Walter Benjamin’s two pieces of analysis, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction and Little History of Photography, appear to be arguing for the utility of new forms of technology as well as stimulating new investigations into the intersection of technology and art. The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction dives even handedly into an investigation of how photography and film are slowly usurping the roles of painting and still life. In terms of devaluation, photography and especially film is taking the foundations of culture and turning them into caricatures; turning them into cheap hollow versions of real life and therefore advocating for modern technology.
Embracing technology is inevitable lest a work of art is termed out dated. It is for this reason that art is embracing technology and photography for that matter. Mass media of our current day can be caught doing this, with TV series such as Ugly Betty exemplifying the meanness of individuals towards anyone that doesn’t belong to the “in crowd” or in other words seems to be socially. We can easily put into perspective the social crisis that mechanical art created: how can we balance artistic expression and the ability to share our art with as many people as possible? Photography comes to the forefront as the main way to do this technology definitely solves this puzzle.
This is what also serves to dumb down our culture according the Benjamin in the sense that art becomes the representation of an agenda imposed upon the sublime invoking art put before the public. In a way, this could be said to be one of the roots of our current consumer culture. Photography, as the Little History of Photography mentioned, has a way of making the world smaller and bringing it closer to the individual. That same feeling of being able to smell photographed food or touch the cheek of a photographed person can be the difference between a successful ad campaign and a failed re-election. The Art in a Mechanical Age piece further delves into this crisis of photography: how can one use such a medium artistically without losing the essence of art, which is to capture the essence and meaning behind things portrayed? If all photography can do is replicate real life out of context i.e. without the aura of the subject, how can it be useful at all to the artist?
While the article concerning Art in a Mechanical Age offers no real resolution to this question, the piece Little History of Photography does pose at partial answer to this question. When mediums such as film or photography are used for art, they offer the chance to make a narrative or at least an inscription as Benjamin would say to create some form of meaning. Each picture becomes the artist’s perspective of the world, their philosophy about life as Benjamin identified it. Paintings of the Mona Lisa are subtly replaced by a single tear building upon the eyelashes of a woman. Alternatively, the cultural associations with say a can of Campbell’s soup is shifted into something bizarre by people like Jackson Pollock if he were a photographer. This ability to use mechanical means of reproducing the physical world as either art or agenda is the central focus of both pieces.
Film, movies and television, allows the viewer to take on an entirely different life in an unsettling way. We can easily become wrapped up in the life of the imperfect Piper from Orange is the New Black, who swings from one moral pole to another in order to cope with the particular pressures of the moment, as easily as we can revile the monsters that threaten the world in Japanese anime series. This ability to slip into other worlds where other people are living through other circumstances making other choices seemingly oblivious to our observant eye is at the heart of the Surrealist movement’s effects that Benjamin mentions. These new forms of mechanical art become gateways into new fascinating previously un-accessed worlds.
In a very real way, the questions of adaptation that Benjamin dealt with are the very ones we are living through today. I would argue that the intersection of technology and art can be a powerful agent of good when used properly. Photography can be used for more than capturing second stills for scientific inquiry or posed postures for political agendas as well as the essence things it touches. Photography as art can bring forward everything the great poets and sculptors aimed for but fell short accomplishing when done intelligently and tastefully. Movies such as Star Wars and televisions such as Star Trek take their roots in past forms of art as well as cultural reflection while presenting all of the reflections in a storyline that makes the teachings harmless yet powerful.
As a side note, several scientists have confirmed that faster than light travel is possible. Furthermore, Japan’s world renowned anime is founded in the idea of cultural analysis and reflection. The theme of apocalyptic cataclysm and struggling to survive in a ravaged world comes directly from their cultural memory of the bombings both Hiroshima and Nagasaki received at the hands of the USA. Something that a painting for a sculpture couldn’t hope to capture and something that a book or a photograph can only catch a part of can be fully portrayed in a visual medium. In these ways and many more, the intersection of mechanical reproduction of life devoid of the religious and social stigmatism can help enrich all culture.
Benjamin, Walter. The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. PDF File
Benjamin, Walter. Little History of Photography. PDF File