German Philosopher, Art and Culture Critic, Essayist
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.
- 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.
Biography of Walter Benjamin
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This work depicts a whimsical figure, part bird, part human, part angel with its hair made of floating scrolls, wings with fingers like tiny cathedral spires, and bird-like feet. Surrounded by a white space, as if inhabiting some other realm, the angel's prominent eyes, conveying both melancholy and astonishment, turn to the right while his torso turns slightly to the left, creating a sense of conflicted movement. Klee's child-like depiction, contrasting with the architectural composition of the whole (as if its body were formed out of various planes of brown, yellow, and orange) conveys the strange newness of its singular presence.
A friend described Benjamin as overwhelmed with gratitude when the philosopher was able to buy this work in 1921; his most treasured possession. In the same year, Benjamin launched a magazine Angelus Novus with the intention of drawing "a connection between the artistic avant-garde of the period and the Talmudic legend about the angels who are being constantly created and find an abode in the fragments of the present." Though the magazine was short-lived, Klee's painting remained a continued source of inspiration. For instance, in his 1931 essay on the Austrian writer Karl Kraus, Benjamin wrote that Angelus Novus allowed one "to understand a humanity that proves itself by destruction," while in "Agesilaus Santander" (1933), an autobiographical essay written by Benjamin following his flight from Nazi Germany, he wrote, "The angel [...] resembles all from which I had to part: persons and above all things."
But Benjamin's near obsession with the painting reached full fruition in his philosophical preoccupation with written history. Indeed, Klee's image had a most profound influence of Benjamin's final work, "Theses on the Philosophy of History" (1940). Using the painting as a poetic analogy for mankind's inability to learn from the past, and its blind faith in progress, he wrote the following: "This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress."
Freund's photograph depicts a group of children, walking toward the viewer along a rainy stone pathway. Its surface acts as a kind of dark mirror; almost iridescent with reflections and shadows. Looming brick walls and steep buildings rise up in the background as they frame the pathway and the gathered children: the only living presence in the dingy stone environment that is the domain of the urban poor. While the image evokes Benjamin's statement that, "The camera introduces us to unconscious optics," it is also capable of capturing a poignant moment, as Freund acknowledged when she wrote: "It is not my intention to create works of art or to invent new forms. I merely want to show what is close to my heart - man, his joys and sorrows, hopes and fears." This image was part of Freund's photo essay "Northern England," documenting the effects of the Great Depression, which, having been published in a 1936 issue of Life magazine, made her internationally famous.
Freund studied art history and sociology in 1932 with Theodor W. Adorno, Karl Manneheim, and Norbert Elias, known collectively as the Frankfurt School. It was here that she made the acquaintance of Benjamin; by now a close associate of the group. Sharing a Jewish heritage, and a commitment to socialist activism, the two became lifelong friends. Following Hitler's rise to power in 1933, Benjamin and Freund fled to Paris where they both studied and conducted independent research at the Bibliothèque Nationale. Benjamin - who felt "The illiterates of the future will be the people who know nothing of photography rather than those who are ignorant of the art of writing" - actively encouraged Freund's joint pursuit of photography and art history. Following Benjamin's advice, Freund became celebrated for her color photography, her documentary work, and her candid portraiture which featured regularly in Life magazine. In 1974 she published her most famous book, Photographie et Société. Three years later she was elected President of the French Association of Photographers and in 1983 her career was recognized when she was awarded the Chevalier de la Légion d'honneur, France's highest decoration.
Walter Benjamin: Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit (The work of art in the age of its technical reproducibility) (1967)
Subtitled "Interpretation: The photocopy of the photocopy of the photocopy or the photocopy," this photomontage comprises a hundred photocopies of the original cover of "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" (1936). As each photocopy becomes more faded, the images take on a kind of spectral presence; semblances of the original that exert a kind of mysterious force within the context of the montage as a whole. At the time Ulrichs completed this work, the contents of Benjamin's essay had become widely absorbed and artists began to question assumptions about authenticity and originality. As art critic Cat Moir noted, Ulrichs's work "recalls Andy Warhol's series of screen-printed Campbell's Soup Cans (1962). Yet whereas Warhol's piece set the dialectics of individual and copy at work in a single temporal frame, Ulrichs's highlights transience and fragility as the image fades [...] The work stages the question of whether endless reproduction ultimately depletes meaning over time."
This work was included in the 2017 exhibition "The Time is Now: Reflections on the Arcades: Contemporary Art and Walter Benjamin". Ulrichs's piece was thus seen from a gallery perspective. As art critic David Graham Sheene wrote, the "sequence of black-and-white photocopies reproduce the cover [...] again and again to debunk the essay's central theory - that the infinite reproduction of an image robs it of its almost mystical powers - by showing how a practical image is imbued with mystery through reproduction." A similar counter-argument to Benjamin was put by art historian Norbert Lynton when discussing a touring exhibition that featured the Mona Lisa. The Da Vinci masterpiece was seen by millions of Japanese spectators who filed past the painting at an estimated rate of six per minute (ten seconds per spectator). Lynton argued that, through mass reproduction, the Mona Lisa had in fact acquired "another sort of status, relating not to the quality of the work or its meaning but to the sheer weight of its fame - its stardom." In other words, mechanical reproduction had, in this instance at least, brought about the very thing Benjamin had railed against.