How Mechanical Reproduction Has Transformed Art

In Walter Benjamin’s 1935 work on ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’, he begins his essay by trying to define the word ‘art’. According to him, the meaning of ‘art’ is flexible, varying in reaction to the historical environment of its manufacture, supply and function. He bases his work on the modern technologically influenced art work and its political implications. Previously, before inventions like lithography, film making, photography and sound recording, any work of art was a unique object that could only be viewed and appreciated by those who were willing to make pilgrimage to the location where the art objects were found.

According to Benjamin, the artwork had an aura; which was the distance between the observer and the artwork that made the observer curious enough to pursue the artwork through meditation, but still not understand the meaning of the piece of art. The characteristic of the artwork or what it simplified was therefore only known by the creator of the piece of work himself. Art in the early ages was therefore viewed as cult; and those who appreciated it, did so as a form of worship. The artists were seen as geniuses.

Eugenie Tsai (May 2003) on the other hand explains that before the age of museums, shops full of colored postcards, colored plates and books, aspiring artists who wished to have a reminder of their artwork had to resort to copying. They made copies by hand in order to retain the original look of their pieces of art. Introduction of museum made it possible for art students to exhibit their paintings and sculptors publicly. At the same time, photography made it possible for mass distribution of art objects round the world, making it obsolete to create copies manually.

Walter Benjamin discusses the impact of mechanical reproduction on illustration culture, weighing the gain in public accessibility in opposition to the loss of what he terms as the ‘aura’ of the original. Contrary to traditional way of accessing artwork, Benjamin explains how in modern times, art is produced mechanically through images, sound recordings and films. In fact, in the sphere of production, photography and films are very vital in retaining the natural artwork in its copies.
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