Walter Benjamin’s remains one of the most oft-anthologized critics of media theory in the world in large part due to the influence of one essay in particular, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” At the heart of Benjamin’s essay is his theory that the absence of technology that makes almost any great work of art quite easy to reproduce, and the idea that this technology has had the effect of the ritualistic rise of easily reproducible artwork which leads to that artwork losing its traditional ritual significance. As a ritualistic entity, art has slowly come to lose its very meaning as the importance of authenticity has become a far less integral component in investing meaning to the product itself. Benjamin locates this ritual significance in the work of art in terms of its unique quality; the authenticity of its unique quality lends it what Benjamin terms “aura.”
Prior to the invention of technology that could create a million different reproductions of a Renaissance painting or even an ancient Greek statue, the value of a work of art was entirely dependent on the fact that it existed in isolation from anything else on earth. The capacity to create mass reproductions of artworks has removed the cult value with which art began, and has also relocated the philosophical power of art that had existed entirely within its authenticity to manipulative power based upon its value as exhibition.
John Berger in his book Ways of Seeing takes the perspective that seeing the art of the past serves to place us within the ritual authenticity of that specific culture. The problem is that over time the art of a past civilization loses its cultural aura; especially the more often that particular artwork has been reproduced. Even if one is familiar with the culture in which, for instance, Leonardo Da Vinci painted the Mona Lisa, one would still react toward seeing the painting based upon having seen it reproduced and placed in the context of modern culture. If one arrives to see the Mona Lisa with no knowledge of the Renaissance culture or only limited knowledge, it becomes impossible to assess the painting based upon its original aura and mystery.
The moment a work of art experiences the loss of its aura, and subsequently its value as rite, meaning must become invested elsewise. In the 20th century, anything approaching a value of authenticity became replaced by the value associated with exhibition. The most obvious example of this is the pre-eminent art form of the past century; the medium of film. To see a film not only means to enjoy an art work completely devoid of aura, but also to question the theoretical proposition of Berger’s in which to arrive at a work of art is to be forced to view it from the perspective of the original culture. Because no one ever sees the “authentic” original print of a movie, one is indeed only viewing a reproduction of the original; the absence of the cultural significance associated with authenticity is immediately lacking. In the void of any authenticity due to lack of a film having any unique artistic properties, film has sought out a new means of achieving meaning and that has been to be reproduced and seen by as vast an audience as possible. Even the worst-performing TV show or the biggest box office flop has been seen by more people than have actually seen the original Mona Lisa.
Walter Benjamin considered film to be the means by which the aura of authenticity was forever obliterated. Perhaps even more important was that film became the art medium that plucked the power of art to give a voice to the masses from the privileged and gave it to the underclasses: “Contemporary industrial workers and city dwellers, whose perception of the world was so fragmented and accelerated by their conditions of life, could find in film the formal resolution and organisation of their experience. Film was the medium such transformed modes of perception required to act as a guide in the modern world”. In “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” Benjamin reflects upon the potential for film to be endowed with meaning based on its ability to distract and confuse the masses due to the idea of watching film with certain built-in problems of perspective. The concept revolves around the idea that distraction is a necessity for the growth of the leisure class in a capitalist system.
Film in the sense of both the cinema and television has become the single greatest distraction to the masses in human history. Paradoxically, the very same specific piece of film can distract one into apathy, arouse one into action, and make one feel happy or sad depending on the ways of seeing the same experience and arriving at conflicting conclusions. The human brain receives the images it sees on the screen for a surprisingly short period of time and filmmakers long ago learned the usefulness of editing and composition as a way of manipulating or even propagandizing the images in what can only rightly be termed a subliminal way.
The absence of aura, or authenticity, in the medium of film leaves it in a state in which only value left that exists is its ability to be reproduced for massive audiences. Walter Benjamin suggested that cinema could be a subversive influence in which the reality and the vestiges of aura that persist in any medium become ever more intertwined the more you view the work because each time you bring certain reconsiderations to it; certain ways of seeing that are never the same.