Taking an obscure route across Maine, when we turned the corner near Woodstock I wasn’t expecting to find an oversized sculpture of a hand cranked telephone. Just what use is that? But there is a value to it, I think. Art, according to most, is defined by its lack of utility, its uselessness. Economic theories generally don’t have much to say about Art, nonetheless people who make it are constantly in search of a way to find some sort of livelihood. The exchange value of art seems impossible to predict, caught up in arbitrary social fashions.
Tolstoy’s fourfold division of labor has a place for it, as “mental labor” alongside science. Reflecting on this grouping, it dawns on me that in their purest forms, both art and science aim at an increase in understanding. This piece fulfills that criteria, in that I was moved to pull of the road and read the placard which explains that the last magneto telephone system was operated here.
Not all art is this easy. Accepting that the purpose of art is to increase understanding and that it is necessary human work has deepened my understanding of Walter Benjamin’s canonical essay “The Work of Art in the Age of its Mechanical Reproducibility” (1936-39). I’ve read it hundreds of times, researched its context, even delivered papers on it, but this time it’s different. It’s like turning a corner and finding a new perspective.
There are some useful concepts in the essay that I always come back to, i.e. the aura and learning through distraction, not to mention the shift between cult value and exhibition value, but concentrating on these is a bit like focusing on the steps of a ladder without understanding where the ladder is climbing to. Film is central to Benjamin’s dissection of reproducible art, as is photography, but the core structure is built around the struggle between capitalism, marxism, and fascism.
My obsession with photography and film wasn’t my first technological obsession. I was eleven when I watched the moon landing on T.V. and long before that I had read Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo at least 40 times; I didn’t even know there was a movie version. It was a firsthand account of a pivotal point in World War II, of the first bombing raid on Tokyo and his subsequent crash and escape in mainland China. I poured over that book as a kid. Of course it’s filled with patriotic enthusiasm, but it was also filled with human struggle and vivid detail. Remembering it has made the conclusion of Benjamin’s essay ring louder:
“Fiat ars—pereat mundus,” says fascism [Let art florish—and the world pass away] expecting from war, as Marinetti admits, the artistic gratification of a sense perception altered by technology. This is evidently the consummation of l’art pour l’art. Humankind, which once, in Homer, was an object of contemplation for the Olympian gods, has now become one for itself. Its self-alienation has reached the point where it can experience its own annihilation as a supreme aesthetic pleasure. Such is the aestheticizing of politics, as practiced by fascism. Communism replies by politicizing art. ( 270)
The last two sentences, offered with emphasis in the original, have long seemed enigmatic to me. Aestheticized politics is easy enough, as every war narrative easily attests, but politicized art is not so simple; one can easily envision communist posters, but since they often depict armed revolutionary struggle, it’s hard to see much difference.
It suddenly dawned on me that politicizing does not necessarily entail sloganeering and jingoism. I think what Benjamin really meant here is that proletarianization, coupled with the shifting nature of reproducible art should lead to an increased consciousness of the body politic. Remember that the root of politics is polis (city) and by creating a mass of people, art with a mass appeal is political. The entire sweep of the essay marks the shifting valuation and potential for art as a mass phenomenon, i.e. the work of art.
Part of the confusion about this essay is reflected in the permutations of its translated titles. It was first published in english as “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” a variant that enables the reading of work as a verb— i.e. what does Art do— a reading supported by the concluding paragraph. However, recent scholars have translated it as “The Work of Art in the Age of its Mechanical Reproducibility,” privileging the nominal form, a reading which emphasizes the idea of an original art object that is being reproduced. There is support in the text for this as well, particularly in its treatment of cult value, and the function of architecture as art. I hadn’t really considered the janus face of work in this context before now.
Throughout, what Benjamin offers is a social theory of value in art that works in concert with Marx’s social theory of value. Modern reproducible forms alter our perceptions and our social behavior in dramatic ways by creating new pathways and functions, not simply new forms for art.
As I turned to drive away from Gil Whitman’s telephone sculpture, a different scene unfolded.