Walter Benjamin – The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction

This is another essay that I’ve been regularly re-reading for a couple of decades. Its importance to me comes down to a specific and limited quote which I’ll come to at the end. The essay’s main point concerning the effect of reproducibility on the status of works is straightforward. It’s easy enough to see how this essay may have inspired Roland Barthes, Guy Debord’s idea of the spectacle, later notions about the simulacrum and so on. However, it’s in the detail of the argument that Benjamin demonstrates his depth of perception. One of its central ideas is the loss of ‘aura’ that accompanies reproducible artworks. Benjamin links this aura to the idea of what he calls ‘cultic’ value. Cultic value is present when the existence or presence of something is more important than its actual display – as in religious artefacts. This is the first of a pair of oppositions that Benjamin articulates – cultic value versus display value. Benjamin makes a clear case for how photography upsets the notion of the original and the aura of art. But his best insights are reserved for his analysis of film. In particular, one of his most beautiful metaphors – and another oppositional structure – is in the way the magician versus the surgeon parallels the relationship between a painting and film. This is worth quoting in detail:

“The surgeon constitutes one pole of an arrangement in which the other is occupied by the magician. The stance of the magician healing an invalid by laying-on of hands differs from that of the surgeon performing an operation on that invalid. The magician maintains the natural distance between himself and the patient…the surgeon does the opposite: he reduces the distance to the patent a great deal (by actually going inside him)…Magician and surgeon behave like painter and cameraman. The painter, while working, observes a natural distance from the subject; the cameraman, on the other hand, penetrates deep into the subject’s tissue.”

What Benjamin is describing is how film is surgical in that it is a series of chopped up fragments – camera edits, changes in zoom, differing levels of detail, etc. all the while remaining invisible. It moves in and out, can alter the duration of time, and alter space and points of view. The painter’s painting is by contrast synthetic and always about that particular view held by the painter regardless of whether it is a landscape or abstract work of art.

The camera is such a potent force that the aura of the actor has no chance of surviving, the way it still does on a theatre stage. Hence, “[f]ilm’s response to the shrivelling of aura is an artificial inflation of ‘personality’ outside the studio.” This is Benjamin in 1936 describing the cult of celebrity we now accept as natural.

 There are also interesting hints about the way film creates the possibility behind Warhol’s famous statement about everyone getting their ’15 minutes of fame’, that is, about the logic behind the appetite for reality TV shows (the lack of any shortage of people aspiring to claim their quarter-hour). There is also an interesting analysis of how film provides us with the idea that we are all experts of some sort when it comes to appraising what we’ve seen; the opposite of what most people feel in front of art, which is generally a sense of inadequacy.

My interest in this essay is in one of the oppositions that he sets up in order to demonstrate the conceptual differences between things normally seen as fairly similar. Without further ado:

“Distraction and concentration form polar opposites which may be stated as follows: A man who concentrates before a work of art is absorbed by it… In contrast, the distracted mass absorbs the work of art. This is most obvious with regard to buildings. Architecture has always represented the prototype of a work of art the reception of which is consummated by a collectivity in a state of distraction.”

This has, for me, settled the debate as to whether architecture is art. The difference isn’t utility, as is often suggested. Art has its use as well although we know that there is a big difference in what use and function mean in architecture as opposed to art. Benjamin’s focus on the mode of reception – what our frame of being is when we experience something – allows us to invoke use, but not make it central. That is, the state of distraction that is present when we experience architecture is caused by use. The way we are aware of the architecture of a kitchen is mediated by the fact that we are making toast and thinking about catching the bus so as not to be late for work. When in front of a work of art, we generally choose to concentrate on it, to examine it, thereby giving it its space and our attention fully. You might, however, cease to concentrate on your original Matisse hanging in your living room after several weeks or months. And you choose to stand before a building and consider it as art in a fully attentive and concentrated manner. However, these latter two examples are not how they are primarily meant to be apprehended. So while architecture may be taken in as art that is not its essential mode of reception. Now think back to Duschamp’s urinal installation and you’ll understand why it is a work of art and the one in your neighbourhood pub isn’t.

 This is a very simple observation and way of delineating a difference between two types of production (and consumption) – yet without saying one is better than the other. They are simply different. Nevertheless, breath and ink are still wasted over debating whether architecture is art or a fine art practice. We can accept, however, that not everybody on the street would have read Benjamin. What is bothersome is the extent to which architectural criticism and journalism continues to treat architecture from a purely concentrated state never considering its quality by the masses who use it in distraction every day. Segue my piece on the everyday (forthcoming).

Edit 4 Sept 2012

I’ve realised that I didn’t make any negative remarks about practice or education! How negligent of me. There are serious implications in the confusion or deliberate blurring of the distinctions between art and architecture. An obvious one is the design of buildings with an emphasis on ‘art’. To some extent, if a client wants to go down this route there is nothing terribly wrong with that. However, when it involves public buildings or buildings that impact on the urban landscape it becomes potentiall problemmatic. But, for me, the biggest concern is the treatment of architecture-as-art in education. The critique and assessment of work is generally based on evaluating the work from a ‘concentrated’ point of view. That is, it is reviewed and interrogated as something to be focused on and in terms of a resolution which is clear, communicable, blatant and self-consciously evident. That is, students are trained to make their ideas so legible that they tend towards wearing their concepts on their sleeves – emphatic if not aesthetic. If we follow Benjamin’s distinction, some evaluation should be made on the basis of more subtle effects. How, for example, might the design be taken in while distracted, or how would the meaning of the project build up for inhabitants as they repeatedly used and experienced the project, or what kinds of meanings, communications, and experiences are deliberately meant to be revealed slowly and almost imperceptibly? But the worst offence occurs in the area of design and presentation drawings. These have become so self-consciously artistic that they almost become incommunicable to clients (and in fact, many of the drawing methods favoured in academia are rarely seen in practice). And again, the evaluation is based not on how they carry ideas or how a non-architect could glean the design ideas or benefit of the project, but rather by how they challenge the architects’ own expectations for drawings. We have come to draw in order to intrigue our own curiosity. Through this the drawing has become more and more something to be ‘concentrated’ on, something that requires skill in reading, something that critiques established values and so on, in short, an artwork. You should, on your own, be able to see the parallels in model-making and the design process in general and hopefully with respect to the final design itself.

This is not to say that concentrated reflection has no place in architecture. Theoretical projects do exactly this and this is what makes them valuable. There is also nothing wrong with deciding to take the most pragmatic drawing or building and performing a ‘concentrated’ analysis. This is what critique is. What is problematic is a reversal of the horse and cart of Benjamin’s formulation – making every aspect of architecture under a concentrated mode and for concentrated consumption.

Notes: Benjamin’s essay changes dramatically depending on which translation you read. Given that it is not terribly long, it’s worth trying out a few different translations. I recently bought the Penguin Great Ideas version, which is a new translation, and was disappointed. It may be that it is closer to the original, but some of the passages I am familiar with come across awkwardly, specifically the one on distraction and concentration. The translation I used above is from


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