Summary – The Work of Art in the age of Mechanical Reproduction


The chapter talks about the history of mechanical reproduction. While man-made work of art has always been reproducible, mechanical reproduction of the same represents something new. The Greeks only knew two methods of reproduction – founding and stamping. The advent of woodcut graphic art made scripts available for reproduction. During the Middle Ages engraving and etching were added to the woodcut; at the beginning of the nineteenth century lithography made its appearance. Lithography was then surpassed by photography within a few decades. By 1900, technical reproduction had captured a place of its own among the artistic processes.


Even the most prefect reproduction of art lacks in one element – its unique existence and form within time and space. The original preserved its authority for two reasons – first, process reproduction I more independent and second, reproduction can place copies into situations for which the original would be out of reach. Even within these situations, the quality of its presence is always depreciated. Reproduction detaches the original object from the domain of tradition, thus withering its ‘Aura’.


The mode of human sense perception changes with humanity’s mode of existence, and this can be comprehended as a decay of the object’s aura. The decay of the aura rests on two circumstances, namely, the desire of contemporary masses to bring things “closer” spatially and humanly, which is just as ardent as their bent toward overcoming the uniqueness of every reality by accepting its reproduction.


The uniqueness of a work of art is inseparable from its being embedded in the fabric of tradition. The existence of the aura of a work of art can never be entirely separated from its ritual function, however, reproduction of art work can release it from its dependence on ritual.


Work of art can be evaluated on two major planes – cult value and exhibition value. Artistic production of work begins with ceremonial objects destined to serve in a cult, with more value placed on their existence, not exhibition. The emancipation of art practices from their rituals increase opportunities for display. Today, the emphasis on an artwork’s exhibition value, it becomes a creation with entirely new functions, along with the fundamental artistic function.


While in photography, exhibition value is looked to be more important, cult value offers resistance through human countenance such as the cult of remembrance. Similarly, with Atget, photographs became standard evidence for historical occurrences and hidden political significance. These also changed the way of approaching a photograph, and made captions obligatory. These soon became more explicit in the film, where the meaning of each image was derived by its preceding ones.


The artistic value of painting versus photography does not diminish its importance and instead, underlines it. The age of mechanical reproduction separated art from its basis in cult, the semblance of autonomy disappeared, resulting in a change in the function of art, and in turn, transcending the perspective of the country. However, the difficulties which photography caused traditional aesthetics were lesser in comparison to those caused by film. The desire to class the film among the arts forced theoreticians to read ritual elements into it.


The actor’s performance is presented by means of a camera and he lacks the opportunity to adjust to his audience, unlike a stage actor. This permits the audience to critique the film with no personal contact and their identification with the actor is, in reality, an identification with the camera.


In the film, the actor represents himself to the public before the camera, rather than representing someone else. The man has to operate without the ‘aura’, which, on a stage, cannot be separated from the actor. The stage actor identifies with his role, while the film actor is denied this opportunity and his role compromises of many separate performances.


The reflection reflected image of an actor on camera can be transported before the public. The cult of the movie star, encouraged by the money of the film industry, preserves not the aura of the person, but the materialistic value of commodities. For centuries, a small number of writers attended to the needs of several thousand readers, but now, an increasing number of readers are becoming writers, beginning at the basic ‘letters to the editor’.  The distinction between the writer and the reader is lost, and in many cases, is merely functional. Under these circumstances, the film industry is attempting to spur the interest of the masses through illusions.


During a film shoot, it is impossible to assign to a spectator a viewpoint which would exclude extraneous accessories such as camera equipment and lighting. The film’s illusionary nature is derived as a result of cutting, a feature absent from a scene on a stage. The sight of immediate reality has become rare. The representation of reality by the film I more significant because of the permeation of reality with mechanical equipment that depicts an aspect of reality that is free of all equipment.


Mechanical reproduction of art changes the reaction of the masses towards the art. Individual reactions are predetermined by the mass audience response they are about to produce. A painting has an excellent chance to be viewed by one person or a few. The simultaneous contemplation of paintings is an early symptom of the crisis of painting. It offers no way for the masses to organize and control themselves in their reception.


In comparison with the stage scene, the filmed behaviour item lends itself more readily to analysis because it can be isolated more easily. This circumstance derives its chief importance from its tendency to promote the mutual penetration of art and science. Even though the act of reaching for an object is familiar routine, yet we hardly know what really goes on between hand and the material of the object, nor the way we unconsciously react to the object. The camera introduces us to unconscious optics as does psychoanalysis to unconscious impulses.


Dadaism attempted to create the effects the public seeks in a film today. It sacrificed market values which are so ingrained in a film, in favour of higher ambitions. The studied degradation of their work attached lesser importance to the sales value of their work than to its uselessness for contemplative immersion. They intended, and achieved, a relentless destruction of the aura of their creations. One requirement was the most important – to outrage the public. Dadaists became an instrument of ballistics, promoting demand for films. A painting invites the spectator for contemplation, but with a movie frame, he cannot do so – the image has changed before his eye has grasped the scene. The film took out the shock effect in which Dadaism had wrapped itself.


“A man who concentrates before a work of art is absorbed by it. The distracted mass absorbs the work of art.” Distraction presented by art is a control of the extent to which new tasks have become dissolved by appreciation. Art will tackle the most difficult and most important ones to mobilize the masses, while the film, with its shock effect will meet this mode of reception halfway.


The self-alienation of art has reached a degree where its own destruction can be viewed as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order.


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