TO DO: Walter Benjamin, “Work of Art”

October 9, 2009

By class Tuesday, leave a comment here that includes two quotes from Benjamin’s “Work of Art in The Age of Mechanical Reproduction” that you find particularly interesting, relevant, or difficult. Additionally, post two critical discussion questions that are generated from those quotes. Please site page numbers.


10 Responses to “TO DO: Walter Benjamin, “Work of Art””

  1. Ali Hendelman Says:

    “The manner in which human sense perception is organized, the medium in which it is accomplished, is determined not only by nature but by historical circumstances as well.” (page 4)

    What is the “formal hallmark” that characterizes perception in contemporary culture?

    “But the instant the criterion of authenticity ceases to be applicable to artistic production, the total function of art is reversed. Instead
    of being based on ritual, it begins to be based on another practice—politics.” (page 5)

    How does one distinguish between ritual and politics in modern life?

  2. Olga Stroubos Says:

    “But the human need for shelter is lasting. Architecture has never been idle. Its history is more ancient than that of any other art, and its claim to being a living force has significance in every attempt to comprehend the relationship of the masses to art. Buildings are appropriated in a twofold manner: by use and by perception – or rather, by touch and sight.” (pg 14)

    Is a picture of Picasso’s painting less “cultural” than if seen at a museum? Is going to see the Parthenon in person different than seeing a picture in a text book? Does someone understand the architecture of a building differently by experiencing the space? Can the person describing the art work in a textbook or lecture influence what your opinion of the art work is?

    “Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be. The unique existence of the work of art determined the history to which it was subject throughout the time of its existence.” (pg 3)
    Would you agree or disagree that the only way to understand art is to have seen the original? Has the modern lifestyle caused a loss of authenticity in the arts? Would you agree that technology is changing what art is defined as?

  3. Brendan Farrell Says:

    “The situations into which the product of mechanical reproduction can be brought may not actually touch the work of art, yet the quality of it’s presence is always depreciated.” Page 3

    My question to the class: In your opinion, does the act of mechanically reproducing a piece of art reduce it’s quality? How does [modern western] society view ‘handmade’ goods, products, and services? Do you think this is due to the over exposure of mechanical reproduction, or has the human touch always been as valued to the same degree as it is now?

    “The conventional is uncritically enjoyed,and the truly new is criticized with aversion.” Page 11

    My question to the class: Do you agree with Benjamin’s statement that the conventional is generally accepted without much struggle? Is this statement (published in 1935) still accurate? Or has the subculture of resistance to mainstream popularity, simply for the act of denying that which is popular, increased in modern times? If so, why is this? Why do certain people, regardless of the popularity of the anti-popularity subculture (irony at it’s finest) always seem to reject that which is considered popular?

  4. Angela Hoang Says:

    “Works of art are received and valued on different planes. Two polar types stand out; with one, the accent is on the cult value; with the other, on the exhibition value of the work.” (pg 5)

    What is the focal point on works of art? Which is greater: cult or exhibition?

    “The nineteenth-century dispute as to the artistic value of painting versus photography today seems devious and confused…The dispute was in fact the symptom of a historical transformation…The resulting change in the function of art transcended the perspective of the century; for a long time it even escaped that of the twentieth century, which experienced the development of the film.”

    What is film’s predecessor? What is the next form of art/communication society is predicting?

  5. Sam Sutcliffe Says:


    “This is comparable to the situation of the work of art in prehistoric times when, by the absolute emphasis on its cult value, it was, first and foremost, an instrument of magic. Only later did it come to be recognized as a work of art. In the same way today, by the absolute emphasis on its exhibition value the work of art becomes a creation with entirely new functions, among which the one we are conscious of, the artistic function, later may be recognized as incidental. This much is certain: today photography and the film are the most serviceable exemplifications of this new function.”

    Long quote; as stated above, displaying ideas through a medium began as a form of necessary communication, a form of ritual. It was only in hindsight, that the art adopted worth. New art forms are continually diminishing the initial cult value of a piece and placing more emphasis on its exhibition value. In modern times, do you think the “cult value” of new art forms still exists? How has it changed in recent years?


    Later in the essay he states: “In photography, exhibition value begins to displace cult value all along the line. But cult value does not give way without resistance. It retires into an ultimate retrenchment: the human countenance.”

    This relates the the question and quote above. Now instead of art purposely and automatically resonating certain ideas of religion and ritual, the artist is challenged by the viewer. He has to take into read into other’s perceptions and attempt to make them see what he sees, there is so many different things that one art piece could mean for varying people. Maybe the reproduction of art has limited its authentic roots, but also freed it from certain strictures. What are come positive things that you see coming out of the mechanical reproduction of art? Do they out weigh the negative?

  6. Nicol Elter Says:

    “The feeling of strangeness that overcomes the actor before the camera, as Pirandello describes it, is basically of the same kind as the estrangement felt before one’s own image in the mirror. But now the reflected image has become separable, transportable.”

    If Pirandello can relate emotions to the act of seperating and transporting oneself onto a mirror how do we as humans transport and affect our surroundings with our emotions?

    “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.”

    What reproductions can you find in other cultures that allow you to accept and relate to them?

  7. Sami O'Keefe Says:

    “One might generalize by saying: the technique of reproduction
    detaches the reproduced object from the domain of tradition. By making many reproductions it substitutes a plurality of copies for a unique existence.” p.3

    ” 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.” p.11

    Are there any ways in which film and photography might lend themselves to making objects/reactions more unique than those in paintings? Does being easily viewed by many more people than art you need to go to a museum for help?

  8. Arlin Campbell Says:

    “During long periods of history, the mode of human sense perception changes with humanity’s entire mode of existence. The manner in which human sense perception is organized, the medium in which it is accomplished, is determined not only by nature but by historical circumstances as well.”

    Does modern culture influence the perception of historical art, for instance, does universal access due to the internet help or hinder the viewers experience with seeing art in real life?

    “The artistic performance of a stage actor is definitely presented to the public by the actor in person; that of the screen actor, however, is presented by a camera, with a two-fold consequence. The camera that presents the performance of the film actor to the public need not respect the performance as an integral whole. Guided by the cameraman, the camera continually changes its position with respect to the performance.”

    When acting is done on stage, there is no option to edit, yet with film performance, the performance itself is not pure due to of the ability for adjustment, therefore the execution itself is not as important as the editing process. Do you think that actors in film are less or more skilled than broadway because of the ability for composition and editing to be done after the fact?

  9. Alyshia Taboas Says:

    “Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and
    space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be. This unique existence of the work of art
    determined the history to which it was subject throughout the time of its existence.” pg.3

    “The characteristics of the film lie not only in the manner in which man presents himself to mechanical
    equipment but also in the manner in which, by means of this apparatus, man can represent his environment.” pg. 11

    -What are your feelings towards an origional painting that has been reproduced many times and an origional that has never been reproduced for the masses?
    -Why are the actors infront of the camera more popular than the people behind the camera, like writers and producers?

  10. hannah peyser Says:

    “In the case of the art object, a most sensitive nucleus- namely, it’s authenticity- is interfered with whereas no natural object is vulnerable on that score” (pg 3)

    All natural objects are essentially unique and posses an “aura.” Does this mean nature is one of the only true art works? Are we stripping away the aura of nature with modern science and technology?

    To pry an object from its shell, to destroy its aura, is the mark of a perception whose “sense of univeral equality of things” has increased to such a degree that it extracts it even from a unique object by means of reproduction.

    In your opinion, is reproduction positive or negative in the art world? Does making art for everyone and not just for the upper class overshadow an art objects lack of uniqueness? Or does this equal field allow for more political control and the shattering of the aura?

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