Exercise: the work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction


This exercise asks for an opinion on Walter Benjamin’s essay and the perspective of Siegfried Kracauer (in 1927), cited in the OCA course materials, who ‘remarked that objects would become known for how they appeared to the camera, not how they actually were’.

Walter Benjamin’s essay

Walter Benjamin’s influential essay was originally published in 1936 and analysis the effect on art of ‘mechanical reproduction’ (photography and film) . With this history of visual culture, the essay came around 4 decades after the quality of film reproduction had reach a high standard and became a medium of expression in its own right. Open Culture offers an insight into the earliest films at around 1900 – beyond Eadweard Muybridge’s 1878 Horse in motion, which was more scientific in nature . The essay also significantly pre-dates the age of digital reproduction and the internet, with the worldwide web first open to the public in 1991 .

Benjamin’s essay plots the history of the reproduction of art, observing that art has always been reproducible with a degree of effort and varying success at fidelity to the original. This kind of reproduction would include the creation of forgeries that sought to pass has having the same value as the original object. Lithography was invented in 1796, which allowed artists to reproduce art at a speed that would keep pace with printing. However, the invention of of photography (1839) represented a revolution in reproduction. The work of the hand was replaced by the work of the eye and a machine, offering the opportunity for far more speed and precision in the reproduction than had previously been possible. However, still infinitely slower and less reproducible than the digital images and networks of today.

Benjamin makes some interesting ontological observations about photography (and film) as compared with traditional art works.

  • He notes that a reproduction does not have a unique location in time and space, whereas an original object can only be in one place at one time. The original object, therefore has it’s own unique historical fingerprint and cultural presence. Benjamin argues that ‘the presence of the original is the prerequisite to the concept of authenticity’.
  • Unlike manually created reproductions (or forgeries), Benjamin argues mechanical reproductions are outside the ‘whole sphere of authenticity’. For two reasons: the reproduction is more independent from the original (it can show different angles, only certain elements, levels of detail, tonality, and colours for example). And, ‘technical reproduction can it the copy of the original into situations which would be out of reach to the original itself’.
  • Benjamin comments that mechanical reproduction always ‘deprecates the quality of the presence of the original’, where it is a work of art or a photography of a landscape. This is echoed in John Tagg’s much later observation that a photograph represents ‘a new and separate reality’ . Questions of authenticity of an art object reproduced in a photograph are wiped away (‘the essence of all that is transmissible from its beginning … its substance … the history it has experienced’). Benjamin refers to this as eliminated aspect as ‘aura … which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction’. There is no longer a ‘unique existence’ and the reproduced object can be taken to any location: ‘a tremendous shattering of tradition’.

Having examined ontological questions, Benjamin examines the implications for communication (‘sense perception’). There are elements of his discussion that I feel are later echoed in Guy Debord’s 1967 Society of the Spectacle . ‘The masses … overcoming the uniqueness of reality by accepting its reproduction … destroying its aura’. Benjamin suggests that the perception of a ‘universal equality of things’ has meant that even unique objects are no longer perceived as such. Tellingly he states, ‘the adjustment of reality to the masses and of the masses to reality is a process of unlimited scopes, as much for thinking as for perception’. A ‘society of the spectacle’.

The age of digital reproduction

Douglas Davis’ The Work of Art in the Age of Digital Reproduction (An Evolving Thesis: 1991-1995) recontextualises Benjamin’s essay at the outset of the internet age. It however, predates mobile technology, including the now ubiquitous camera phone (the iPhone was first released in 2007). Both Benjamin’s and Davis’s thoughts are summarised, fittingly, in a YouTube video produced by Then and Now .

Davis’s essay concludes with, ‘here is where the aura resides – not in the thing itself but in the originality of the moment when we see, hear, read, repeat, revise.’ While authenticity or aura was deprecated in the age of mechanical reproduction, Davis suggests that it has shifted beyond the thing itself to the point of consumption of the reproduction.


The digital age is young but has torn apart the world known by Benjamin and Kracauer. We are now in a world where there is uncertainty about if there was an actuality that shaped an image or if it is purely of the digital world. It seems as the implications of situation are unfolding right now. James Bridle’s radio series, New Ways of Seeing questions how we are to make sense of the world in the information age.

There is truth in Benjamin and Kracauer’s arguments, but we have also moved beyond their time and face new and recent uncertainties, the outcome of which cannot be predicted.


Society of the Spectacle: Guy Debord

Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle was introduced in the course material within the context of psychogeography as a prominent text for the Situationist International movement, to which psychogeography links itself. I’ve owned a copy of the book for some time but confess have never read it as I was put off by the dense text and no real imperative to read it. However, as the ideas of psychogeography are relevant to my project, I’ve now read it and include a few notes here.

  • It is not just me who finds the text dense and I found out that this style was apparently typical of the Situationist movement. There is a Guardian online ‘Big Ideas’ podcast , in which the work is discussed and provides a simplified overview of the work.
  • While the book was originally published in 1967, it felt contemporary, as if Debord had predicted the future. It is a grim and relentless attack on the flaws of contemporary society as (or perhaps more) relevant today as it was in 1967.
  • The book is wide ranging in its scope, and my notes sketch only ideas that may be relevant to my work. The references are to the paragraph numbers – the whole book is labelled in this way, like a bible of discontentment.
  • ‘The spectacle is not a collection of images; it is a social relation between people that is mediated by images’ . This understanding seems critical in the context of visual culture – it speaks to the idea that meaning is derived through culture and society, not through images themselves. It also plays to the deception that images convey reality and do not need reading or decoding. Therefore, Debord argues that ‘… life is presented as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has receded into a representation’ . Arguably, just parts of the world were once subsumed into religious ideology, many parts of the world are now under the spell of the spectacle (resulting from capitalist ideology).
  • Debord talks of a sense of alienation as the dominant images destroy understanding of life and what is important to self; ‘The spectator does not feel at home anywhere, because the spectacle is everywhere’ . To me this connects to the mindful contemplation of space that is part of psychogeography – stepping back with a fresh perspective and trying to see things as they really are. It also speaks to the attraction of the spaces in edgelands (a canal can be one), where the spectacle is mostly absent – there is little commercial interest in these backwaters and they offer a place of escape.
  • As an aside, Debord references the ‘chronicle’, which one might equate to the ‘archive’, as ‘the expression of the irreversible time of power … the owners of history have given time a direction, a direction which is also a menaing’ . This echoes Allan Sekula’s thoughts on the archive.
  • Chapter VII deals with territorial domination and is particularly relevant to my work.
    • Tourism ‘the opportunity to go and see what has been banalised’ . I’m not sure that holidays on canals (at least in the UK are hugely popular as ‘there is nothing to see’).
    • Urbanism is the modern method for solving the ongoing problem of safeguarding class power by atomising the workers who have been dangerously brought together ..’. As one walks the edgelands, there is an awareness of the urban sprawl and the apparent absence of community spaces within the ‘mass of thinly spread semi-urban tissue’. It had not occurred to me that this might be by design, rather than economic disinterest.
  • Finally, I mention Debord’s definition of culture; ‘is the general sphere of knowledge and of representation of lived experences within historical societies divided into classes.’

I’m pleased that I eventually read this book as it contains some special thinking that looks outside of what we are immersed within. It helps articulate what many people may intuitively feel about the world and explains an attraction to the edgelands.