In his essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”, Walter Benjamin discusses the growing technology’s affect on art, the change in perception and its affects on photography and film in the 20th century. He argues that technology is changing art, just like it’s changing our perception of viewing art.
Benjamin goes on to highlight something specific about the Age of Mechanical Reproduction and that is of the affects of modernity on art in particular. He links film and photography to this belief. He further states that mechanical reproduction of art is devaluing art itself, because it has no character, or ‘aura’ as he puts it. Aura, for Benjamin, signifies the originality and the authenticity of a work of art that has not been reproduced. For example, a painting has an aura, while a photograph does not. This is because the photograph is an image of an image, whereas the painting remains completely original.
Benjamin also discusses his theories on how film is an invasion of reality with mechanical equipment and ultimately destroys the aura of art. I will have to disagree here. Benjamin lived in a time when the world was on the brink of changing, and the mere thought of him not living long enough to experience the change might have scared him into writing this piece and trying to brainwash us into hating technology. Yes, I agree that paintings and other traditional works of art are original and yes, they have their own perfect and distinct aura. But one cannot refuse to acknowledge that even film has its own aura. In today’s world it’s called the ‘cinematic experience.’ I’m sure Benjamin did not think of it in that sense, considering this piece was written in the year 1935 when the films business was just about to bloom.
Benjamin supports his argument with an example. He says that by filming and photographing the mountains, one cannot experience it firsthand as he is looking at the reproduction of, and not the original, mountains. That, according to his argument, is fake and utterly wrong. I agree that the films and photographs of the mountains are not the real mountains, because it is indeed a replica. However, Benjamin is wrong in saying that the films and photographs don’t have their own aura. I believe they do.
Benjamin also goes on to talk about the value of the function of art. He says there are two: cult value, where art is meant to be magical and hidden from the outside world and exhibition value, where modern art forces it to be on public display as means of profit and economy. This is ironic, as this might as well apply to the poets and writers, too. If this were to happen, Benjamin, then there wouldn’t be a single book being sold in the bookstores. Writing is also an art, and if we were to hang on to the cult value of the art forever, then books wouldn’t be in the market. And as far as this goes, Walter Benjamin himself wrote pieces that went on to public display, for the whole world to see, and I believe that when he was published he even received profit from all the hard work and sweat he put into his writing.
Anyway, let’s just stick to his theory on films. Benjamin says that films are mechanical reproductions and they radically separate art from the cult by turning it into an exhibition, which changes the quality of art. I have to disagree here. I don’t think films lack an aura, or that they change the quality of art. I believe they add to the growth and manufacture of art instead of devaluing it.
The image that I chose to back my argument is a movie poster from one of the bestselling movies of all time, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s stone. Even though this was an installment of the book, one cannot forget the experience the film provided them. The book was thrilling, yes, but the movie made the characters come out of the pages and into the screen. The feeling and aura of the film was magical and one cannot refuse to see it. This is called the ‘cinematic experience’ in its full form.
Films are designed and produced to provide the viewer the ‘cinematic experience’ that can be delivered through 3D effects and surround sound. They do, in fact have their own distinct feeling, character and aura. The Harry Potter movies do the same. One is instantly drawn into the film from the first minute till the last. The whole experience was magical, and will be remembered forever, even when the film has ended and people have gone home. Very few films have the power to do that. Another thing that I don’t agree with Benjamin is when he says that filmmakers, people who operate video camera in the film industry, are nothing like the original painters, termed magicians by Benjamin, who illustrated their world through raw talent.
And also, when he states that the film actor does not possess the aura when acting, as it is an imitation, a forgery. This is also not true when applied to films this day. The makers and actors of the film strive to convey through their film something called ‘screen presence’ which is, in fact, their aura.
Take for example, Daniel Day Lewis who won this year’s Oscar for Best Actor, for his outstanding role of Abraham Lincoln in the film Lincoln. He certainly had an aura around him, when he stood up, dressed as the great Abe Lincoln, with the tall black hat and the beard, and acted out the scenes like Abe would have done. To make the aura possible, there was a lot of work done in makeup and costume design. And this concludes why the film actor’s aura cannot be fake, as Benjamin puts it.
All in all, I believe Walter Benjamin’s theories might have proven to be correct in 1935 when he wrote this essay, but does it prove correct in today’s world? Not so much. And that is because technology has been growing by such huge leaps and bounds, that it is hard to make assumptions about it for so long. Was Benjamin correct, after all? Maybe. Maybe not. It depends on you to decide, but I think we all know for sure now that it’s useless to measure the progress and growth of technology as it proves to change and evolve every single day.