Topic: Notes on Walter Benjamin - Das Kunstwerk...

I have reread the benjamin essay and noted some basic quotes Andy arguments which i find useful for us. Generally speaking benjamin or rather this essay by him is a founding text for aesthetic of reception. This is actually not surprising because Benjamins materialist approach to art must absolutely result in a historical view on perception. He stated so himself, calling the essay the „erste Kunsttheorie des Materialismus, die diesen Namen verdient.“

the materialist proposition is: „During long periods of history, the mode of human sense perception changes with humanity’s entire mode of existence.“ (III)


We could paraphrase: historical conditions define the situations art works and beholders find themselves in and the mode of human sense perception. Both – situation and sense perception – influence each other reciprocally.


In this text Benjamin researches conditions of perception and not art works: reproduction, presentation, context, social conditions, spaces, media.


His main focus is not so much the technical reproduction as the masses. The question of the masses is the most important one for the german marxist thinkers of the period like Canetti (Masse und Macht) or Krakauer. If you loook at german fascism, it becomes very evident why and how this was the main issue of concern. Benjamin positions his text as an effort in fighting back the nazi aesthetics and politics.


The greatly increased mass of participants has produced a change in the mode of participation.” (XV)


If the masses are the main historical agent, aesthetics have to be thought in reference to the masses as well. How do the masses change reception? What kind of art will survive in a society of mass media and mass culture? These are the main questions for Benjamin.


In thinking about situations of encounter, the materiality is central. Benjamin speaks of the history of the art work as the changes and conditions of its material existence: ownership, decay, usage etc.


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. This includes the changes which it may have suffered in physical condition over the years as well as the various changes in its ownership.“ (II)


This of course determines the history of situations of this art work.


Historically the art work has emancipated from the cult and reproduction is crucial in this development. The cult object is unreproducable. The more reproduction, the more exhibition opportunities:


An analysis of art in the age of mechanical reproduction must do justice to these relationships, for they lead us to an all-important insight: for the first time in world history, mechanical reproduction emancipates the work of art from its parasitical dependence on ritual.” (IV)


With the emancipation of the various art practices from ritual go increasing opportunities for the exhibition of their products.“ (V)


This is particularly evident in photography:


The cult of remembrance of loved ones, absent or dead, offers a last refuge for the cult value of the picture. For the last time the aura emanates from the early photographs in the fleeting expression of a human face. This is what constitutes their melancholy, incomparable beauty. But as man withdraws from the photographic image, the exhibition value for the first time shows its superiority to the ritual value.” (VI)


Under the conditions of the masses the question of exhibitability and therefore the potential of the art genres changes drastically:


Painting simply is in no position to present an object for simultaneous collective experience, as it was possible for architecture at all times, for the epic poem in the past, and for the movie today. Although this circumstance in itself should not lead one to conclusions about the social role of painting, it does constitute a serious threat as soon as painting, under special conditions and, as it were, against its nature, is confronted directly by the masses. In the churches and monasteries of the Middle Ages and at the princely courts up to the end of the eighteenth century, a collective reception of paintings did not occur simultaneously, but by graduated and hierarchized mediation. The change that has come about is an expression of the particular conflict in which painting was implicated by the mechanical reproducibility of paintings. Although paintings began to be publicly exhibited in galleries and salons, there was no way for the masses to organize and control themselves in their reception. Thus the same public which responds in a progressive manner toward a grotesque film is bound to respond in a reactionary manner to surrealism.” (XII)


Benjamin defines two modes of perception very schematically: contemplation and distraction. And he explains them socially and historically:


In the decline of middle-class society, contemplation became a school for asocial behavior; it was countered by distraction as a variant of social conduct.” (XIV)


The prime example of an art practice that would break with the bourgeois contemplation is Dadaism, which Benjamin says, premeditated the film aesthetic:


From an alluring appearance or persuasive structure of sound the work of art of the Dadaists became an instrument of ballistics. It hit the spectator like a bullet, it happened to him, thus acquiring a tactile quality. It promoted a demand for the film, the distracting element of which is also primarily tactile, being based on changes of place and focus which periodically assail the spectator. Let us compare the screen on which a film unfolds with the canvas of a painting. The painting invites the spectator to contemplation; before it the spectator can abandon himself to his associations. Before the movie frame he cannot do so.” (XIV)


I find Benjamin's spatial terminology useful. To my mind our research always leads towards spatial categories and terminologies. In this case it is the notion of “hitting the spectator”, “standing before” and “assailing”. These metaphors are used repeatedly in the text. For example:


The magician heals a sick person by the laying on of hands; the surgeon cuts into the patient’s body. The magician maintains the natural distance between the patient and himself; though he reduces it very slightly by the laying on of hands, he greatly increases it by virtue of his authority. The surgeon does exactly the reverse; he greatly diminishes the distance between himself and the patient by penetrating into the patient’s body, and increases it but little by the caution with which his hand moves among the organs. In short, in contrast to the magician – who is still hidden in the medical practitioner – the surgeon at the decisive moment abstains from facing the patient man to man; rather, it is through the operation that he penetrates into him.


Magician and surgeon compare to painter and cameraman. The painter maintains in his work a natural distance from reality, the cameraman penetrates deeply into its web. There is a tremendous difference between the pictures they obtain.“ (XI)

The most striking passage for me is this one:


Distraction and concentration form polar opposites which may be stated as follows: A man who concentrates before a work of art is absorbed by it. He enters into this work of art the way legend tells of the Chinese painter when he viewed his finished painting. In contrast, the distracted mass absorbs the work of art.” (XV)


Two things are interesting here:


The Chinese painter was called Wu Daozi and he is one of the three art heroes in far eastern art history. There is a whole taoist philosophy behind the idea of walking into the picture. The story concludes with the painting – actually a mural! - disappearing once Wu walked into it. So there remains nothing to be seen, which is an image for the Dao, a taoist term for the wholeness of nature and man, if i understood it right. The legend was also retold by Bela Balasz in his book on film, interestingly he used it to explain the film aesthetic while Bejamin uses it to illustrate the opposite, the old mode of perception.


Secondly the idea of the masses absorbing the art work. What does this mean precisely? I think it is a bit of a poetic picture, rather than an acute analysis, but fascinating all the same. What is the place of the art work here, how does Benjamin imagine mass perception? He refers to architecture and tactile perception. But can we imagine a perception of art works, that functions like that of architecture, that is completely passing and tactile?