjamin writes that a work of art’s “uniqueness” is “identical to its embeddedness in the context of tradition” (981). What kind of practices, according to Benjamin, bestowed upon traditional, contextually embedded art its “original use value” (981)? How was the nineteenth-century “l’art pour l’art” (art for art’s sake) movement a response to modern threats against the ritualistic status of art? How, too, did the notion of “pure art” develop as a result of l’art pour l’art? Finally, what does Benjamin suggest happens to “the social function of art” (982) when artists and the public reject the ritualistic basis of art?

Section V

6. On 982-83 (“The reception of works of art…”), Benjamin says that art reception proceeds in accordance with “two polar types”: reception based on “cult value” and reception based on “exhibition value” (982). How, according to Benjamin, has the “quantitative” shift from the first type to the second type resulted in “a qualitative transformation in … [the artwork’s] nature” (982)? When a work of art is produced mainly with its exhibition value in mind, what tends to happen to its “artistic function” (981 bottom)?

Section VI

7. On 983 (“In photography, exhibition value…”), Benjamin describes a sort of resistance to the camera’s potential to revolutionize people’s sensibilities. How does he analyze the role of portraits or “the human countenance” as the prime instance of this resistance? By contrast, in what way did the photographs of Parisian streets taken by Èugene Atget, according to Benjamin, first demonstrate the superiority of exhibition value over the older type of value? How did such photographs “unsettle” those who viewed them, and in what sense did they bespeak a “political significance” that may not have been present in, say, portrait photographs?

Section VII

8. On 983-84 (“The nineteenth-century dispute over…”), what significance does Benjamin find in the seemingly “misguided” nineteenth-century critical argument about the “relative artistic merits of painting and photography” (983)? In what ways did film theorists often end up adopting what Benjamin calls “reactionary” positions about the value of the new art form they were studying? How are filmmaker Max Reinhardt’s comments, as cited by Benjamin, an example of this tendency? (984)

Section VIII

9. On 984-85 (“The artistic performance of a stage…”), Benjamin addresses what the camera does to the performance of an actor in a film role, as opposed a stage performance before an audience. What “two consequences” (984) does the intervention of the camera hold for a film actor? In what way, according to Benjamin, does the audience find itself taking “the position of a critic,” and what implications does he infer from this transformation away from straightforward “empathy with the actor” (985)?

Section IX

10. On 985-86 (“In the case of film, the fact…”), what happens to a stage actor’s “aura” (we might call this “stage presence”), according to Benjamin, once we move that actor to a film set and the camera captures the performance on film? What insight does Benjamin draw from the Italian playwright Luigi Pirandello on this matter? (985) Why do the mechanics of film technology and process (lighting, montage, etc.) dictate that any genuine attempt at acting should be minimized? (Benjamin quotes Rudolf Arnheim’s 1932 critical work Film als Kunst in this regard.) According to Benjamin, what are the implications of the fact that while “The stage actor identifies himself with a role,” the film actor, by contrast, “very often is denied this opportunity” (986)?

Section X

11. On 986-88 (“The film actor’s feeling of estrangement…”), how does “the cult of the movie star” (986), according to Benjamin, keep at bay the anxiety that Pirandello attributes to the displaced, non-auratic actor whose immediate audience is the camera itself? In what sense does it also amount to a Hollywood strategy for preserving the older, cultic “aura” that surrounded stage actors when they appeared before live audiences? What potential does Benjamin see in film’s call to every spectator to become a “quasi-expert” (987) on the medium itself? How does he view the gathering sense that “Any person today can lay claim to being filmed” (987), or, for that matter, that nearly anyone can write and publish something, at some time or other (988)? At the same time, what does Benjamin suggest about the role of European movie-capitalism in holding back the transformative potential of film for the average citizen? (988)

Section XI

12. On 988-89 (“The shooting of a film, especially…”), Benjamin argues that the reality-effect or “illusory nature” of cinema is an ex post facto affair: it is “the result of editing” and amounts to the rare “Blue Flower in the land of technology” (989). It is high artifice, not nature. How does Benjamin compare the manner in which a painter and a movie cameraperson, respectively, capture and process reality? Why does he see more potential in what the filmmaker does? Why, that is, does he apparently believe that film’s “intensive interpenetration of reality with equipment” (989) is a great deal more consequential and positive for modern people than the aesthetic-distance-maintaining images produced by painters?

Section XII

13. On 989-90 (“The technological reproducibility of the…”), Benjamin writes that the new, highly technological nature of artistic production “changes the relation of the masses to art” (989). In what does that change consist? What is the audience’s new “progressive reaction” to film? Why is it, as well, that with regard to film appreciation, “the critical and uncritical attitudes of the public coincide” (990)? Why does the same public that loves a Charlie Chaplin movie, however, give only a balky or even hostile reception to the productions of, say, Surrealism?

Section XIII

14. On 990-91 (“Film can be characterized not only…”), Benjamin continues his analysis of film as a transformational medium. How does he explore the change that he says comes about with film both with regard to the objects captured and to viewers’ capacity to perceive and process them? Ultimately, how does film, with its “close-up” and “slow motion” (991) capacities, overcome the longstanding divide between art and science, and expand our view of reality itself? How, in Benjamin’s account, do we “first discover the optical unconscious, just as we discover the instinctual unconscious through psychoanalysis” (991)?

Section XIV

15. On 992-93 (“It has always been one of the…”), Benjamin writes that art has always taken as one of its main objectives “to create a demand whose hour of full satisfaction has not yet come” (992). So in a sense, there is something untimely about every art form in its day. How does Benjamin detail Dadaism’s way of waging war on “contemplative immersion” (992) as a precursor of film’s modus operandi? Why did the Dadaist poets and painters insist on promoting the “uselessness” (992) of their art for the kind of contemplation that had long been encouraged and even treasured in traditional art forms? How does film technology, according to Benjamin, set free the very element of “distraction” (993) that Dadaism sought to achieve by its characteristically bold and even outrageous means?

Section XV

16. On 993-95 (“The masses are a matrix from…”), Benjamin addresses the manner in which mass reception of film reveals a deep change in how modern people process reality. In citing the objections of Georges Duhamel to the public’s way of responding to film, what “ancient lament” (994) does Benjamin disapprovingly rehearse? What is the difference between contemplating a work of art and receiving it in the way that “the distracted masses” (994) do? How is architecture an example, according to Benjamin, of an art form that has long been received and judged in a somewhat distracted, impure way? How is the “twofold” reception of buildings as both optical and tactile phenomena characteristic of collective responses to “the tasks which face the human apparatus of perception at historical turning points…” (994)? Finally, how is film “the true training ground” (995) of what Benjamin calls “Reception in distraction” (994 bottom), and how does this kind of reception further degrade the “cult value” (995) once bestowed upon traditional art forms?


17. On 995-96 (“The increasing proletarianization of…”), how have the fascist movements of Benito Mussolini in 1920s-30s Italy and Adolf Hitler in 1930s Germany, according to Benjamin, forced the people to accept “expression” in lieu of the abolition of the property rights that have long oppressed them?  Why does this drive to “aestheticize politics” (995) lead inexorably to war? How does the strange paean to modern war issued by the futurist writer Filippo Marinetti help Benjamin convey his point about fascism’s campaign to make war “beautiful” in the people’s eyes? How does Benjamin explain the economic reason why, in certain conditions, war becomes an “unnatural” (996) outlet for productive forces that would otherwise be stifled? Finally, in what sense, according to Benjamin, is the aesthetic glorification of war “the consummation of “l’art pour l’art” (996)? How does communism respond to the fascist initiative he has described?

18. General question: In “The Work of Art…,” what warning does Walter Benjamin’s analysis of fascism’s success in exploiting film’s potential hold for those who concern themselves with art? Do you think that Benjamin’s claims about the revolutionary power of the movie camera as a mode of “technological reproducibility” are convincing in light of such abusive treatment by reactionary movements? In responding, consider how, in the 1930s, Adolf Hitler and helpers such as filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl—see The Olympiad and Triumph of the Will—and Reich Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels succeeded in crafting the Nazi Party and its war machine, and to some extent even the German people, into a kind of aesthetic object. Consider also the potential Benjamin finds in cinematography to free common people (“the masses”) from the shackles of the past: do the examples and hints he provides seem compelling to you? Why or why not? Explain.

19. General question: In “The Work of Art…,” Walter Benjamin, writing in the mid-to-late 1930s, denounces “art for art’s sake” as a precursor of fascist aesthetics and a tool for the glorification of the ethos and technologies of modern war. He also writes with disdain of what he apparently considers elitist principles such as “aesthetic distance” and “contemplative immersion,” favoring instead a “distracted” (994) proletarian approach whereby ordinary citizens make works of art their own, and learn to be comfortable among them. Most approaches to contemporary literary theory would no doubt share Benjamin’s concerns about anything like art for art’s sake, including approaches similar to the New Critical Formalism of an earlier era in the United States, which largely detaches works of art from their context beyond art. Do you believe approaches to art that insist on its autonomy and independence from politics, social imperatives, etc. can to some extent be defended in our own time? If so, how would you defend such an approach? Or do you think formalist and aestheticist approaches are inherently regressive and reactionary? Explain.

20. General question: In “The Work of Art…,” Walter Benjamin places quite a lot of confidence, or at least hopefulness, in the then relatively new medium of film. He seems to have considered film for “the masses” an excellent counter-agent to the fascists’ misuse of art for their own purposes. Of course, it has been a lifetime since Benjamin wrote “The Work of Art…,” and cinematography has become ever more sophisticated and popular since the 1930s. Do you believe film has come near to fulfilling Benjamin’s dream of an art form that would do its part in the democratization of European and American sensibilities, an art that would serve as an important vehicle for progress and as a means of changing people’s perceptions in favor of truth and justice? Or does his trust in such things seem naïve and utopian at this remove? Either way, explain your view.

Edition: Leitch, Vincent B. et al., eds. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 3rd ed. New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2018. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-60295-1.

Copyright © 2021 Alfred J. Drake