Mechanical Reproduction in the Age of Art
Paul Mattick Jr
Theory, Culture & Society (SAGE, London, Newbury Park and New Delhi), Vol.10 (1993), 127-147
The enormous impact of Waller Benjamin's famous essay on 'The Work of Art in the Age of its Mechanical Reproduction' is largely due to his claim that photography has 'transformed the entire nature of art, destroying its semblance of autonomy in relation to social and political processes, and liquidating 'the traditional value of thc cultural heritage’ (Benjamin, 1969a. 227, 226. 221). Potographs (and especially moving pictures) cannot, he believed, be invested with the 'aura' of timelessness and sanctity which Benjamin saw as essential to the classical artwork: they give themselves not to aesthetic contemplalion by a chosen few but to absorption by the masses, who in this way acquire a mode of experience adequate to the social changes called for by technological development. While Benjamin's friend and critic, T.W. Adorno, questioned his assumption of the politically and culturally 'progressive' conseqnences of the practice of pholography, a number of recent writers have questioned the very idea that photography has had these consequences. According to W.J.T. Mitchell, for instance, pholography itself has been absorbed by traditional notations of fine art. When Benjamin (in his 'Short History' of Photography') praises the production of aura in Nadar , and the destruction of aura in Atget, he is praising them as moments in the formation of a new, revolutionary conception of art that bypasses all the philistine twaddle about creative genius and beauty. And yet it is precisely these traditional notions of aesthetics, with all their attendant claims about craftsmanship, formal subtlety, and semantic complexity, that have sustained the case for the artistic status of photography. (Matchell. 1986:181-4) Similarly, Christopher Phillips (1982: 28) has shown to what extent Benjamin's predictions about the transformative role of photography seem to be 'considerably at odds with the institutional trends that have, in recent years, borne photography triumphantly into the museum, the auction house, and the corporate boardroom'. Phillips begins his article with a citation of Benjamin: 'From a photographic negative, for example, one can make any number of prints; to ask for the "authentic" print makes no sense.' Since according to Benjamin the uniqueness of the 'original' artwork is a key both to its authority as an object worthy of respect and to its place in unfolding tradition, the mechanical multiplication or the print spells the end of these essential constituents or 'aura'. Multiplicity also brings manipulability: the photograph offers itself not for worship as a singular and rare object but for whatever uses the consumer wishes to put it to. By way of their photographic reproduction even traditional artworks—paintings, musical compositions--are detached from their original loci of ritualized significance and made available for the imposition of new meanings. However, Phillips shows, the history of the art-institutional reception of photography runs visibly counter to this prediction. In his study of the curatorial practices of the photography department of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Phillips cites as essential to this reception both the establishment of the category of the rare, original, authentic print and the absorption even of magazine and newspaper photos into the domain of art. The systematic study of the domain of photographs - along the lines of the history of photographic images, and by way of their formal analysis -- made possible the assimilation of photographs to more traditional art objects. The meaning of a photograph came to be seen, following a schema of 'modernism', in the photographer's effort to solve formal, aesthetic problems posed by the medium, and so ‘in its relationships to other and earlier pictures - to tradition' (Szarkowski, cited in...
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Paul Mattick Jr teaches Philosophy at Antioch University
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