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Art and Photography: mimesis and aura.


Walter Benjamin, c. 1938
photo by Gisèle Freund

The mimetic relationship that photography establishes with painting, drawing and printmaking , the attempt to "elevate" photography to the dignity and the cultural status of the established art forms of tradition, correspond to the initial phase of emergence of both a new technology of the image and a new visual practice.

Photography relationship with the established system of the arts was indeed from the beginning a source of cultural anxiety and insecurity. Anxiety that we can understand as the manifestation of an obscure intuition that the invention of photography brought about radical changes not just in image production and in our uses of images, but also changes in our understanding of images, and consequently, in our understanding of ourselves.

The total impact of this new form of vision in the system of the visual arts and in the larger field and forms of the visual culture of the modern world would be fully recognized later. Seminal to the understanding of how photography affected deeply some our most fundamental aesthetic concepts and the very foundations of our historically constructed relationship with the work of art is the celebrated essay of Walter Benjamin "The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction" (1936).

When the work of art becomes an object of photography, rather than simply its "paradigm", the art image is transformed into a new kind of image, that is, altered in its very nature and in its "artistic essence". The change in the artistic image alters the art object , whose "objectivity" will be understood from now on as its capacity to be reproduced. The mechanical reproduction, in contrast to the manual copy of works of art in the past, has the power to change the original , that is, to extract and to extricate it from from the historically given contexts of reception (and production) and project it into new historical grounds. Our relationship with the work of art is radically altered by the new type of work created by photography and the new image of art that it generates, which can no longer be made to conform to old categories and defunct forms.

Below is a quote from Benjamin´s essay on the impact of the mechanical reproduction of art.

Marcelo G. Lima

Walter Benjamin
at the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris, 1932
photo by Gisèle Freund


"The uniqueness of a work of art is inseparable from its being embedded in the fabric of tradition. This tradition itself is thoroughly alive and extremely changeable. An ancient statue of Venus, for example, stood in a different traditional context with the Greeks, who made it an object of veneration, than with the clerics of the Middle Ages, who viewed it as an ominous idol. Both of them, however, were equally confronted with its uniqueness, that is, its aura. Originally the contextual integration of art in tradition found its expression in the cult. We know that the earliest art works originated in the service of a ritual – first the magical, then the religious kind. It is significant that the existence of the work of art with reference to its aura is never entirely separated from its ritual function. In other words, the unique value of the “authentic” work of art has its basis in ritual, the location of its original use value. This ritualistic basis, however remote, is still recognizable as secularized ritual even in the most profane forms of the cult of beauty. The secular cult of beauty, developed during the Renaissance and prevailing for three centuries, clearly showed that ritualistic basis in its decline and the first deep crisis which befell it. With the advent of the first truly revolutionary means of reproduction, photography, simultaneously with the rise of socialism, art sensed the approaching crisis which has become evident a century later. At the time, art reacted with the doctrine of l’art pour l’art, that is, with a theology of art. This gave rise to what might be called a negative theology in the form of the idea of “pure” art, which not only denied any social function of art but also any categorizing by subject matter. (In poetry, Mallarme was the first to take this position.)

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. To an ever greater degree the work of art reproduced becomes the work of art designed for reproducibility. From a photographic negative, for example, one can make any number of prints; to ask for the “authentic” print makes no sense. But the instant the criterion of authenticity ceases to be applicable to artistic production, the total function of art is reversed. Instead of being based on ritual, it begins to be based on another practice – politics."

Walter Benjamin - The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (1936)


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Anonymous said…
Very helpful thank you.

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