Professor Hugh J. Silverman

Department of Philosophy

Stony Brook University

Fall Semester 2006

Tues& Thurs 5:20-6:40

Protocol # 9

Benjamin’s The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproducibility

Presented by Arsalan Memon

October 05, 2006

These notes are prepared by Mariya Norenberg and Arsalan Memon (Teaching Assistants).

These notes do not replace attendance in the class which is mandatory.

They are to serve as a reminder of what was discussed in class.

They are to assist students in understanding the readings and what is presented in class. (HJS)


As you know, we have just finished Heidegger’s The Origin of the Work of Art, “Language,” and “What are Poets for?” Today, I will lecture on Benjamin’s groundbreaking essay, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproducibility. But before I do that, I would like to say a few things about his life. Benjamin was born in 1892 in Berlin, Germany. It is hard to categorize him because he not only wrote philosophical or literary texts, but has also translated a lot of books of other famous authors such as Marcel Proust and Charles Baudelaire. As a matter of fact, he even wrote a book on the question of translation, entitled, The Task of the Translator.

The essay that you had to read for today’s class, Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter einer techhnischen Reproduciarbarkeit or in English, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, was written in 1936 -- at the same time that Heidegger was writing his Origin of the Work of Art.. Just as a side note, the German word Reproduzierbarkeit is rendered  as ‘reproduction’ in our translation, it should have been translated as reproducibility. In any event, in order to understand the essay textually, one must understand it contextually. That is to say, this essay was written two decades after WWI (1914-18) and three years before WWII (1939-45). Right after WWI, in the 1920s, sound films were just appearing on the scene in Europe. For that reason, film is central in Benjamin’s essay. Photography, on the other hand, had been around for quite a while.

Keeping all this in the background, let’s start with the essay now. I will explicate each section, step-by-step. If I, however, overlook any important detail or concept, do not hesitate to intervene at any point.

Benjamin begins the essay with an extensive quote from the early 20th century French poet and essayist Paul Valéry. Benjamin begins with this quote I believe because Valéry prophesized that art is always in the process of being displaced from its origin and transported somewhere else. This displacement takes place through what he calls “innovations,” which will bring change into art and its techniques. This quote fits perfectly, given the overall aim of the essay, namely how and to what extent the role of art and artist has changed because of the introduction of mechanical reproducibility? This is my way of formulating Benjamin. It is my hope to answer this question in this lecture.


On page 218, in the Preface, he speaks of “the politics of art.” Politics of art is the goal of Communism, which aims to produce and reproduce art so the masses or the working class can have access to it. This, as he would say later on towards the end, is contrasted with Fascism, which aims to control and limit art for its own political and supremacist purposes. But we will come back to the political implications later on.

Section I

 He begins the first section by indicating that reproducibility is not a unique phenomenon. But, as he says on the same page, “Mechanical reproduction of a work of art, however, represents something new.” He traces mechanical reproducibility throughout history, starting from Greeks to the appearance of lithography, the technique of printing pictures or texts on a smooth surface, to photography and then finally, to silent and sound films.    

Section II

            At the very beginning in section II, he says on page 220, “Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be.” Here, we encounter one of the features in which the original is differentiated from the reproduction of a work of art, namely, its temporal and spatial uniqueness. That is to say, a reproduction has no one historical origin in time and space. Rather it is constantly replicated.

            Second, he says, there is an age-like quality to the original that the reproduction lacks. Chemical tests can be performed to determine its age.

            Third, the original has a presence, which constitutes its authenticity, which the reproduction has no such thing.

Fourth, the original is singularly produced by an artist, while the reproduction has no one artist, sometimes it has no artist at all. It is indeed a question of author-ity.

Fifth, perspectives can be changed on a reproduction, but not on an original. In other words, through reproducibility, original works can be presented through different angles, by zooming in on one particular aspect of a painting or a play etc.

            Sixth, through reproducibility, displacement of the original work of art takes place. Hence a work of art that was exclusively reserved for the elite, can now be viewed by the working-class.

            Further, on page 221, he says, “that which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art.” The reproduction closes the distance that exists in the original. For instance, on pg. 223, he gives the example of a mountain that one encounter in nature with all its sublimities, which can be viewed, for instance, in a postcard. One does not have to be in the presence of the mountain to appreciate it. One can be here in New York and through mechanical reproducibility access it. This leads to my next point, namely, mass production.

Section III     

The eight distinctive feature is mentioned: mass production. This has social implications because it brings the original work of art in reproduced form to the public. The hierarchy between private and public is demolished. Their sense of equality of contemporary masses of time has increased immensely that they are willing to sacrifice uniqueness for the accessibility and availability of the work of art. In this way, every one can have it, because everyone is equal.

Section IV      

The ninth distinctive feature as he puts it: “The uniqueness of the work of art is inseparable from its being imbedded in the fabric of tradition” (223). The reproduction basically isolates the original work of art from its ritual values such as religious or magical and gives it an exhibition quality by bringing it into the public.

            The tenth distinctive feature can be found on page 224: the function of the work of art is “reversed” to use Benjamin’s word. In his words, “To an ever greater degree the work of art reproduced becomes the work of art designed for reproducibility” (224).

Section V

            In section V, he makes an important distinction between the cult value and the exhibition value. The cult value ritualizes the work of art, whereas the exhibition value transforms and opens the work of art to other “functions” neglected by the cult value. For instance, the work of art no longer is limited or restricted to a particular group or act, it is opened to the public.

Section VII, VIII, and IX

In section VII, he introduces film as a work of art. And he begins to discuss the impact that film has on society, which is greater than photography. 

            From this point on, film becomes a focus in the essay. For that reason, in section VIII and IX, he distinguishes what I call a theatrical performance and a cinematic performance. By that I mean, he wants to articulate the difference between a stage actor and a screen actor. In a theatrical performance, the gestures, articulations, and the movements of the stage actor is presented without any kind of modification. But in a cinematic performance, a lot of acts, movements, mistakes, etc are edited and the camera gives certain angles, which are not possible in a theatrical performance. As a side note, the audience is also different in both performances: in the theatrical performance, the audience or the public are the live viewers and critics, while in the cinematic performance such a film, the audience or the public is the camera. There is no direct critic. The camera is the critic and the audience. In addition, in film, the aura is displaced in a dual way: both the actor and the character that the actor plays lose their auras.

Section X       

In section X, another fascinating distinctive feature is the fact that everyone can partake in art: as he boldly puts:  Any man today can lay claim to being filmed” (231). Also, this applies to writing as well because before there were few writers and more readers, but this distinction no longer holds with the reproduction of art, many people can have access to different types of literature, film, photographs, etc. This caused an increase in writers or on page 232, he says “the reader gains access to authorship.” 

Section XI

            In section XI, he privileges film over painting. The reason he gives to justify such a move is that the painter is somewhat detached from reality and the cameraman is always already inscribed within the cinematic reality. In addition, their product is different because in a painting, there is only a singular whole produced by a non-mechanical agent, while in a film, there are multiple “fragments” produced by “mechanical equipments” (234).

Section XII, XIV, XV, Epilogue…

            In section XII, he reiterates the point that people perceive, criticize, and appreciate art differently in different times. And in section XIV, he expresses his disapproval of Dadaism because they aim to be different by creating aura of the work of art, which they claim cannot be duplicated or replicated. In doing so, they reestablish the same distinction Benjamin is questioning and is critical of. In the last section, he sums up his main points. Lastly, in the epilogue, he returns to the difference between Communism and Fascism vis-à-vis the original and the reproduction of the work of art: Fascism aestheticizes politics, while Communism aims at “politicizing art” (242). That is to say, Fascism wants to limit art for the elite and for their own supremacist purposes, while Communism wants to bring every type of work of art to the public.