Walter Benjamin‘s The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction is frequently evoked in the world of photography. One of its key concepts is the idea of “aura”. In a nutshell, Benjamin argues that the psychological presence of an object disappears once it’s mass produced. Benjamin focuses mostly on pieces of art, but we could easily extend the idea to any object. in light of the fetishization of certain mass-produced objects, we could ask whether this is in fact correct: it is true that, to pick two examples, an iPhone is hardly comparable to a painting. But some consumer items — whether iPhones, Leica cameras, or other luxury items — derive part of their power from what we could call their aura, even if this aura exists in mass-produced form in many thousands of identical objects. But I digress.
There is a reason why Benjamin concerned himself with what he called “aura”. He wrote his essay in exile in 1935. Having lost his home in Germany after the takeover of the Nazis in 1933, Benjamin and most of his peers (associated with the Frankfurt School) lived and worked abroad. The threat of fascism that they had lived under for many years had become very, very real. Having spent considerable time trying to figure out why communism had not taken hold in Germany (which unlike Russia had been widely seen as the most obvious location for a communist revolution), they now also tried to understand what drove fascism and, crucially, what strategies might be available to deal with it.
You could understand Benjamin’s aura as the hook he needed to get politics into art. Before mass production, he argued, pieces of art had possessed an aura, which, in turn, tied them to what he calls ritual. This idea is probably easiest to see if you imagine a painting that hangs, say, in the Vatican. Mass production had severed art’s connection to ritual:
‘[F]or the first time in world history, mechanical reproduction emancipates the work of art from its parasitical dependence on ritual. To an ever greater degree the work of art reproduced becomes the work of art designed for reproducibility. From a photographic negative, for example, one can make any number of prints; to ask for the “authentic” print makes no sense.’
After all, in principle it’s rather difficult to assign specific value to something that exists in the form of any number of clones (Benjamin didn’t live to see the world of photography’s embrace of “editions”, let alone “NFTs”). Consequently, with ritual severed, a possibility opens up. He continues:
‘But the instant the criterion of authenticity ceases to be applicable to artistic production, the total function of art is reversed. Instead of being based on ritual, it begins to be based on another practice — politics.’
There it is, politics. For Benjamin, photography and especially film offered enormous potential, given the way they worked and given that unlike traditional art, they relied on machines and mass production. The machines served their purpose:
‘[F]or 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. And that is what one is entitled to ask from a work of art.’
There are many seeds in Benjamin’s piece why the potential of art that is mass produced might end up fall short. The writer did not get to see the day when this would become abundantly clear (Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer would later write about what they called the Culture Industry). In 1935, photography (and film) still had potential for Benjamin. Addressing what he was witnessing in Nazi Germany (and elsewhere) and expressing the way out he wrote
‘Mankind[‘s] self-alienation has reached such a degree that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order. This is the situation of politics which Fascism is rendering aesthetic. Communism responds by politicizing art.’
Walter Benjamin didn’t live to see the fall of Nazi Germany. After the invasion of France, he died while trying to escape to the United States. Horkheimer had arranged for a travel visa for him, but Benjamin got stuck at the Spanish border and took his own life.
‘The two antagonistic spheres of society have always coexisted; the higher culture has always been accommodating while the reality was rarely disturbed by its ideals and its truths.’
‘The works of alienation [pieces of art produced in opposition to the status quo — JMC] are themselves incorporated into this society and circulate as part and parcel of the equipment which adorns and psychoanalyses the prevailing state of affairs. Thus, they become commercials — they sell, comfort, or excite.’
Benjamin’s and Marcuse’s positions outline two extreme positions for art to exist in. Note that Marcuse’s position is more or less identical with what Adorno and Horkheimer had outlined earlier. The latter position appears to shut down the former: if, as Marcuse et al. believed, art ultimately will always only be commodified dissent (to adopt a more recent phrasing), then what is the point of being a political artist?
Philosophy is one thing, and one’s lived reality is quite another. I suspect that the world we live in now would look familiar to Walter Benjamin. Rampant economic inequalities, stagnating democracies, neo-fascist movements on the rise, dictators holding international partners hostage over whether or not they will invade their neighbours — he witnessed all of that during his life time. If there is one truly different aspect of the world, it’s the fact that now, we’re staring into the abyss of climate change, an abyss that — and here it’s not hard to imagine the Frankfurt scholars letting out a collective “of course!” — we have created ourselves (lest you wonder about the pandemic, Benjamin lived through one himself).
The other day, someone felt compelled to tell me on Instagram that (I’m paraphrasing) art shouldn’t be political because it should concern itself with beauty. Politics would only ruin art. It’s a thought that Benjamin addressed implicitly in his essay:
‘With the advent of the first truly revolutionary means of reproduction, photography, simultaneously with the rise of socialism, art sensed the approaching crisis which has become evident a century later. At the time, art reacted with the doctrine of l’art pour l’art, that is, with a theology of art. This gave rise to what might be called a negative theology in the form of the idea of “pure” art, which not only denied any social function of art but also any categorizing by subject matter.’
This for him was the enemy, an enemy that the medium itself had the potential (he might have phrased it as: the calling) to overcome. It’s not necessarily my idea to tell photographers what to do. In the end, every photographer has to come to their own conclusion about how to go about what they do.
I can’t help but think, though, that with the number of crises we are facing, an insistence on art being “pure” is increasingly looking like a luxury position, a position of extreme privilege. There obviously is no guarantee that one’s photography will change anything on a larger scale. But is remaining silent the better alternative?
If you look at the history of photography, it’s filled with artists being political. You could start with Robert Frank’s The Americans. If you look at those photographs as merely the outcome of a set of road trips, you’re likely to miss the various points that are very clearly being made. This is not a celebration of the country. The photographer’s disdain for what he encountered — inequality, institutionalized racism, phony opportunities — drips off the book’s pages.
Or look at Carrie Mae Weems’ The Kitchen Table Series. Its conceptual underpinning and the resulting formal structure are not intended to make you think about the table or about how people might sit at it. Instead, the specificity of the setting only points at the universality of its overall idea, which centers on domesticity, the role of women (vis-à-vis men), and Blackness.
More recently, look at, for example, Jess Dugan’s portraits. On a very surface level, Self-Portrait With Mom has a lot in common with selfies on social media. Ignoring the fact that it would be impossible to show these photographs on Instagram (the site’s so-called community guidelines express the company’s politics), there is so much more in these photographs that, again, speak of the world beyond the walls in which they were taken.
Possibly with the exception of The Americans (which already has been written about ad nauseam) each one of these examples deserves a much deeper discussion than what I’m offering here. What I’m after here is to point out that many artists have already put a lot of politics into their work, and that inclusion does not diminish the value of what they have achieved. In fact, the inclusion propels the work forward, confronting us with what many of us would rather not see.
Crucially, as has been demonstrated by Poland’s Archive of Public Protests, for art to be truly effective it has to leave the white cube (I wrote about this here). This is not to diminish the achievement of these photographers at all, but the idea of making free newspapers and handing them out in the streets is not super original. I think it says much about the state of photoland that a solution as simple as that is such a radical outlier.
If as an artist you insist on not having politics enter your work that’s fine. My question would be: what exactly would it take for you to change your mind? At what state would you realize that you might be an artist, but you’re also a member of a society, a society whose openness and freedoms to a large extent underpin what you’re able to do? After all, once stormtroopers are marching down your street, it might be a tad too late to speak up, right?
Polemics aside, I’m tempted to think that as much as we all enjoy the comfort of our own existences (some people obviously a lot more than many others), the idea that in this day and age art and politics are to be kept strictly separately not only speaks of privilege. It also points at an internalization of neoliberal thinking, which places the individual and her or his freedoms at the center or everything.
I believe that more of us should feel compelled to embrace the tradition outlined by the artists I mentioned above and by of all their other peers for whom the mix of art and politics has not been an anathema. The defenders of l’art pour l’art would want us to believe that inserting politics into one’s art automatically results in clumsy agitprop with vastly diminished value. That’s a convenient claim that, however, is at odds with the sheer power of art that does not shy away from being upfront about its makers’ politics.