How exactly do technological changes in the production of artworks alter aesthetic perception, according to Benjamin?
Walter Benjamin begins by outlining the centrality of art; that is, it has always been reproducible as replicas can be made but with different intentions or motivating factors. While this is true, technological progress has introduced a new aspect to the reproducibility of art as it has accelerated the ease and rate at which works of art are reproduced (Leitch 1167-1168). That being said, it is worth noting that although art has been reproduced, the reproduction will usually lack a unique existence because of its presence in time and place. Nonetheless, the existence of the original serves as the prerequisite to the authenticity of a work of art. In this regard, even reproductions were perceived against the original works of art from which they are derived.
This goes on to show that human perception changes by historical circumstances almost as much as how it is determined by nature. Here, Benjamin invokes the concept of aura which is described as the unique occurrence of a distance. In line with this, technological changes in the production of works of art has led to a decay in the aura of this works in the attempt of the contemporary society to bring things closer both spatially and humanly which is hinged upon the disappearance of the uniqueness and permanence of the works of art (Leitch 1170-1171). This has resulted in the adjustment of reality to fit the society and of the society to fit the change in reality. To this, it is outlined that the uniqueness of a work of art is tied to its being entrenched within a tradition. In line with this, the existence of art has usually borne reference to a ritual function which serves as its aura (Leitch 1171). As such, the location, both in time and place, for a piece of art serves as a unique identifier of its authenticity on the grounds of its ritual function.
Therefore, with the development of technology and by extension mechanical reproduction, especially through photography, human perception has changed from the focus on the art’s ritual function, which outlines its authenticity. This has led to the loss of the relationship to its rituality; as such, art is largely perceived in terms of its reproducibility. Since the standard of authenticity does not make sense to a work of art, another criterion is developed where art is now based on social aspects and practices such as politics (Leitch 1172). Therefore, pieces of art are not perceived based on their existence within time and place, but they are perceived based on their exhibition value or cult value. This is because technological progress has made works of art closer to humans as it is reproduced in broadcast and print media. Nevertheless, the cult value can only be preserved if a piece of art remains hidden.
However, with photographs becoming the standard for historical occurrences conferring them a hidden political meaning, the exhibition value continually displaces the cult value. This is also because it is easier and much quicker to capture a moment in a photograph compared to painting it. Thus, the audience will usually identify with the camera as opposed to the creator of the work of art, whereas the creator presents a piece of work to the camera and not to the audience which results in the vanishing of the aura (Leitch 1175). Consequently, mechanical reproduction serves the purpose of changing the reaction of an audience to art. That is, the reactionary attitude is replaced with a progressive reaction characterized by the direct and close fusion of emotional and visual enjoyment (Leitch 1181).
How do Horkheimer and Adorno’s beliefs about the influence of technologically reproduced mass art on the individual and society compare and contrast with those of Benjamin?
Horkheimer and Adorno approach the issue of mass art as an outcome of capitalism, which has resulted in the globalization of all aspects of culture. In line with this, they outlined that movies and radio are not peddlers of art but businesses that embrace the ideology of art to justify their content (Leitch 1224). To some extent, this bears similarity to the deduction made by Benjamin in that, art in the present day has succeeded in displacing the cult value in favor of the exhibition value. The reproduction process stimulated by capitalism has resulted in a situation where movies and radio disseminate versions of art that are in line with the social utility of art in the present day, that is, emotional and visual enjoyment. Therefore, pieces of art are made from the perspective of the consumers where they are based on their needs and not the intention of a creator.
Also, while Benjamin outlines that the existence of the original serves as the prerequisite to the authenticity of a work of art. Horkheimer and Adorno use this perception but not to describe that present-day art has lost its aura. Instead, the two outlines that present-day works of art are redefining the art industry by grounding depictions in traditional styles of art. In this regard, while art in the conventional days served as a depiction of reality then, the same can be said about art in the present day (Leitch 1226). By being tweaked to meet the needs of the consumers, it has inadvertently and intentionally become a representation of reality. Moreover, the genuineness of a style of art today is based on a domination-subjugation system. That is, technologically produced mass art takes on the idea of true generality in that, they borrow from traditional styles of art on the basis of the one or a combination that can result in the fulfillment of the aesthetic derivatives (Leitch 1228). In line with this, they outline that art is also an ideology where style is inherently a promise. Therefore, a style is invoked on the promise that it will be in a position to create a truth that can reshare the conventional social forms. As such, it is this attribute that makes it possible to transcend reality hence the relationship between style and the notion of true generality.
What kind of influence does the capitalist mass production of artworks like films, television shows, webcasts, and/or popular music in our times—which is on a much larger, global scale as compared with Benjamin’s, Horkheimer’s, and Adorno’s era—have on the individual and the larger society?
As outlined by Horkheimer and Adorno, individuality is largely an illusion on two accounts. The first one is that capitalization has brought about a standardized means of production. The other one is that individuality is only tolerated as long as it identifies wholly with the resultant generality (Leitch 1226). In line with this, the fulfillment of aesthetic derivatives of mass art is presented as a broken promise to cause aesthetic sublimation to serve as an escape from an equally mechanized reality (Leitch 1231-1233). In this regard, these aesthetic sublimations or art derivatives are vague and noncommittal making them unverifiable granting capitalist mass production of artworks some degree of domination where it serves as an unchallenged prophet of the prevailing order (Leitch 1234). As such, the society accepts the suffering it has resulted in while an individual accepts there are helpless in the system and that mass art serves as the means. Therefore, as opposed to concealing the suffering, it is made necessary resulting in a situation where mass culture and society meet whereby, as opposed to doing away with the tragedy, it is recorded and planned for hence the adoptions of art (Leitch 1235).
Leitch, Vincent B. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism . New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2001.
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