Sunday, March 16, 2014

On Benjamin

As I read your post, I am curious as why my focus on Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in Mechanical Reproduction” primarily his take on the effect of emerging forms and functions of art.  Or rather, why I cannot get past his insightful discussion of photography and film at a time when these forms of art were not only in question, but were merely uncovering their potential. 
This is, of course, all well in discussion with being the latest works to be mechanically reproduced.  Benjamin, however, goes a step further to suggest that “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 (5).  In this context, a photographic negative can reproduce a number of prints, to the point where asking for “the ‘authentic’ print,” Benjamin states, “makes no sense” (5).  I would imagine that its mechanical reproducibility would deem the work of art less “artistic,” but a more striking effect is found in “the instant the criterion of authenticity ceases to be applicable to artistic production,” to use Benjamin’s words, wherein “the total function of art is reversed. Instead of being based on ritual, it begins to be based on another practice—politics” (5).
It is not surprising that even in its very “exhibition value” art comes to serve new functions.  That its more familiar “artistic” function can later be deemed “incidental” is most profound change.  Benjamin “photography and the film are the most serviceable exemplifications of this new function” (6).  Our perceptions are altered by the means of the work’s reproduction, such as the distinct case in performances by the stage and screen actor: the film actor’s performance, for instance, is subjected to a series of optical tests, the first of which is the obvious transmission or mediation of the camera (7).  Rather than interacting with his audience on the stage and thus make adjustments to his performance, the film actor must reach his audience­­ through a lens.  As a result, the audience may “take the position of a critic, without experiencing any personal contact with the actor” (7).

Conversely, Benjamin suggests that “the [m]echanical reproduction of art changes the reaction of the masses toward art” (11).  Particularly with the screen, “the critical and the receptive attitudes of the public coincide” (11).  Benjamin explains that “the decisive reason for this is that individual reactions are predetermined by the mass audience response they are about to produce, and this is nowhere more pronounced than in the film.  The moment these responses become manifest they control each other” (11).  How these responses negotiate control of one another is quite intriguing.

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