The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction is a 1936 essay by German cultural critic Walter Benjamin that has been influential across the humanities, especially in the field art history. He argued that, art in the age of mechanical reproduction would inherently be based on the practice of politics.
The essay opens with an argument that the art that was developed in the past differs from that of the present time and hence our understanding and treatment of it must develop in order to understand it in a modern context and develop new techniques.
The first part introduces Marxist theory as applied to the construction of society and the position of art in the context of Capitalism. He explains the conditions to show what could be expected of capitalism in the future, resulting in exploiting the proletariat and ultimately making it possible to abolish capitalism itself.
The body examines the development of mechanical visual reproduction from copying a master’s work, Greek founding and stamping, woodcutting, etching, engraving, lithographs and photography demonstrating that technical reproduction is not a modern phenomenon, yet modern methods allow for greater accuracy across mass production. This process was ultimately more distinguished by the tracing of designs on stone rather than incision on blocks of wood.
Benjamin discusses the concept of authenticity, particularly in application to reproduction. ‘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.’ He argues that the “sphere of authenticity is outside the technical” so that the original artwork is independent of the copy, yet through the act of reproduction something is taken from the original by changing its context. He thus introduces the idea of the “aura” of a work and its absence in a reproduction.
He looks at the changes in society’s values over time, “the manner in which human sense perception is organised, the medium in which it is accomplished, is determined not only by nature but by historical circumstances as well.” Benjamin goes on to describe shifts in taste and style in art history and how this interacts with his concept of aura.
Despite the effect of a reproduction on the original, Benjamin writes “The uniqueness of a work of art is inseparable from its being embedded in the fabric of tradition,” which speaks to the separation of the original from the reproduction. He also discusses the ritualisation of reproduction and the emancipation of “the work of art from its parasitical dependence on ritual.”
The changing values of exhibition are analysed, from historic paintings which were for limited viewing to modern art which has an emphasis on a huge scale.