One of the most important twentieth century essays on the effects Fascism has had on modern art is “the mechanical reproductability of art,” a phenomenological analysis of art and perception in an age of mass-politics and totalitariansim. The essay is written with the purpose of positioning the future of art via outlining the confines of art’s relationship to man. Similar to Hannah Arendt in The Life of the Mind, Benjamin’s perspective is heavily reliant on contingency, and praxis: that events, and not human action shapes history, and that history is a non-linear story, unfolding in a narrative that is cumulative and never-ending. Benjamin is a heroic figure to the European and post WWII American left, his notion of a plausible mode of utopian thinking about historical and social problems reminds me of contemporary philosopher Richard Rorty’s idea of Hope.
Benjamin establishes a theory of art as an historical object, or as a piece of societal technology, the concept is that are is a cultural device which plays a specific utilitarian purpose in society. The essay is one long description of the decay of modern man’s effective perception of art. This kind of distinct marxian metaphysical argument would be categorically dismissed in the face pop art and the general blurring of high and low art, yet, Benjamin’s attempt is to alter perception i.e. in the vein of the Nietzschean Dionysius.
Benjamin focuses on an abstract metaphysical explanation to understand the enveloping role that Fascism and mass culture has played on man’s aesthetic faculty. So the essay is a description of our era’s consciousness as modeled on the arts.
Benjamin sees the ascension of Facism as affecting arts ability to liberate, change, and evolve society in an emancipatory direction. The apparatus of perception, or man’s “aura”, (a term that indicates a wider conceptual plane than merely perception yet it’s not quite consciousness,) is the cogito of perception, a faculty of seeing directly tied to social circumstances. The two primary reasons man has lost his proper relation to perceiving art in an age of mass psychology and fascism:
1. modern art’s de-mystification of sacred objects has inversed itself to cause a constant searching for uniqueness in objects, en explosion of possible signifcance in every object, causing a desire for the masses to get closer to things
2. the concern for overcoming a things uniqueness, causing all modern art to be intrinsically political as a result, it has been stripped of it’s authenticity. Historically, art had been attached to ritual, and non-secular value was placed on the work of art. The cult was the primary spiritual outlet, and art existed on an infinite creative plane, where constant improvement was measured and intertwined with eternal values. The values of art in the modern period of course have shifted with the rise of fascism.
The masses have become the audience for the artists production, causing all production to be for humanity, notice the decline in a lack of connection to a spiritual ritual or to the divine. Fascism ascension has spurned this trend along, by promoting the masses-as-audience, in a grand supplantion of class-consciousness to the creation of an aesthetic of both life and pleasure. This process of transposing the historic tendencies of art back into the body-politic decentered the human from the masses as a subject of extreme aesthetic pleasure.
Benjamin then puts forth a revolutionary argument that film is the only art-technology available to reclaiming a lost equilibrium between human beings and the appartus of fascist domination. Because the distracted masses absorb art into themselves, film is the most important axis for the aura to be affected. So important does Benjamin find artistic perception that he invokes the Greek theory of “aesthetics” to articulate his theory of aura. During the classical period it was assumed that a proper aesthetic dimension could safeguard society against war and destruction. That war occured at all indicated a disequilibrium with technology and human perception.
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