By Kathleen Meek
In Walter Benjamin’s essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Benjamin discusses the change that has taken place in art since the invention of mechanical reproduction and the way this change has affected society’s interaction with art. Benjamin states that the mechanical reproduction of works of art has caused a “decay of the aura” of these works to ensue (Benjamin III). By “decay of the aura,” Benjamin is not solely focusing on a negative loss of sacredness associated with that work, though he admits this may be a result as well; rather, he is concerned with the evolution of art from an elitist form which centered around a ritual function to a medium in which all people can both express themselves and enjoy in a purely aesthetic manner. In order for this evolution to happen, the old forms and constraints for art must break down and make way for new ways of thinking to take their place; mechanical reproduction is the technical element which allowed this transition of thought and form to occur.
Benjamin argues that, originally, art had a “unique existence…in time and space”(II). Even if reproductions were made from original art forms, the quality of those reproductions was such so that the original was always identifiable and retained its “authority” over the copies (II). With the invention of mechanical reproduction, however, the line between original and copy became blurry. In fact, in some cases, such as photography, there is no distinction at all between an “original” and a “copy”: all of the prints may be thought of either as originals or as copies, but one print does not have any authority over another. The loss of a “unique existence” for a work of art is part of the decay of the aura for that piece of art.
It is this duplication of art, however, which allows art to be freed from its foundation in ritual and transformed into “pure” art (IV). Benjamin wrote that “for the first time in world history, mechanical reproduction emancipates the work of art from its parasitical dependence on ritual” (IV). Art in previous times was, in fact, made for a purpose: kings and queens commissioned portraits to hang next to the portraits of their ancestors; altar pieces were painted to relay Bible stories to the illiterate congregation; idols were cast for people to worship. The ability to mechanically produce and reproduce art ushered in a new age in which art is made for art’s sake. As Benjamin points out, “much futile thought had been devoted to the question of whether photography is an art. The primary question—whether the very invention of photography had not transformed the entire nature of art—was not raised” (VII). Photographers broke free from the old constraints and made work that they personally wanted to make. Other artists followed their lead and this notion of creating art either strictly for personal or for exhibitive reasons flourished, as evidenced by the art movements of the early 20th century.
No longer were artists under the constraints of realism. Up until that point, duplicating reality as closely as possible was the main goal of most artists. Now that photography could capture reality with perfection greater than the paintbrush ever could, painters were left to explore other realms. For example, futurists were fascinated by the very movement in the world around them and attempted to convey this through their pieces, while artists like Rothko attempted to capture a personal feeling of the sublime on a canvas.
These changes in art were made possible because there was a change in thought. With the arrival of mechanical reproduction and the subsequent loss of a work of art’s unique place in history, art was torn from its original ritualistic purposes. People were not as intimidated by art and began to endow it with their own personal meanings. This evolution in the way art was treated and viewed epitomizes what Benjamin means by “decay of the aura.” It is the breakdown of the old modes of thinking of art as unique in time and space that allow people to close the gap between themselves and art.
The gap has been closed. Reproductions of famous works of art proliferate in modern society. These works include many pieces that formerly would not have been accessible to the average person. The frescoes of Fra Angelico in a small monastery in Florence may have been only known to people in verbal descriptions were it not for mechanical reproduction. Now, though, students may study these paintings in class and even compare them to frescoes of Cimabue or Giotto, side by side on the same screen. While these projections do not contain the history and singularity of the originals, they do allow the common person access to art that is on the other side of the world. Furthermore, when an art lover can hang a print of Van Gogh’s wheat fields in her living room, the gap between people and art decreases. These two examples demonstrate how making art accessible is a positive result of the decay of the aura that Benjamin advocated.
This “decay of the aura” is still very relevant in current times: people continue to draw works of art closer and closer to themselves, thus continuing the break-down of art’s former elitist standing and helping it evolve into a medium that everyone can approach. People continue to enjoy the accessibility of art in the aforementioned ways, but they are not satisfied with even this level of access: they strive to not only bring art closer to themselves, but to own it, control it, and create it. Benjamin describes this desire when he says, “Every day the urge grows stronger to get hold of an object at very close range by way of its likeness, its reproduction”(III). The decay of the aura of film is an example of this craving for ownership. Benjamin argues that film already displays a decay of aura because a story is being seen through the perspective of the camera. But the true evolution of society’s interaction with film can best be seen outside of the film itself. First, people want to own their very own copy of a movie. Seeing it once in theaters or renting it is not sufficient; when people truly like a movie, they want their own copy to watch whenever they choose. This is an even higher level of accessibility: for people to decide when, where, and how they want to view this form of art.
This does not stop with watching the movies. People continue to break down the aura and bring the movie closer to themselves by gaining control over the characters’ actions: enter the videogame. Videogames are the ultimate evolution of control. Action figures of movie characters represent almost the same thing for earlier generations, but videogames are even closer to the experience the movie provides. The story and plot line are already defined for the user, and each person can easily become part of this fantasy world just by picking up a controller. The user is no longer watching someone else’s action on-screen; they are now dictating the action and becoming the characters themselves. Even the name “user” instead of “viewer” indicates this change in role.
This evolution of art form is at the crux of Benjamin’s argument. When Benjamin discusses film, he does so to point out that it was a new breed of art, one that, at the time, had not yet been recognized as art. Now, videogames are undergoing a similar struggle in order to attain recognition as a form of art. The detailed graphics and intricate storylines in today’s videogames far exceed the simplistic arcade games of an earlier generation. Teams of “game designers” act as artists, creating the “look” of the game. They develop the story and the characters. Then more traditionally trained artists conceptualize the characters and the “world” of the game, translating dragons, warriors, and magical forests from their imaginations into a visual reality. Videogames are beginning to find their place in the art world, and are changing perceptions of art, just like photography did a century ago.
As Benjamin stated, “every art form shows critical epochs in which a certain art form aspires to effects which could be fully obtained only with a changed technical standard, that is to say, a new art form”(XIII). That new technical standard has arrived in the video game arena, and games are utilizing this new technology to continue to push the line of what is categorized as “art.” At first glance it is only a game, but the use of this medium to create an entirely new dimension of reality and a new way to interact with the world, shows it to be a form of art. But such an evolution also hinges on the role of the viewer. Today’s society has managed not only to continue the decay of the aura of art by bringing art ever closer through mechanical reproductions, but has succeeded in completely destroying the distance between itself and art by going beyond the role of “viewer.” With the “viewer” now taking a more active role in the use of art, the “distinction between author and public [has lost] its basic character”(X). And with that transition, the viewer has become the user, the controller, and the creator of art.