Thoughts on Walter Benjamin's The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction

Seeing The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction listed as a reading provided me a little relief after last week’s readings. I first read it as an undergrad senior in Visual Anthropology, and it was one of the few academic readings I enjoyed; that and John Berger’s Ways of Seeing, which I read sequentially in that class as well. As I read this essay again, I pinpointed the link between those texts. Benjamin says “Mechanical reproduction is ... intimately connected with the contemporary mass movements” and that the way in which we perceive is a direct correlation to the way we live in that moment (page 21). This is the basis of Ways of Seeing, identifying how our current technologies affect our understanding.

Cult value versus exhibition value reminds me of a conversation I had about the Glenstone recently; the idea around private museums and collectors creating an elitist atmosphere within the arts. The text uses examples of some pieces only being on view to those in high places, especially in religious regards, literally and figuratively. While I agree with the concept of aura and its decline in reproduction, reproduction also creates opportunity for accessibility --an issue I am an advocate for in the arts. This is similar to the idea of a natural art’s aura being rooted in its distance --or accessibility-- to the viewer.

The Glenstone bit stemmed from a conversation around The Washington Post article “This new museum doesn’t want Instagram or crowds. Does that make it elitist?” by Philip Kennicott. The article was insightful and convinced me that a private collection with specific viewing guidelines was not harmful and could successfully create a refreshingly engaging experience. I had been to Glenstone’s neatly tucked away grounds before reading this article. It was indeed free of crowds and their no cell-phone policy insured that it was free of Instagram. Perhaps with Benjamin in mind, its owners were doing their effort to preserve the aura of works on display by inhibiting its mechanical reproduction via social media sharing. It wasn’t until after I finished the article in a discussion with my friend (who I’d previously visited Glenstone with) that I began to think more critically about private museums. In the words of my friend, Kennicott once “wrote a really great article about art ‘belonging’ to collections and how we’re supposed to be honored to have it shown to us in special shows.” This way of thinking is where accessibility becomes necessary, when art is no longer able to be viewed publicly but more importantly becomes an us versus them. A private collector who decides to provide free admission to view their collected works is bordering on white-savior complex. What are you gaining from a private collection beside increase in monetary asset and self-esteem via power and elitism?

Conversations around accessibility brings me back to a quote in David Bachelor’s Chromophobia, which is also a theory-heavy text. He says, “Art walks on a tightrope of exclusivity and extinction” in explanation of Theodor Adorno’s placement of art at the extremes of dissolving itself into many fields and distinguishing itself from its many subpractices (i.e. painting from photography) (page 102). What’s the difference between exclusivity and extinction if art only available to a distinct few? Art is near extinct when it is exclusive. When art is only available to the elite, then it must not be available to the masses. Hidden versus exposed. Cult value versus exhibition value.

A fun hindsight realization I had while reading was that I first read this text during the same semester I took a letterpress printing class --the epitome of mechanical reproduction.

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I recently received and accepted an internship to work at the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture. The position, beginning in February 2020—the onset of Black History