‘In principle a work of art has always been reproducible,’ Walter Benjamin writes in his well known essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. The major focus of the essay is concentrated on art that is not just reproducible, but also mechanically reproducible. The quality of reproducing in large quantities an original work of art contributes to its losing what Benjamin calls its ‘aura.’ Aura can be construed as a mythical significance of an original piece of art. Its ‘uniqueness in time and space’ is what makes it sui generis. What happens when art loses its aura? What implications are brought to bear on the art form itself by means of mechanical reproduction? These are some of the questions that Benjamin deals with in his essay. His chief argument is that an art losing its aura is a favourable development. In order to understand this contention, one has to see how art and aura has historically been rooted in tradition. ‘We know that the earliest works originated in the service of a ritual…’ Benjamin writes, explaining how art has been embedded in the fabric of tradition. With the advent of means of mechanical reproduction including photography and films, art has extricated from the yoke of tradition. Art has become independent of ritual. As Benjamin himself writes, ‘for the first time in world history, mechanical reproduction emancipates the work of art from its parasitical dependence on ritual.’ With this thesis, Benjamin goes on to analyse the impact of photography and filming on art, culture and politics.
Whilst Benjamin welcomed the proliferation of reproduction of art especially photography and filming, his fellow Frankfurt school theorists, Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, offered a trenchant critique of the ‘culture industry.’ In the essay ‘The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception’ in the book ‘Dialectics of Enlightenment’ which Adorno and Horkheimer co-authored, the duo explain how the growth of culture industry (alternative terms being, popular culture, pop culture) perpetuates the dominance of one class of society over another. The authors viewed society and culture as forming a single ‘totality.’ Advancement or decadence in one implies the same in the other. A distinction is drawn between ‘genuine’ or ‘autonomous’ art that gives viewers true satisfaction and ‘commodified art’ of meretricious quality that intends to dampen the revolutionary spirit in the masses. The commodification of art by the capitalist class deprives people of their revolutionary spirit and enforces conformity. The path toward fascism is paved by enforcing sameness. In the following excerpt, it is demonstrated how seemingly an innocuous means of communication, like the radio, can be conducive to authoritarianism:
‘The step from telephone to has clearly distinguished the roles. The former liberally permitted the participant to play the role of subject. The latter democratically makes everyone equally into listeners, in order to expose them in authoritarian fashion to the same programs put out by different stations. No mechanism of reply has been developed, and private transmissions are condemned to unfreedom.’
The consequences of mechanical reproduction on art, culture and politics are intertwined and cannot be viewed in isolation. Nonetheless, for the sake of clarity, they will be examined under separate heads in this article.
How Art and Culture Influence Modern Life
The chief bane of the culture industry is that it commodifies art and culture. General notions of art and its purpose such as pleasure, admiration and imagination is replaced with business. The culture industry does not produce art that is focussed on capturing the audience’s imagination but rather on what they will be willing to pay their money for. Practising art for art’s sake falls by the wayside with the rise of commercial art. The burgeoning of commercial art is followed by another crucial development; decline of choices.
When businesses gauge what sort of product sells in the market and what doesn’t, they confine their production to those kinds of products that sell. This profit-driven production makes them averse to risk and the industry ends up producing a plethora of commodities that are not very different from each other. A lack of variety of choices is a major shortcoming of the culture industry. With the lack of choices follows the fascist facet of the culture industry.
Adorno and Horkheimer argue that while the culture industry performs poorly when it comes to offering a range of choices to consumers on its products, they do a good job of putting up a sham of offering alternatives. The charade of choices is so deceptive that the masses are deluded into believing that they have a whole host of alternatives whereas in reality all products are altered versions of the same model. They write:
‘Sharp distinctions like those between A and B films, or between short stories published in magazines in different price segments, do not so much reflect real differences as assist in the classification, organization, and identification of consumers. Something is provided for everyone so that no one can escape; differences are hammered home and propagated.’
But Benjamin is of the opinion that by emancipating art from ritual, artwork has been made democratic. He places particular emphasis on the impact of photography and films. A reproduced work of art is becoming more and more popular among the masses and the original artwork does not retain the hallowed position it used to enjoy earlier. The climax of this trend can be seen in the proliferation of cinema, which is in essence a form of art that does not have any original form. It has come to a point that to speak of the original version of an art is meaningless; because cinema as an art is meant to be reproduced in large quantities; it is an intrinsic aspect of its being.
Consequences for Politics
Before we set out to study the implications of these critiques of culture on politics, it is essential that we understand the historical and political background that shaped their ideas on society. Adorno, Horkheimer, Benjamin and several other thinkers form part of the most prominent abode of critical theorists Frankfurt School. Living through the trauma of the first world war, these thinkers and philosophers wrote prolifically on the society, culture and politics that they were surrounded by. With the eventual demise of the Weimar Republic and the rise of Nazis, the Frankfurt School theorists (of Jewish faith) were impelled to flee Germany. Adorno, Horkheimer and others fled to America, while Benjamin fled to France. The theorists in America settled in New York and wrote sharp critiques of the American society. They believed that the rise of fascism in Italy and Germany were not aberrations but were prompted by intrinsic flaws in the Western society. The society in unfree, fascist countries were not very different that in from free, liberal-democratic countries, they supposed. For good measure, their affinity for Hegel and Marx gave their writings a distinctly Marxist flavour. The borrowed dialectics from Hegel and constantly spoke in terms of revolution, oppression by the bourgeoisie, etc. While the essays by Benjamin, and Adorno and Horkheimer offer alternative perspectives on the impact of mass culture on politics, it is important to remember that these critics belong to the same ideological school.
Art, in Benjamin’s view, can be harboured for revolutionary ends. When masses consume mechanically reproducible art such as films and videography, they perceive it in distraction. That is to say, they internalise what they see and begin to reflect on it and question it critically. Since art is no more related to ritual, masses assume the role of a critic rather than that of a supplicant. The prompting of contemplation among the audience is of huge import; because it also spurs them to question the rules of the society, paving the way for revolutionary conscience. Benjamin discusses distraction and concentration in the following passage:
‘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. In contrast, the distracted mass absorbs the work of art… The distracted person too can form habits. More the ability to master certain tasks in a state of distraction proves that their solution has become a matter of habit. Distraction as provided by art presents a covert control of the extent to which new tasks have become soluble by apperception. Since, moreover, individuals are tempted to avoid such tasks, art will tackle the most difficult and most important ones where it is able to mobilize the masses. Today, it does so in the film. Reception in a state of distraction, which is increasing noticeably in all fields of art and is symptomatic of profound changes in apperception, finds in the film its true means of exercise.’
In the epilogue of his essay, Benjamin discusses the aestheticization of politics. He writes, ‘Fascism sees its salvation in giving these masses not their rights but instead a chance to express themselves. The masses have a right to change property relations; Fascism seeks to give them an expression while preserving property. The logical result of Fascism is the introduction of aesthetics into political life… Communism responds by politicizing art.’
Benjamin’s contention here is that while art has been made democratic by the expansion of mechanical reproduction, the means of production is concentrated in the hands of a few. This paves way for undemocratic regimes to exploit the enormous influence of mass culture for their own benefit. Benjamin had Nazi Germany in mind when he wrote this piece. The Third Reich was exceptionally deft at handling shaping popular culture and using it to its advantage.
The writings of Adorno and Horkheimer largely align with those of Benjamin on this point. They believed that the greatest threat to American democracy lay in mass culture. Even though there was no dictator in place, the existence of conformity- enforcing mass culture creates all the trappings of a fascist state. It mutes dissent and defangs the ability of the populace to think and reflect. By means of what is called mass hypnosis, pop culture absorbs all the attention of the spectator and makes him a participant in his own destruction. It is explained in the following excerpt how the masses succumb to the ‘ideology by which they are enslaved;’
‘Capitalist production hems them in so tightly…that they unresistingly succumb to whatever is proffered to them. However, just as the ruled have always taken the morality dispensed to them by the rulers more seriously than the rulers themselves, the defrauded masses today cling to the myth of success still more ardently than the successful. They too, have their aspirations. They insist unwaveringly on the ideology by which they are enslaved.’
Critical theory, despite its intellectual heft and philosophical profundity, is largely seen as redundant in the present context. Just like the predictions of Marx, their intellectual predecessor, the prognostications of the Frankfurt School theorists have not come to pass. Capitalist economy has spread far and wide and has reached the remotest corners of the world. Similarly, the culture industry has also witnessed a massive expansion across the globe. One of the significant features of the USA’s pre-eminence is the spread and adaptation of its culture in various parts of the world. The exploits of Hollywood are immense and it contributes the lion’s share of America’s ‘soft power.’
However, it would be too soon to write off critical theory as irrelevant. In fact, some of the analysis offered by the Frankfurt School theorists appear more relatable today than it was in their times. The profusion of social media, for instance, has made communication very slick and convenient. But they also seem to enforce conformity in more ways than one. The flaunting of personal pleasures in Whatsapp status, Instagram posts forces an onlooker to do the same. As a result what we see in social media today is a peek into the private lives of multitudes of people. There is not much variety or choice, every post is only slightly different than the other. This acts as an effective ground for politicians to use it to achieve their own ends. No wonder the most followed Twitter handles in the world are those of politicians.
Critical theory has become especially relevant over the past decade with the sprouting of autocratic leaders in every corner of the globe. The neo-authoritarian leaders in the present day have risen to power through democratic elections, to boot. This is in accord with Adorno’s hunch that even though western liberal democracies were not ruled by dictators, they had the makings of a fascist state. A large chunk of ideological propaganda is spread through social media, an indispensable part of culture industry these days.
Colonization of citizens’ private lives forms a significant part of the fascist agenda. Culture industry is used as an effective means to subtly creep into private lives and under the garb of entertainment defang the revolutionary spirit in the audience.
-Prasanna Aditya (Freelancer)
Picture: Walter Benjamin (Credits – newrepublic.com / Gisèle Freund)