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Walter Benjamin

German Philosopher, Art and Culture Critic, Essayist

Walter Benjamin Photo
Movements and Styles: Modern Photography, Postmodernism

Born: July 15, 1892 - Berlin, Germany

Died: September 26, 1940 - Portbou, Spain

"The uniqueness of a work of art is inseparable from its being imbedded in the fabric of tradition. This tradition itself is thoroughly alive and extremely changeable. An ancient statue of Venus, for example, stood in a different traditional context with the Greeks, who made it an object of veneration, than with the clerics of the Middle Ages, who viewed it as an ominous idol. Both of them, however, were equally confronted with its uniqueness, that is, its aura."

Summary of Walter Benjamin

Walter Benjamin was one of the most important thinkers of the 20th century, having published a range of works on culture and society. But he is perhaps still best known for his ideas on art and authenticity; challenging, as he did, the assumption that the original artwork was more valuable to society than the photographic reproduction of that artwork. He was associated with a group of German intellectuals and philosophers who were known collectively as the Frankfurt School though he did not always share their radical political views on the nature of modern society.

His essay "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" (1936) was an incisive analysis of the social importance of photography, while his Arcades Project (1927-40) helped set the foundations of what became known as critical and cultural theory. Though relatively unknown in his own lifetime, his writing had a profound impact on subsequent aesthetic theory, cultural and literary criticism, artistic practice, and the emergence of various postmodern art movements.

Born into a Jewish middle-class family, his education took him to Berlin, Munich and Bern before he returning back to Berlin in his late twenties. A student of philosophy, Benjamin had been intent on a career as an academic but his ambition was thwarted when the University of Frankfurt dismissed his doctoral thesis (on the origins of German tragedy) as outlandish. He worked as a literary critic, essayist, and translator before relocating to Paris in 1933 following the rise of Nazism. In Paris he continued to write for literary journals but when Paris succumbed to Nazi occupation, he fled toward Spain where he hoped to gain onward passage to America. Having reached the Franco-Spanish border town of Portbou he was mistakenly told by a border official that he would be turned over to the Gestapo. In despair, Benjamin took his own life.

Key Ideas

Benjamin promoted the view that the photographic reproduction of an artwork (a poster or a postcard for example) was of higher social value than the original (which one is compelled to view in a gallery) because the artwork in question could be possessed and enjoyed (very democratically) by the art lover in a time and place that suits them.
Benjamin's premise that a copy was of higher social significance than an original had a profound effect on postmodern thought and has influenced (in one way or other) a number of late-20th-century art movements, including Pop art, Feminist art, Conceptual art and Appropriation Art.
Whereas high art needed the intervention of an art expert or critic to explain its true meaning, Benjamin was an admirer of Hollywood cinema because the sound film could be enjoyed collectively by the public without the need for a critic to explain its meaning: "the greater the decrease in the social significance of an art form," he said of the Hollywood film, "the sharper the distinction between criticism and enjoyment by the public."
Benjamin's magnum opus, his unfinished Arcades project, helped explain urbanization in terms of an historical and ideological shift from a culture of production to a culture of consumption and commodification. As such, his Arcades project is seen as setting the foundations for the development of the field of Cultural Studies.
Benjamin challenged certain assumptions about how history was told. In his view, history was not as a linear story of progress whereby humanity learns from the mistakes of the past. He viewed history rather as something chaotic and contradictory in which past mistakes are merely repeated by future generations.

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