Title: "Art, War and Fascism," in "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction"

Author: Walter Benjamin

Date: 1936

Summary By: Kate


I will start this summary with a brief overview of the trend of the entire essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” and then end it with the subsection that we had to read for class, which Lemert calls “Art, War and Fascism,” which was originally the epilogue to the longer piece.

“The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”
Benjamin tries to analyze what the impact has been on society of the ability to mechanically reproduce art, either through prints, photography, and film. He is concerned with how these technological changes have impacted society, and draws (what seem to me to be) rather stark conclusions about their implications.

Originally, art was always situated in time and place. It had a certain aura which involved the way that the observer interacted with the piece as well as the ritual or cult framework in which it was embedded. With the ability to mechanically reproduce art, the idea of “authenticity” of a piece of work becomes meaningless. Its ritual function gives way to a new political function. Art can be valued (in the extreme) for its magical function or its exhibition function. Mechanical reproduction has completely swayed this dynamic in favor of exhibition function only. He brings in an interesting story here about how early photography was focused on portraiture, which has an element of the religious in so far as it seeks to provide a token of remembrance or immortality to people after they are dead – from this he concludes that even early mechanical art formed a cult purpose.
New forms of art, like Dadaism and film have removed the contemplative nature of art – with the “decline of the middle-class society” people are no longer interested in investing attention in art, instead they want it to “happen to them.” “The masses seek distraction whereas art demands concentration from the spectator.” Forming the habit of being distracted by film gives film a form of control over its audience.

“Art, War, and Fascism”
Now he goes for the gold.
Fascism gives the masses expression through art rather than its rights of reformed property relations. But the way in which it gives them politicized art is through war. Benjamin quotes Marinettti who writes about all the reasons that, “war is beautiful.”
In order to fix the underutilization of resources (thanks to the property system, technology change, unemployment, and lack of markets), fascism turns to war. Mankind has come to “revere its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure.”
- Fascism makes politics aesthetic through war
- Communism responds by politicizing art

Discussion points:

- So is he implying that communist political art (what we would now term “propaganda art”) is the true art form of the modern mechanical era?
- I can’t help but notice a parallel:
o Benjamin describes his concern that the masses are forming bad mental habits because they don’t have the attention span required for “real art” and are reduced to being distracted by film.
o There is a more current conversation about how we have an “ADD generation,” based on the idea that “kids these days” have no attention span (for reading great literature, being absorbed in great conversation, etc) because their attention spans have been thoroughly corrupted by new media.
If this conversation dates all the way back to 1936, either our attention spans are just way past gone, or the argument is getting a little old.