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.