The Caption in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction
In his 1936 essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” Walter Benjamin extends his reflections on the caption and of the nature of the “aura” in artistic works. He utilizes Atget as a sort of fulcrum, a moment of discontinuity in the reception of the photograph:
With Atget, photographs become the standard evidence for historical occurrences, and acquire a hidden political significance. They demand a specific kind of approach; free-floating contemplation is not appropriate to them. They stir the viewer; he feels challenged by them in a new way. At the same time picture magazines begin to put up signposts for him, right ones or wrong ones, no matter. For the first time, captions have become obligatory. And it is clear that they have an altogether different character than the title of a painting. The directives which the captions give to those looking at the pictures in illustrated magazines soon become even more explicit and more imperative in the film where the meaning of each single picture appears to be prescribed by the sequence of all preceding ones. (226)
A fundamental distinction pursued by Benjamin in this essay is the shift in the social valuation of art from ritual to exhibition. However, in this brief digression Benjamin alludes to the difference in character between myth and art. The emphasis on schema, or sequence, of images in magazines and films matches the distinction later drawn by Claude Levi-Strauss:
In the case of works of art, the starting point is a set of one or more objects and one or more events which aesthetic creation unifies by revealing a common structure. Myths travel the same road but they start from the other end. They use a structure to produce what is itself an object consisting of a set of events (for all myths tell a story). Art thus proceeds from a set (object + event) to the discovery of its structure. Myth starts from a structure by means of which it constructs a set (object + event). (The Savage Mind 26)
In this light, the conjectures raised by Atget’s “crime scene” photographs are contemplated against the mythic structures emerging from the popular press. They lack the captioning or sequence required to produce myth, and yet their similarity in mode forces a new sort of contemplation, a new measure of historicity—a history measured through myth. Regardless of the elusive nature of the structure of myth, this construct takes a powerful step towards understanding the difference between art and socialized rhetoric. The discontinuity between ritual value and exhibition value seems far less pronounced than Benjamin implies. Exhibition value is immanently social, and hardly immune to the constructions of myth.
Benjamin proposes: “The presence of the original is the prerequisite to the concept of authenticity” (220). In Saussure’s terminology, he assumes that an original work of art constitutes a signified rather than a signifier. A work of art has a beginning, and “a duration to its testimony to the history which it has experienced” (221). What is lost in reproduction amounts to the loss of the “substantive duration” of the object, which becomes infinite: “What is really jeopardized when the historical testimony is affected is the authority of the object” (221). Benjamin’s previously polyvalent descriptions of “aura” become relatively monolithic:
One might subsume the eliminated element in the term “aura” and go on to say: that which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art. This is a symptomatic process whose significance points beyond the realm of art. One might generalize by saying: the technique of reproduction detaches the reproduced object from the domain of tradition. By making many reproductions it substitutes a plurality of copies for a unique existence. (221)
However, Benjamin continues to suggest that the process of reproduction also allows art to be “reactivated” by the beholder or listener “in his own particular situation.” What seems striking about this observation is the possibility of a personal or fetishistic response to art contrasted with a social one. The erasure of public or social history is coincident with a rising personal role for art.
This was, as previously explored, a powerful feature of eighteenth century print culture. The question of “authority”—in the sense of an easily traceable artistic heritage which settles in an individuated creator, or application of an essential nature to art as signified rather than signifier— is more of a twentieth century concern. Aura then, in this essay, becomes the presence of a thing which is unique, a concern not entirely shared by generations of artists who learned to draw from reproductions.
Benjamin’s conception of captioning is strengthened in “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” but his concept of aura is weakened by its specificity. However, this is not his last attempt to refine the construct of aura. Benjamin reasserts the term in the 1939 essay “On Some Motifs in Baudelaire” to greater effect.