The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction


Benjamin, Walter, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction translated by J. A. Underwood (London, Penguin Books, 2008) 1-50


In principle, the work of art has always been reproducible. What man has made, man has always been able to make again.

Technological reproduction of the work of art is something else, something that has been practised intermittently throughout history, at widely separated intervals though with growing intensity.


With photography, in the process of pictorial reproduction the hand was for the first time relieved of the principal artistic responsibilities, which henceforth lay with the eye alone as it peered into the lens. Since the eye perceives faster than the hand can draw, the process of pictorial reproduction was so enormously speeded up that it was able to keep pace with speech.


Even with the most perfect reproduction, one thing stands out: the here and now of the work of art – its unique existence in the place where it is at this moment.

The trace of the former will be brought to light only by chemical or physical analyses that cannot be carried out on a reproduction; that of the latter forms the object of a tradition, pursuit of which has to begin from the location of the original.

The here and now of the original constitute the abstract idea of its genuineness.


But while in relation to manual reproduction (the product of which was usually branded a forgery of the original) the genuine article keeps its full authority, in relation to reproduction by technological means that is not the case. the reason is twofold. In the first place, a technological reproduction is more autonomous, relative to the original, that one made by hand. Through photography, for instance, it is able to bring out aspects of the original that can be accessed only by the lens (adjustable and selecting its viewpoint arbitrarily) and not by human eye, or it is able to employ such techniques as enlargement or slow motion to capture images that are quite simply beyond natural optics.

Secondly, it can also place the copy of the original in situations beyond the reach of the original itself. Above all, it makes it possible for the original to come closer to the person taking it in, whether in the form of a photograph or in that of a Gramophone record.


Even if the circumstance into which the product og technological reproduction of the work of art may be introduced in no way impair the continued existence of the work otherwise, its here and now will in any case be devalued. And if that by no means applies to the work of art alone but also, mutatis mutandis, to a landscape (for instance) that in a film slides past the viewer, as a result of that process a supremely sensitive core in the art object is affected that no natural object possesses the same degree of vulnerability. That is its genuineness.


The genuineness of a thing is the quintessence of everything about it since its creation that can be handed down, from its material duration to the historical witness that it bears.

The latter (material duration and historical witness) being grounded in the former (the thing’s genuineness), what happens in the reproduction, where the former has been removed from human perception, is that the latter also starts to wobble. Nothing else, admittedly; however, what starts to wobble thus is the authority of the thing.

We can say: what shrinks in an age where the work of art can be reproduced by technological means is its aura.

Reproductive technology, we might say in general terms, removes the thing reproduced from the realm of tradition. In making many copies of the reproduction, it substitutes  for its unique incidence, a multiplicity of incidences. And in allowing the reproduction to come closer to whatever situation the person apprehending it is in, it actualizes what is reproduced.


Within major historical periods, along with changes in the overall mode of being of the human collective, there are also changes in the manner of its sense perception. The manner in which human sense perception is organized, the medium in which it occurs, is dictated not only naturally but also historically.


The act is: ‘Getting closer to things’ in both spatial and human terms is every bit as passionate a concern of today’s masses as their tendency to surmount the uniqueness of each circumstance by seeing it in reproduction.


Stripping the object of its sheath, shattering the aura, bear witness to a kind of perception where ‘a sense of similarity in the world’ is so highly developed that, through reproduction, it even mines similarity from what only happens once.

The orientation of reality toward the masses and of the masses toward reality is a process of unbounded consequence not only for thought but also for the way.


One Response to “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”

  1. 1 aleix molet

    Reblogged this on strikethrough blog.

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