Artworks have always been reproducible. But by 1900 technology was able to reproduce all works, “profoundly modifying their effect.” Benjamin will study two manifestations of this phenomenon: reproduction of artworks & art of film.II
In reproductions, the “here and now” of a work of art is missing–its “unique existence in a particular place.” Uniqueness underlies “authenticity,” which eludes reproducibility. Technological reproduction is more independent of the original than mechanical reproduction (forgery) and can ‘meet the recipient halfway.’Aurawithers in the age of technological reproducibility. The work is detached from tradition and has a ‘mass existence’ instead.III
Modes of perception change over history and have social determinants. The social determinants of aura’s decay are: the masses’ desire to get closer to things, and the desire to overcome each thing’s uniqueness.
Aura has its origin in ritual. This cult value has survived in ‘art for art’s sake’. But reproducibility emancipates the object from service to ritual, and thus ‘the whole social function of art is revolutionized.’
As cult value declines, exhibition value increases. Today, reproducibility allows ‘absolute emphasis’ on exhibition. This permits a new function for art, and traditional ‘artistic function’ may come to be incidental.
The human countenance is the last refuge of cult value, as in the emphasis on portraiture in early photography. But as the human being withdraws from photography (as in Atget’s photos of deserted Paris streets), exhibition value shows its superiority and political significance.
Film theorists, like photography theorists previously, have wasted time trying to explain these media in terms of traditional notions of art, instead of considering that the entire nature of art has been transformed.
The film actor differs from the stage actor: the camera (& editing) do not respect the performance as a whole, and the actor cannot adjust to the audience. The audience really empathizes with the camera rather than the actor: this is not compatible with cult value.
The film actor must operate with ‘his whole living person’ while foregoing its aura. (Film acting can’t have aura because a film performance isn’t here & now.) “Nothing shows more graphically that art has escaped the realm of ‘beautiful semblance.’”
Documentary film (such as in the USSR) allows ordinary people to be film actors. This parallels earlier developments in which readers were able to become writers via letters to the editor and other means of access to authorship. Thus these cultural roles are no longer exclusive to a few.
On a film set it is impossible not to be aware of equipment. The “illusory nature of film” is second degree: it comes from editing. “The presentation of reality in film” is significant today because it paradoxically provides “the equipment-free aspect of reality . . . precisely on the basis of the most intensive interpenetration of reality with equipment.”
When the masses confront contemporary painting, they have a backward, hostile reaction, whereas with film their reaction is progressive. This is because film fuses pleasure with “an attitude of expert appraisal.” With cinema, “the critical and uncritical attitudes of the public coincide.” Film permits “simultaneous collective reception” (as does architecture, but not painting) and progressive reactions.
Film lends itself to analysis, just as psychoanalysis opened up new areas for understanding. In film, artistic & scientific uses are identical. Slow motion and other techniques provide an “optical unconscious” that enables deeper understanding of human actions. ‘A space informed by human consciousness gives way to a space informed by the unconscious.”
Dadaism anticipated film: in its effort to make artworks useless “as objects of contemplative immersion.” Distraction was produced as the opposite social behavior from contemplation. The shock effect of Dada anticipated the shock effect of film, which consists in our inability to stop the images in order to contemplate them.
Film has produced a different kind of participation, “reception in distraction.” Distraction and concentration are antitheses. Traditional art (like painting) requires concentration: the viewer is absorbed by the art. With film, ‘the distracted masses absorb the work of art into themselves.” This resembles how the masses relate to architecture. Reception in distraction is a sign of profound changes in perception. “It encourages an evaluating attitude” and will make it possible for art to mobilize the masses.
Fascism aestheticizes political life as a means of giving expression to the masses without changing property relations. The inevitable result of this is war. Communism replies by politicizing art.