Springing from thoughts about how often it seems that film is such a completely immersive experience that the existence of the filmmaker and their art is lost behind a veil of entertainment (or something like it), I’ve revisited Walter Benjamin’s musings on The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.
Benjamin is intimately concerned with the art of film and it’s reproducibility, comparing painter and filmmaker by likening them to the magician and surgeon as an exploration of the differences engendered in art by the increasing pace of technological advances:
Magician and surgeon compare to painter and cameraman. The painter maintains in his work a natural distance from reality, the cameraman penetrates deeply into its web. There is a tremendous difference between the pictures they obtain. That of the painter is a total one, that of the cameraman consists of multiple fragments which are assembled under a new law. (Benjamin, 1936)
Eighty years later Benjamin’s analogy takes on new meaning, reflecting the evolution of analogue and digital cinema as digital technology becomes ever more advanced. Analogue cinema has become the magician whose art forces us to question how it’s created; digital is the surgeon whose work is so intrinsic to ourselves that we do not question how it’s made. And Benjamin goes further, outlining how society has transferred its reverence from the magician to the surgeon, from painting to film, and from analogue to digital:
Thus, for contemporary man the representation of reality by the film is incomparably more significant than that of the painter, since it offers, precisely because of the thoroughgoing permeation of reality with mechanical equipment, an aspect of reality which is free of all equipment. (Benjamin, 1936)
His point also speaks to how society’s increasing need to analyse every detail in life has been fed by film and a cinema which has allowed us to see the world in ways never before possible in reality. We have become aware of a hyper-reality, immersed in a world in slow motion, in closeup and in HD. And each hit of hyper-reality has left us wanting more; ever higher quality images and more detailed soundscapes are increasingly expected by the cinema-going public.
As cinema technology moves into the digital age, the difference between those who champion analogue or choose digital can be seen as the difference between spectators who enjoy the artifice of art, as representations of the world that are removed from reality, and those who want to immerse themselves in art so deeply that it becomes their temporary reality. Another comment of Benjamin’s connects back to this idea:
A man who concentrates before a work of art is absorbed by it. He enters into this work of art the way legend tells of the Chinese painter when he viewed his finished painting. In contrast, the distracted mass absorbs the work of art. This is most obvious with regard to buildings. Architecture has always represented the prototype of a work of art the reception of which is consummated by a collectivity in a state of distraction. The laws of its reception are most instructive. (Benjamin, 1936)
Benjamin’s writing on the exponential increase in mechanical reproduction of art is a precursor to Paolo Cherchi Usai’s writings in The Death of Cinema: History, Cultural Memory, and the Digital Dark Age (Cherchi Usai, 2001) on the differences between the reproduction of film in analogue cinema and the repetition of images in its digital counterpart. Cherchi Usai also contemplates how art which repeated rather than reproduced does not decay and therefore has no history, a thought which is reflected in Benjamin’s essay:
Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be. This unique existence of the work of art determined the history to which it was subject throughout the time of its existence. (Benjamin, 1936)
Correspondingly, Benjamin’s writing on the concept of the original is mirrored by Cherchi Usai’s discussion of a Model Image, which Cherchi describes as images “in their intended state, in an intention visible in every part of them even before their actual consumption.” (Cherchi Usai, 2001)
But in the age of mechanical reproduction and repetition, how do we define the original? How do we agree what is authentic? This is the question mused on by Benjamin when he writes “the authenticity of a thing is the essence of all that is transmissible from its beginning, ranging from its substantive duration to its testimony to the history which it has experienced.” (Benjamin, 1936)
Benjamin continues, discussing the aura of a work of art, defining this aura as the authority of the object, which is at risk when the authenticity of the object is called into question by its mechanical reproduction. He links the decay of the aura to the increase in the importance of the masses in the modern world, writing that it stems from “the desire of contemporary masses to bring things “closer” spatially and humanly, which is just as ardent as their bent toward overcoming the uniqueness of every reality by accepting its reproduction.” (Benjamin, 1936)
For Benjamin the democratization of art has resulted in the destruction of its uniqueness and permanence:
To pry an object from its shell, to destroy its aura, is the mark of a perception whose “sense of the universal equality of things” has increased to such a degree that it extracts it even from a unique object by means of reproduction. (Benjamin, 1936)
And as art has become democratized, it has also become more widely exhibited, shifting from a hidden act to one of display. Intrinsically connected to this shift is the medium of film, and this ever more publicly exhibited nature of art continues with the movement towards digital cinema away from its analogue predecessor. Benjamin speculates that as this emphasis on the act of display grows, its artistic value will become incidental to other, commercial factors which will increasingly govern its value; film will be entirely removed form the realm of art and placed firmly in the capitalistic hands of business.
While Benjamin speculates on the nature of film, he completely rejects the question of whether film is an art, seeing it as a red herring, part of the dogma which means that all art forms are described using language created for the forms which preceded them. Instead he asks the question, how did the invention of film change the nature of art? The parallel question to be asked as analogue film loses ground, is how does the increasing dominance of digital media change the not only the nature of film, but the nature of art?
Benjamin believes that film should follow the paradigm set by the democratization of literature, through which anyone had a chance to become a published writer:
With the increasing extension of the press, which kept placing new political, religious, scientific, professional, and local organs before the readers, an increasing number of readers became writers – at first, occasional ones. It began with the daily press opening to its readers space for “letters to the editor.” And today there is hardly a gainfully employed European who could not, in principle, find an opportunity to publish somewhere or other comments on his work, grievances, documentary reports, or that sort of thing. (Benjamin, 1936)
But he notes that, rather than engendering art created by and for all, the economic exploitation of film has kept it out of the reach of the modern masses:
In Western Europe the capitalistic exploitation of the film denies consideration to modern manʼs legitimate claim to being reproduced. Under these circumstances the film industry is trying hard to spur the interest of the masses through illusion-promoting spectacles and dubious speculations. (Benjamin, 1936)
It seems that Benjamin can be thought of as supporting the democratization of art and the resulting shift to digital cinema (despite its loss of uniqueness), for if art is to be democratized (and Benjamin appears to accept this as inevitable) then it should be done so fully, not merely presented as an illusion of democracy by capitalistic corporations.
He also discusses how the collective enjoyment of film creates an environment in which novel ideas are more likely to be viewed positively, as oppose to art which is viewed individually (like painting or sculpture) where an unfamiliar image or concept is much more likely to produce a negative, reactionary response. He writes that “the decisive reason for this is that individual reactions are predetermined by the mass audience response they are about to produce.” (Benjamin, 1936) Because film is a collective, shared experience the audience is likely to feed off the positive reactions of each other, rather than instantly condemn something which they are unsure of.
Benjamin also refutes the logic that the less than illustrious beginnings of film necessarily means that it is a lesser art form, writing:
The greatly increased mass of participants has produced a change in the mode of participation. The fact that the new mode of participation first appeared in a disreputable form must not confuse the spectator. (Benjamin, 1936)
And finally, he states that the change in a form of art should not be translated as destruction, but instead viewed as an act of creation:
One of the foremost tasks of art has always been the creation of a demand which could be fully satisfied only later. The history of every art form shows critical epochs in which a certain art form aspires to effects which could be fully obtained only with a changed technical standard, that is to say, in a new art form. (Benjamin, 1936)
So it seems that (if we take Benjamin as our guide) we should not fear the development of digital technology. Instead we should embrace it as a new medium through which to work, with its own aesthetic and meaning. We may mourn the prolific production of analogue cinema now behind us, but those who wish to continue working in analogue will do so, and their work will not lessened by the shift of others to new technology and new media.
Benjamin, W., (1936) The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, London: Penguin
Cameron, J., (2009) Avatar, Twentieth Century Fox
Cherchi Usai, P., (2001) The Death of Cinema: History, Cultural Memory, and the Digital Dark Age, London: British Film Institute
Hess, J., (2004) Napoleon Dynamite, Fox Searchlight Pictures
Whale, J., (1931) Frankenstein, Universal Pictures
Whedon, J., (2012) The Avengers, Marvel Studios