Meeting the Recipient Halfway (425)

“The cathedral leaves its site to be received in the studio of an art lover…” (Benjamin 22).

The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility (2nd version) by Walter Benjamin

Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2005.

10 groups: 8 of 4, 2 of 3.


We open with an invocation of Marx, who predicted that capitalism not only proletarianizes increasing numbers of people, but that it ultimately produces the conditions for its own demise.

Next WB raises the issue of superstructure and base, an architectural metaphor that imagines capitalist society as a kind of building. Material conditions— the forces and relations of production— are the foundation. “Ideal” forms— values, cultural practices, even the legal system, etc.— are the “superstructure” or upper stories. Many people take issue with this critical analogy, arguing that it oversimplifies the way that economy and society relate. As a dialectician, however, WB believes that base doesn’t simply determine superstructure, but that superstructure shapes base.

One core claim by WB: art can change the world. Cultural practice can be a form of political struggle. We should take this claim with a grain of salt even as we acknowledge its value. There seem to be a lot of peopleready to claim that their activity on social media constitutes a concrete political act.

One of the things WB wants to do is to drive a stake through the heart of bourgeois art criticism, which uses mystifying concepts that have become part of the arsenal of fascist politics. It’s at this point that you might begin to notice some very compelling parallels between WB’s moment (1930s German) and our own. This is not to say that they are the say. Simply that they seem to rhyme a bit.


“Art has always been reproducible,” WB asserts, giving a series of examples. In what ways has this been the case? What were the social effects of these forms of reproduction? What does the acceleration of the reproduction process mean? Increasing speed (of transportation, of communication, of the rhythms of life) is a general tendency of capitalist modernity. What does the new “standard” of reproduction mean for “traditional” art?


In this section WB first raises the concept of the “aura”. Reproduction seems to imply the absence of the original, its distance in time and space. The original’s authenticity depends on its presence as a material entity subject to the verification of its ownership and provenance. While a handmade copy does not affect the original’s authenticity, technological reproduction does. Why? 1) We can alter our perception of the original using tech methods such as enlargement, etc. 2) Tech. copies can be placed in contexts that the original can’t. Photographed, the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, for example, can be experienced thousands of miles away.

These developments subvert the presence of the original and thus its authenticity. Note WB’s definition of this keyword. The copy undermines the original’s historical specificity, and thus its link to a broader tradition. Tech. reproducibility “withers” the work of art’s aura. The artwork’s singular existence becomes plural; it is relocated in space. What does the Mona Lisa mean if I can see it online, on my coffee cup, as a tattoo on somebody’s arm? Note: this is related to the dialectical method of quantity transforming quality.

Crucially, WB wants to link these changes to the political situation of his time.


Mode of existence (material) shapes mode of perception (ideal).
Ways of seeing are social.

The decay of the aura is changing our mode of perception.

What is the social causation of that auratic decay?

What is an aura? See p. 23. Note the metaphor. What kind is it?

The decay. Two circumstances which are linked to mass movements. Masses want to get closer  to things. Precision of CGI for example. Better techs for seeing/representing. Gaming, etc. Our ability to grasp what we are viewing, to manipulate reproductions and submit them to our gaze is part of a totalizing tendency


The artwork is unique insofar as it is embeded in the context of traditiion. WB’s example: the statue of Venus. In Ancient Greece it is an object of veneration. In Medieval Europe it is a false idol. Singular, part of a tradition, it has aura.

Ritual function leads to secularized ritual. Art for art sake.


As cult value declines exhibition value increases.

Change in quantity leads to a change in quality.