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  • NaHyun Kate Park

[EN] Walter Benjamin's “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”

최종 수정일: 2020년 4월 7일

Walter Benjamin's “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”

What determines exactly the "aura" or "uniqueness" of an artwork in Benjamin's account?

NaHyun Kate Park 박나현

In Walter Benjamin’s famous essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” he says that a work of art lost its “aura” when the reproduction of the work is made. He mentions on the subject of lithography, photography, and film, and asks the readers whether or not these can be considered an "art." Apart from the central idea of lacking its aura in reproduction, he also argues about the idea of originality and its existence. He writes of the sense changes within humanity’s entire mode of existence; the way we look and see the visual work of art has is different now and its consequences remain to be determined. According to Benjamin's essay, is it a universal perspective that is being critiqued here or can there be a universal perspective in the first place? What determines exactly the "aura" or "uniqueness" of an artwork in Benjamin's account?

He starts his second part of the essay by stating: “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. This unique existence of the work of art determined the history to which it was subject throughout the time of its existence. This includes the changes which it may have suffered in physical condition over the years as well as the various changes in its ownership. The traces of the first can be revealed only by chemical or physical analyses which it is impossible to perform on a reproduction; changes of ownership are subject to a tradition which must be traced from the situation of the original.” For example, a mass-reproduced photograph of Van Gogh's “Sunflowers” is not going to call for a ritualized pilgrimage to see it “in-person” and take-in its aura in the equal way that the original achieves at the museum.

In the end of fourth part of essay, he states that “An analysis of art in the age of mechanical reproduction must do justice to these relationships, for they lead us to an all-important insight: for the first time in world history, mechanical reproduction emancipates the work of art from its parasitical dependence on ritual. To an ever greater degree the work of art reproduced becomes the work of art designed for reproducibility. From a photographic negative, for example, one can make any number of prints; to ask for the “authentic” print makes no sense. But the instant the criterion of authenticity ceases to be applicable to artistic production; the total function of art is reversed. Instead of being based on ritual, it begins to be based on another practice – politics.” Therefore, instead of lamenting this phenomenon of fall of aura due to mechanical reproduction, Benjamin turns on the point, suggesting that both the religious hints and the focus on the individual which are suggested by aura are, in fact, a tool of fascist politics

and that reproducible media, especially film–with its radically more immediate modes of reception–open the door to an art conducted in the name of communism.

Walter Benjamin in 1928

In the reading of Benjamin’s theory of media, though, there is no straightforward grasp of what it is precisely that Benjamin signifies by the word “aura.” It seems like Benjamin at times celebrates the downfall of aura and to demonstrate certain nostalgia for it, if not suggesting that aura still exists in reproducible media such as photographs of people who are now dead. Likewise, there is certain vagueness the ways in which Benjamin defines aura. One way to understand his use of the term is that it denotes a quality which does not emerge from within the work and emanate out, but is rather accrued in time through both the work’s proof to history and the path of its social transactions through the history. That is, the aura surrounding an artwork is not beauty or magic, which originates from the inside of the object, but a conceptual field around the work accrued through time as it reflects back upon its own history as a material object.

Furthermore, he takes an instance of an ancient statue of Venus to explain the uniqueness of a work of art. He argues in his fourth part of essay that “The uniqueness of a work of art is inseparable from its being imbedded in the fabric of tradition. This tradition itself is thoroughly alive and extremely changeable.” He says that the statue of Venus stands in a different circumstance with the Greeks, who made it an object of veneration, than with the clerics of the Middle Ages, who viewed it as ominous idol. Both of them though were in the same way faced with its uniqueness, that is, its aura. Initially the contextual integration of art in tradition found its expression in the cult. He says that the earliest art works originated in the service of a ritual – first the magical, then the religious kind. In other words, the unique value of the “authentic” work of art has its basis in ritual, the location of its original use value. At the time, art reacted with the doctrine of l’art pour l’art, that is, with a theology of art. This gave rise to what might be called a negative theology in the form of the idea of “pure” art, which not only refused any social meaning of art but also any classifying by subject matter.

In closing, Benjamin addresses the phenomena of moving images in cinema in his 1936 essay “The Work of art in the Age of Mechanical Reproducibility,” which was clearly influenced by his ongoing engagement with Marxism and written with an audience in mind already familiar with the works of his friend Theodor Adorno. Benjamin argues that the existence of artwork with reference to its aura is never entirely separated from its ritual function. In other words, the unique value of the “authentic” work of art has its base in ritual, the location of its original use value. For Benjamin, aura is a complicated term. One can comprehend the term "aura," by thinking that it is not synonymous with beauty or anything aesthetics. He advocated for the idea that when objects with this aura around them are photographed and re-distributed, the aura is necessarily lost and that, moreover, this loss of aura around the way works of art are received in culture creates an occasion for an art based not on ritual, but rather politics.


BENJAMIN, Walter, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, 1936 HANSEN, Miriam Bratu, Benjamin’s Aura, Critical Inquiry, Vol. 34, No. 2 (Winter 2008), pp. 336-375

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