Week 3 Blog: Reflections of Walter Benjamin’s Essay by Sara Captain

Reading Walter Benjamin’s essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” it was hard not to recognize the significant influence of Karl Marx’s “Communist Manifesto. For example, Bejamin writes, “During long periods of history, the mode of human sense perception changes with humanity’s entire mode of existence,” a statement that is strikingly similar to Marx’s assertion that the ruling ideas of each era are derived from the conditions in which people are living.
While Benjamin devotes his essay to developing his definition and criticism of what he calls “aura,” Marx stresses that the only acceptable ideas of each era are those ideas which are beneficial to the ruling class, or “bourgeoisie.” The connection between aura and bourgeosie can be identified in each term’s reference to some kind of set standard by which the masses of society are sheepishly led to follow. To use the example cited above, just as the bourgeosie determine what is acceptable and what is not for 9/10ths of society, called the proletariat, there exists, according to Benjamin, an “aura” that contributes a large part of what reverence and value society pays to artwork.
Why is it that some pieces of art are viewed as more valuable simply because of the time and place in which they were originally created, even though there are millions of identical copies available with not even a fraction of the value? Part of the answer lies in the existence of aura, a kind of ritualistic tradition. As a revolutionary follower of Marx, it is not surprising that Benjamin disdains the special favoring of certain works of art over others that are exactly the same in terms of their artistic value, though distinguished by their origins. It is as if there is some kind of aristocracy, or royalty, among artworks, and that some, the vast majority, are discriminated against and valued less simply because of where they come from. I think it is interesting to view art through this Marxist lens, especially when Benjamin argues that getting rid of aura via mass mechanized reproduction is indicative of a perception of equality among material items. In many ways, he is right; yes, it would be honorably unmaterialistic of me to go to the Luv and look at the Mona Lisa with no more inspiration and no more appreciation than if I were to google the Mona Lisa online. However, I disagree that this is necessarily a progressive quality, though it is revolutionary. This feat would involve the complete and utter detachment and objectivity of my knowledge about the artwork and my perception of the artwork on hand. While Benjamin advocates an equality of all identical artworks because of reproduction and equality of material goods and because art in fact derives from the same word for artifice in Latin, implying a connotation of fakeness and lack of originality in the first place, I believe that artwork cannot be perceived and judged and organized in the same fashion as human society.
While the age of reproduction via mechanization can on one hand eliminate aura since reproductions are so much more readily available, they can on the other hand go the exact other way and bring aura to the forefront of art speculation. Since there are so many reproductions of art nowadays, shouldn’t the aura of the single original piece be elevated? Economically, a resource that requires more labor to produce is by price more valuable, and I believe in the importance of keeping original artwork distinguished from copies of artwork to preserve the higher value of original work. Artwork is not all equal; some took days, even years, of original thought, creativity, and preparation, while others took five minutes on a factory machine. While there is equal opportunity among men, not all men are equal; some have worked for college degrees and have enhanced their skills via years and years of hard labor, while others have taken the easy way by sleeping all day and going out all night. Thus, while I respect Benjamin’s attempts to follow in Marx’s footsteps by taking to heart that any kind of revolution is good revolution, I disagree that a revolution in the perception we have of artwork is fair in any way to the artists who produce original work. If da Vinci knew his Mona Lisa was going to be worth the same as his students’ identical reproductions of her, and he received the same amount of pay and reverence for his work as his pupils, what would encourage him to be creative and original and productive of great art for society to enjoy?

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