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

I read this because I never had and really enjoyed it. I had heard a criticism of Benjamin not developing the arguments and it is true that he does just seem to hit you with every small chapter full of stuff that made me think a lot. It was a lot more pertinent to what I do that I had expected and gave me so much to think about I am reeling. Here are my notes:

Reproductions and Audience:

I knew that this would relate to my questioning about how we experience art especially to sites and how technology brings the work to new sites but transforms it. Benjamin begins by stating that reproduction goes back to copying, casting and printmaking until we arrive at photography followed by film and with which we have the most radical change. He sets up the original work of art as imbibed with authority, genuineness and existing in time and space. The original work has what he calls an aura which shrinks through the reproductive technology. He also explains how human sense perception changes with time. In the 1930s the masses had an altered sense perception of the reproduction.

The original = uniqueness and duration

The reproduction = transience and reitterability

He talks about the shattering of the aura and its singularity. He also mentions the aura’s effect of distance.

Changing Functions of Art:

Benjamin describes the changing functions of art as initially being of magical rituals then religious rituals. An ancient piece of work might live through changes of function. He saw the auric mode as being inseparable from the ritual function. From the renaissance we have the profane service of beauty (this felt a little simplified) until the invention of photography. Here Benjamin relates photography and Socialism and art for art’s sake i.e. Modernism and a new social function for art which is political. According to Benjamin reproduction freed art from being a parasite on ritual.


When art had a strong cultic value it did not need to be visible. However with the loss of the cultic value display becomes paramount. Prophetically he talks about how new technologies allow enormous shifts in displayability (in 1936 the sense perception was very different). In primeval times the cultic value preceded it becoming a work of art. He claims that the contemporary artistic value may also be less important than the display value. In his notes this alludes to Brecht, and the consideration that a commodity may not simultaneously be a work of art and should maybe drop the art label at least temporarily.

The effect of photography and displayability is to reduce the cultic value however, according to Benjamin, there is one last point where the cultic value remains, and this I found really interesting, within the representation of the human face. He claims that in early photographic portraits we catch a final glimpse of aura. This I find relevant as I am currently in the process of erasing or covering faces in my own work (based often on old photographs) to avoid this desire for recognition in my audiences. I want them to be the unknown, forgotten people who could be anyone. Benjamin sees their function as remembering absent or dead loved ones. Atget’s deserted streets for example do not have this – I am fascinated by the presence in deserted spaces and find this more powerful than replicas of specific individuals. I am wondering why and how this relates to Benjamin’s concept of the aura and cultic value.

The Moving Image:

The later chapters focus mainly on the film camera, sound recording, editing and acting and how this differs from the theatre in that the technology acts as a mediator between the audience and the filmed. Here again the aura is shattered and stardom replaces the cultic value. The masses relationship to art is changed as they become critics and they experience the work as a mass. However they are less immersed and more distracted as an audience. According to Benjamin the Dadaists, who ruthlessly destroyed the aura and aimed at provocation, were aiming at the same effect that film achieved but without aiming at the commercial marketability. It is said that Dada shocked morally and film shocked physically, this is a difficult one for us to see I think as we are not experiencing in the 1930s.

There is a really sad afterword on fascism in which Benjamin who was ultimately the victim of fascism talks of the aestheticism of fascism with some interesting quotes on the beauty of war from the futurists. He ends by saying that the left politicise art.



Useful Work versus Useless Toil – William Morris

As part of my research into ‘work’ I chose to read this paper by William Morris. I am becoming concerned about our relation to work and how the nature of jobs and employment is changing or how it is not. I have looked at some specific examples from the local area and I wanted to look at the history of different points of view on work. William Morris I knew as a designer, craftsperson and socialist as leading member of the British Arts and Crafts Movement, I remembered visiting the museum dedicated to him in Waltham Forest when I lived in London. This is in fact a transcription of a lecture he gave in 1884 to the Edinburgh University Socialist Society.

Morris begins by challenging the widely held notion that all labour is innately good. Morris establishes, in common with other authors on the subject, that labour in some form is necessary for human survival. Although all work requires effort and may not be pure pleasure he believes that there should be the potential (he calls this hope) for pleasure in the work. This is something he feels has been lost. He observes that many late 19th century workers do not have the expectation that work could be rewarding in any way. He outlines 3 ‘hopes’ 2 of which he feels are common to socialists and the third may differ:

Hope 1 for fair recompense for work (money)

Hope 2 for sufficient rest (and leisure)

Hope 3 for pleasure (job satisfaction)

He stresses the importance of the worth of the product (here we are not talking of a given economic worth). Any work that does not produce this is, he feels, meaningless.

Morris sums up the class system in this way: – ‘a class which does not even pretend to work, a class which pretends to work but produces nothing and a class which works but is compelled by the other two classes to do work which is often unproductive’. (he has identified two types of production – unnecessary items for the richer classes and substandard production for themselves).

So what is different about Morris’s arguments?

Most of the arguments do not differ greatly from standard late 19th century socialism – the abolition of the non working class; community ownership of the means of production and the hopes of fair wages and hours of work for everyone. I shall focus therefore on where he may differ.

Useful Work

Most of the paper is about work and although it is not very good at defining how the ‘new order’ would work Morris does define how he feels work should be. If one can ignore the sexist tone of the writing and some of the vocabulary many of his ideas are quite reasonable although his ways of presenting them is not particularly clear. Morris believes in the pleasure of work being defined through variety and usefulness. He also believes that through the pleasure of work we produce what is not only necessary but also that which is beautiful. In his argument adornment comes from the pleasure of making. Variety in work could mean for example: working indoors and outdoors; using ones physical skills and intellectual skills. The most unpleasant tasks could be done for shorter times and mixed with more rewarding activities. He emphasises working on the land and contact with nature and beauty as a reward for labour. One suggestion is that any necessary evil of factories could be short shifts combined with intellectual activities. Morris lists various products that would be obsolete in his utopia.

Morris’s arguments can be seen as nostalgic and backward looking as they tend to blanket criticism of technology and focusing on its repetitive nature (although he does admit that the machines could perform unpleasant tasks at some point). At times he seems to ignore the harsh reality of many workers under the pre industrial system, he doesn’t mention their living conditions or the feudal class system at all. The fact that women are totally absent from the paper is also a major problem.  Morris’s own pleasure in making probably outweighed his dedicating time to developing these arguments. It is also true that the subsequent centuries’ socialist revolutions largely ignored this type of argument against the capitalist model of production. Lenin, it seems, embraced it.

In relation to our own world of work many of his criticisms seem to remain true 130 years later. Capitalism is global, working conditions have improved somewhat for many but certainly not all. Large corporations may have largely replaced the idle rich and much political business. We no longer believe in the Utopias of the 19th and early 20th century and the reserve army of capitalism is huge in places like Spain or Greece.

However if we just focus on the 3 hopes. Many countries have a minimum wage and many people working illegally surviving underneath it. Women have equal pay legislation which has helped in many places. There is an enormous difference between rich and poor which is growing at the moment, I don’t know how this compares to 19th century figures but the trend is very negative especially as social mobility is also declining. Hope 2 – in spite of large unemployment there are very few part time jobs and most people are working longer hours usually for less money. This is true of traditional working and middle class occupations.

Most important for Morris is hope 3. so what of job satisfaction? In Europe we manufacture very little anymore we are more involved in ‘service’ industries do they offer us more satisfaction? I believe this is very difficult to quantify and varies according to country and culture in spite of globalisation. I strongly suspect that there is a limited amount of variety and creativity. There are certainly long hours and insecurity. Of course there are people who opt out and set up alternative economies. Nevertheless I don’t feel able to build a serious argument without more concrete data. I will continue reading from more recent sources.

How would  Morris feel about the explosion in design and visual culture? ikea as an example of a global corporation purveying 21st century adornments. What does it sell? it is an excellent example of commodity fetishism unleashed on a huge global scale in identical stores all over the planet. Undercutting all the local carpenters, upholsterers – these trades barely exist. How would poor Morris cope with ikea? He talks about the pleasure of creating the individual designs through the process and pleasure of working.

Those of us who today have any job satisfaction are really lucky. If we have holidays and leisure time and can afford to not only pay our bills and eat but have a surplus for books and travel. Which brings me to the final point. I think I am a product to a certain extent of these utopian dreams of the past. I was allowed a free education for educations sake as Morris describes it unfettered by the money making necessity. I was able to work as little as I could for most of my life and therefore even when I have to do work I do not like I have nearly always had the great luxury of time. I appreciated his education for educations sake like ‘l’art pour l’art’.

I want to investigate how deep this idea that all labour is good still runs within different cultures. Especially as there seems to be an increase of unnecessary production and therefore more meaningless work. There is an enormous difference in the narrative on news programmes in Spain and the UK for example where I hear the ‘working families’ line spun out repeatedly. This is to suggest that the non workers are unworthy and suggests the all labour is good belief is intact. What exactly are those working families doing? and would it meet either Morris’s or our criteria for meaningful. How is it benefiting society? This could not be said in Spain as it would be such a huge insult to so many unemployed, (as I am sure it is to the English) here the reserve army is overflowing with members.

Summer Reading

At the beginning of the Summer I had an ambitious idea of reading not only the prescribed books but also the pile of books I had got interested in along the way last year and some new ones about work along with a catch up of books I would have assumed I should have read years ago but never managed. I therefore found myself struggling. In addition to the fact that this was probably always unrealistic I think I made some bad choices. There was also the idea at the back of my mind about the enjoyment of reading unfettered by note taking. A longing for literature as the summer is when you get to read those huge works of fiction you don’t have time to read throughout the year – the Proust, the Dostoyevsky, the Bolaño etc… as I have never studied literature it is a non academic experience thinking and feeling but not making notes.

Therefore I am regretting not making any notes whilst reading when I was away and therefore I need to reread some of the most pertinent parts of what I read. I may skip some of the more disappointing reading experiences and just summarise my reasons for dissatisfaction.

A rather long quotation that has struck me as pertinent to my own work I found in A P Thompson’s ‘ The Making of the English Working Classes’….

I am seeking to rescue the poor stockinger, the Luddite cropper, the “obsolete” hand-loom weaver, the “utopian’’ artisan, and even the deluded follower of Joanna Southcott, from the enormous condescension of posterity. Their crafts and traditions may have been dying. Their hostility to the new industrialism may have been backward-looking. Their communitarian ideals may have been fantasies. Their insurrectionary conspiracies may have been foolhardy. But they lived through these times of acute social disturbance, and we did not. Their aspirations were valid in terms of their own experience; and, if they were casualties of history, they remain, condemned in their own lives, as casualties.

I do, of course, want to make my work relevant today, however I feel the need to read at least some historical background to the current situation in order to try and understand better how we got here. This summer has been an enormous upheaval in Europe with the Greek crisis and the migrants from Syria to name but two major issues. It is difficult not to be negative and the Greek situation gives us hope and then disappointment.


The audience and how they encounter work.

I have been reading ‘Ways of Looking’ which is on our summer reading list. I am enjoying looking at the artwork and am more or less ignoring the approach suggested, it is practical, but feel it is very limited and naturally reject a formulaic approach of having to follow a scheme of how to look at or experience work. I am not sure if the book is aimed at people like me or those who know less about art to start with. I suspect the latter. However, I am not sure that those who are completely unaware of what is happening in contemporary art would find the book that accessible. Possibly my reading just shows I am out of touch with what people are like and want.

Having said all of this the author does not seem that convinced by his TABLA RASA approach. Although he does start out by explaining it. When he gets down to looking at the artwork he usually seems to forget all about it. This is lucky as I was able to meet some new work I did not know about and others I knew less about. There are also insights and interviews which are enlightening. Maybe he felt he had to have the ‘new’ approach to sell to the publishers. However if I am totally wrong and new audiences are brought to look in new ways that will be a good thing.

‘Tabula rasa’ – to start afresh – a good, if impossible, idea.

Roughly this approach is:

Time: this is about allowing yourself to contemplate the work and trying to ignore any initial prejudices – difficult to argue with this one

Association: How do you relate to this – the meaning you bring to the work

Background: This is more tricky and involves words and bring things other than the work itself into it – title, blurb and any other knowledge such as where the author is from. This one depends so much on the background knowledge of the audience here and the accessibility of on site texts

Understanding: It is suggested that the previous 3 stages may together may lead to deeper understanding but not to worry if they do not.
Look again: This one I like a lot and it is something we don’t always do. It is also deepens my arguments for not trying to see too much at a time. Running around a gallery usually means you don’t engage with anything. Of course the look again could be listen etc
Assessment: This thankfully is left open and there is space for personal response. As Grayson Perry said – you dont have to like it all. I found this really perceptive because it made me realise that we do dismiss things very easily – even an artist whose work you have never previously responded to can surprise you.

The approach is not bad but I like to think that whenever possible I already do this – and I imagine that my cohort do too – unless we are rushed or pushed.

Art you Don’t see

We all look at most artwork online and even though I am a firm believer in how important it is to actually see the work how much can we actually look at and in some cases do we want or need to see it all? There is way too much, we need to select and maybe it will never physically be were we can be. I have no interest in rushing around museums and galleries trying to take it all in – I would rather read it in a book or see it online and then if the opportunity arises go see the things i really want to spend time with. I also wondered about the work which is impossible for anyone to see such as the performances which last a year (page 76):

Tehching Hsieh in the late 1970s spending a whole year not having any contact with the outside world or another one outside.

who saw it – does it matter? I still have never found the artist who paints small birds in Gaza that Stuart recommended to me although I love the idea. Ultimately I am asking I suppose whether it matters to me who sees my work. I feel that there is so much artwork being produced that we cannot possibly see so much and I feel overwhelmed at the prospect of all that I wont see in a similar way to how I feel when I realise how hard it is to read all the books I want to read. Part of me wants to be systematic in choosing but I have always loved the element of chance discoveries too. I suppose it is important that I don’t miss things which are wholy relevant to me but that this never takes the magic out of seeing the unexpected and this will always be the best experience. Of course I want my work to be seen but I am not so sure it has to be seen directly. I also love the siting of my most recent exploratory project but hardly anyone will ever go there. I prefer my video documentation to the photographs but still have issues with diagrams or maps.

I also love work I have never seen which is a contradiction of my idea that you have to see the work. Several artists I admire make work that is difficult to see: Santiago Sierra for example. And often in his work the whole point is the invisibility: the immigrants hidden in Doctor Fourquet (street) and in boxes within a gallery. The bricking up the entrance to the Spanish Pavilion at the Venice Biennale. I have never even been to the Venice Biennale or any other Biennale for that matter. I/we also miss exhibitions that are down the road and potentially interesting.

the move from country to city

I am fascinated by this transition in relation to work and how we experience it. As I have mentioned before I am surrounded by examples of exindustrial buildings which have been recycled into museums or galleries. On the edge of the city this has not happened so when travelling out I see abandoned factories and wharehouses.

The industrial revolution happened much later in Spain than in Northern Europe and there are as many ‘literary’ sources as ‘historical’ documents. In Looking at the urbanisation of Spain or any european country it is easy to become victim to nostalgia. One of my favourite references is the Mario Camus’ film of Los Santos Inocentes of Delibes. In the film, even more than in the book we are left with an equal mix of loss and hope. As the son moves to Madrid we see him in the street in a humble neighbourhood amidst cement and buildings and feel the loss of contact with nature and his family alongside his aspirations for freedom, education and new experiences.

But what of the relationships to work? The family were more or less slaves to the landowners. They had no rights to possession or education they were illiterate and socially inferior and ridiculed. They also understood animals, nature and had skills we no longer possess. They lived in misery, unsanitary conditions with more or less enough to eat (they could grow/kill it). In the move to the city their work relations changed. In the Tabacalera women were employed long hours doing repetitive tasks, some of which were prejudicial to their health. They later gained ‘rights’ to education and health systems and even the vote – which initially did not really mean very much as it was rigged.

campo ciempo small

In these experiments I  have continued to obscure or partially cover the past with layers of paint / brushstrokes and as far as possible I have been trying to leave my people as humans (for empathy) but lack of individuality or specific identity.


tabac small

I have been using images from the Tabacalera and overlaying them with images from local areas – farming, looking after livestock and agriculture. I want to make a list of disappearing jobs. after listening to a UK podcast I realised this is much more ‘advanced’ in Northern Europe. The list there already includes: petrol attendants in gas stations, shop assistants and other service staff in retail. This will surely happen here too. More research necessary!


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