Walter Benjamin- The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility

Walter Benjamin wrote “The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility” during his years of exile in France from Nazi Germany. Benjamin was deeply affected by the extremely politically tumultuous situation in France. Therefore, it is only inevitable that as a response to the political turmoil he experienced and suffered, he would envision the work of art in his ongoing projects as an active political instrument. He worked on the essay from 1935 to 1939 and produced three versions. The fact that Benjamin persistently reworked the essay indicates that he was constantly analysing and re-analysing the political potential of contemporary art forms.

Benjamin begins the essay with Marx’s prognostications about capitalism. He writes that according to Marx capitalism would not only cause ruthless exploitation of the proletariat, it would also lead to the generation of conditions which would ultimately cause its own destruction. Benjamin feels that the change in the mode of production demands the formulation of new theses which would outline the propensities behind the creation of art in the transformed economic environment. The new theses of art would render fascism dysfunctional because it would diminish the importance of creativity and genius, eternal value and mystery, concepts traditionally associated with the work of art. These are the very concepts which if applied in an unrestrained manner may leave factual material susceptible to manipulation by fascism (20).

Benjamin admits that the work of art has always been reproducible. But the technological reproduction of art is something new and different (20). Benjamin identified two major manifestations of the technological reproduction of art. The first is the reproduction of any form of art using modern technological mechanisms (like photography) which profoundly affects the authenticity of the original work of art. The second is the process of technological reproduction itself as a work of art, such as the art of film (21).

Benjamin explains that the technological modes of reproduction obliterates the mark of authenticity from the work of art. Yet it is different from replicas made with hand, which are usually considered as counterfeit copies. Firstly, technological reproduction often emphasizes aspects of works of art which might not otherwise be accessible to the human senses (such as the finer details of an architecture captured in a photograph). Benjamin gives the example of films where the camera reveals what he terms as the “optical unconscious” which might usually remain beyond the reach of normal sense perceptions (37). Secondly, it can also spread the copy of the original in locations which would be unreachable by the original (for example, the recording of a musical concert can easily be circulated beyond the auditorium) (21-22). Technological reproduction often produces copies of the work of art which outlive the original work of art, thus making the physical lifespan of the actual work largely irrelevant. Benjamin perceives this as a devaluation of the “here and now” of the artwork by technological reproduction, which he terms as the decaying of the aura of the work of art. As numerous copies of the artwork are made, the unique existence of the original piece of work is overwritten by the mass existence of its innumerable replicas. Benjamin defines the aura as “a strange tissue of space and time: the unique apparition of a distance, however near it may be” (23). The original work of art is marked by tradition, heritage, permanence, and uniqueness which contribute to the constitution of its aura. As opposed to this, the replica is characterized by its transitoriness and repeatability (23).

Benjamin notes that the unique value of the authentic work of art originates in ritual practices. But technological reproduction liberates the work of art from its subservience to ritual roots as making replicas in a secular setting now becomes one of the purposes behind the creation of art. Once the work of art is detached from its ritualistic roots, its social function is immediately redirected towards political goals (24-25). It is no longer defined by its ritualistic cult value, rather its exhibition value becomes its dominant feature (27).

Film, Benjamin points out, is the work of art which is identified as such entirely by its reproducibility (28). He contrasts films with Classical Greek art, such as sculptures, the technological mode of production of which did not allow for much future modifications to be executed. Therefore, the Greeks were left with little choice but to attempt to create eternal value in a single piece of art (27). As opposed to this, the technology used in making films allows the artist to make numerous modifications and improvements over time. Therefore filmmaking does not undergo the compulsion of generating eternal value (28).

For Benjamin, the most striking feature of a film is not that it replicates everyday life, but that the actor has to perform in front of a mechanical apparatus. The actor’s performance in the studio is captured by the mechanical apparatus and is replicated across multiple screens. Such replication dissolves the aura of the performance that the actor originally delivers in the studio (31).

Benjamin then goes on to distinguish between the art lover and the mass audience. The art lover closely observes the work of art in order to appreciate its innate aesthetic value. But the mass approaches art in order to seek distraction or entertainment. The art lover is thus absorbed by the work of art. On the contrary, in case of the masses, the work of art is assimilated in the mass audience (39-40). Once it is incorporated among the masses the work of art acts as an instrument of political mobilization (41).


Benjamin’s concept of the dissolution of the aura is especially relevant for born-digital material. Works of art which originate on the digital platform are inherently replicable across various screens and devices. The distinction between an original and a copy is not tenable in this case. Whenever the work will be viewed on a device it would simultaneously stand as an original and a replica. The inability to cast a retrospective glance towards an original renders such works almost devoid of a past and makes them rooted in the present. Such works can only look forward to the future when they will be viewed over and over again on a digital screen.

It has been noted by Benjamin that the technological mode of production of the work art provides opportunities for modifications and improvements. Works of art on a digital platform can be modified whenever required. They are thus in a state of perpetual mutability. Therefore, instead of eternal beauty such works are characterized by eternal instability.


Benjamin identifies the political potential of films in the context where they would be viewed collectively by the mass in a theatre. He states that in a movie theatre the reaction of the individual viewer is regulated by the type of reception generated in the mass. He draws a contrast between a film and a painting in this respect where he states that the painting is largely designed to be viewed a single person or a few. Such a distinction between the modes of viewing a film and a painting is no longer true as a consequence of modern technological innovations. Presently it is possible to watch a film privately on a laptop in the solitude of one’s bedroom. How then does private viewing create an impact on the mass appeal/reception of film? How does it change the political functioning of film?

Work Cited
Walter Benjamin. “The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility: Second Version.” Translated by Edmund Jephcott and Harry Zohn. In The Work of art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility, and Other Writings on Media. Edited by Michael W. Jennings, Brigid Doherty, and Thomas Y. Levin. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2008. 19-55.