Modernism – The Photograph itself.

“The Work of Art in the Age of Technical Reproducibility” is a fundamental text of aesthetic theory, written in 1937 by Walter Benjamin in which he reflects on the new paradigms in the production and perception of the new visual media that emerged strongly at the beginning of the 20th century: photography and film. Although the invention of photography dates back more than half a century, the important technical advances and experimentation of the modernists consolidated the medium as a language of its own that required special considerations and could not be thought of from the traditional aesthetic perspective.

Stereoscopic views, illustrated magazines, the press (invention of halftone printing) or the cinema make available to the masses an unprecedented amount of images and new forms of reception that demand a rethinking of a new paradigm that explains the new relations between the production and the reception of the work of art. Benjamin does not take a critical stance towards this new phenomenon, but rather, illustrating the mechanisms inherent in traditional art, he proposes a differential analysis in which he identifies the characteristics of the new media.

The following table summarises (and confronts) some of the characteristics of each medium:

“Here and now”
Cult value
Individual reception
Contemplative reception
Ritual foundation
Technical reproducibility
Existence in multiple copies
Art production
No original
Certified copy
Exhibition value
Mass reception
Dissolution of the figure of the expert
Moving images
Shock experience
Political basis
Distracted perception.

It is interesting to introduce the concept of aura as something that is proper to traditional art, and on which the whole essay is based. Benjamin defines the aura as:

A strange weave of space and time: the unique appearance or semblance of distance, no matter how close it may be.

The aura is closely related to the idea of the “here and now”, which defines the historical moment for which the work was created and which conditions its reception. In the original work of art, we will never be able to have a complete experience of it as the here and now for which the work was created has disappeared. With the growing secularisation of society, the cult value that Benjamin places on these works is also altered and consequently the reception of the work affected by it. Many of the attributes that Benjamin identifies are related to this ritual value: contemplative and individual reception, emergence of the figure of the genius, devaluation of reproductions and plagiarism. The traditional paradigm is thought of in terms of originality; the aura has such value that copying and plagiarism are devalued. The concept of authenticity is incorporated into the aura. In the classical paradigm the work is defined in terms of authenticity, aura and “here and now”.

On the other hand, in photography and cinema there are no originals. The negative exists as a means of making multiple copies. The work is not meant to exist in a single copy. The condition of the work is its multiplicity. In this new paradigm, copying is legitimised. And since the “here and now” cannot be copied, the aura cannot be copied through the means of reproduction: there is no copy of the aura, it is what atrophies in reproduction.

Benjamin illustrates the point by comparing theatre and film, and as in the former the aura is manifested in that unique and different performance that each function is. The cinema breaks down and fragments the aura. The actor is exiled from the stage and from his own body.

Benjamin also comments that in portrait photography the aura of the subject photographed can still be contained, since the image represented retains a certain cult value: for example, the memory of a loved one who has already disappeared. Kracauer denies this point in his analysis of photography: “under the photograph of a human being, his story lies buried as if under a blanket of snow”.

The atrophy of the cinema’s aura is answered by an artificial construction of the “personality” outside the studios. A phenomenon of Hollywood stars. The star tries to preserve the magic of the aura that was lost through reproducibility.

The reproducible work acquires a new value, the exhibition value. In the absence of cult value, the work is conceived to be shown to the public (cinema).

The higher the exhibition value, the lower the cult value

This gives the reproducible work of art a new foundation: the political one.

With all this, the positive aspect of this new paradigm is that it allows art to show itself more; it allows the democratization of the work of art. It can also be used as a means for the emancipation of the masses.

The negative part would be the political control that could be exercised over these masses from these new media. Think, for example, of the film “The Triumph of the Will” by the German director Leni Riefenstahl where Nazism is praised.

FASCISM –> Aestheticizes politics
COMMUNISM –> Politicises art

Another of the authors from the Frankfurt school, Theodore Adorno, commented that the products of the cultural industry, characterised by mass distribution, generate mass productions, which in some way, predetermine consensus (standardisation and manipulation of taste).

In film and photography, the masses aspire to bring things closer spatially and humanly; it responds to the need to take ownership of objects (of originals) in the closest of companies.

With regard to the cinema, Benjamin echoes Duhamel’s views: moving images replace my thoughts, I can no longer think what I want. In the cinema we are subject to the effects of shock (this is a concept that comes from Dadaism). It is something similar to the experience of Baudelaire’s Flaneur, a perceptive availability open to the excitability of city stimuli, which turns us into distracted spectators (contrary to contemplative perception).

Following the thoughts expressed by Benjamin in his 1937 essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Technical Reproducibility”, it is inevitable to think about the current situation: the excess of images has acquired an astronomical dimension, new media have definitively displaced those mentioned by Benjamin (illustrated magazines, press, advertising), transferring the question of reproducibility to visibility. The image no longer has any value because of its significance as a lasting record of memory (although around the same time Kracauer questioned the validity of photography in this matter), but rather because of its communication value. The exhibition value of an image is replaced by its effectiveness as a mechanism for communication. The value that Benjamin gave to the image as a means of emancipation of the masses has betrayed the individuals, who have voluntarily enslaved themselves to the hidden interests of the large corporations. And the shifting alliance between art and politics, as ideology has been replaced by the taxation and servitude of nations to global markets, has been definitively privatised by liberalism.

The saturation of images requires the search for new forms of significance for photography, and there is an urgent need to free ourselves from outdated systems that lock the image into protected sanctuaries or algorithms that restrict its free circulation. In the renewed promise of freedom of social networks, there is a tacit acceptance of submission to control of content and the dissemination of images.


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