Thursday, 11 September 2008

the work of art in the age of nihilism

“The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” may be the extreme form of Benjamin’s nihilism in the economy of his oeuvre. – Rainer Rochlitz, The Disenchantment of Art, 164.

The word “nihilism” does not appear anywhere in the text of “The Work of art in the Age of Its Technical Reproducibility.” Nor is there any mention of Nietzsche. But the effects of both upon the work are very obvious. Benjamin was working on various drafts of the essay from 1935. By this point in time, Nietzsche reaches the height of his infamy in Germany as Hitler’s favorite philosopher. Given that the goal of the work is to create concepts of art that are “completely useless for the purposes of fascism” (SW 4:252), it seems understandable why Benjamin might want to leave these references out. Benjamin did not buy into the fascisization of Nietzsche, as evidenced by heavy usage of Nietzsche quotes in the notes of the same time period. It does seem understandable why Nietzsche does not make an explicit appearance here.

Nonetheless, there is an intensely nihilistic overtone to the work. While contemporary art critics decried the destructive assault on art initiated by technology, Benjamin saw it much differently. Howard Caygill writes:

Benjamin sought not merely recognition of the destructive side, but engaged nihilistically to affirm it as opening possibilities for the future. This was particularly crucial with respect to the work of art, which seemed most threatened by the development of technology. Instead of lamenting the destruction of art by technology, Benjamin sought to affirm a different future for art in the wake of its destruction.

The overriding theme of this essay can be boiled down to the tension between active and passive nihilism. Passive or reactive nihilism denies the destructive element of technology and art. It stands opposed to becoming and tries to hold fast to traditional forms and meanings. Active nihilism on the other hand, affirms the destruction of these forms as a mode of the unfolding of becoming. In terms of recurrence, the destruction of art is never the destruction at all, but rather a point in the chain of cosmic production.

The so-called destruction of art is the reaction to the new forms of art that begin to emerge as a result of technology, namely film and photography. As well, reproduction technology has developed to a point where the reproduction of old artworks “profoundly modifies their effect” (SW 4:253). Benjamin feels that is traditional effect of art is tied “unique existence in a particular space … that bears the mark of the history to which the work has been subject” (SW 4:253). This is mark is what Benjamin terms the “aura”. This aura finds its power in ritual. The earliest forms of art were linked ritual, “and it is highly significant that the artwork’s auratic mode of existence is never entirely severed from is ritual function” (SW 4:256). Ritual, be it magical or religious, is based on the uniqueness of the items worshiped. Uniqueness is what differentiates a table knife from a sacrificial dagger, an ordinary wine glass from a communion chalice. The same applies to artworks. The uniqueness of the painting led to the “cult of beauty”. Given that traditional art theory is based on singularity, the whole system is called into question with the introduction of new techniques of reproduction. The problem arises in that reproduction technology has advanced to such a degree that artworks can no longer lay claim to uniqueness.There are two possible responses for this crisis, one of which is passive, reactive nihilism. This entails denying the changes of art, holding on to old forms, and evaluating new emergences via the old criteria. An example of this would be questioning whether or not photography is art. As we will see later, Benjamin shows that there is a high price to pay for this. The other alternative is the acceptance of change, the embracing of new forms, and the creation of new criteria. This is only achievable via the affirmation of the crisis as such, which is to say, via the nihilistic affirmation.

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