Showcase: Walter Benjamin

Walter Benjamin (15 July 1892 – 26 September 1940) was a German philosopher, and a cultural critic, combining elements of German Idealism, Romanticism, Marxism, and Kabbalah. He was associated with the Frankfurt School.

Benjamin was early on keen on art. He saw in photography a democratic form of art. He considered that the photographic reproduction of an artwork (a poster or a postcard for example) was of higher social value than the original (only viewed in a gallery) because the artwork in question could be possessed and enjoyed (very democratically) by the art lover in a time and place that suits them. He sensed that a copy was of higher social significance on postmodern thought and has influenced (in one way or other) a number of late-20th-century art movements, including Pop art and Conceptual art.

Whereas high art needed the intervention of an art expert or critic to explain its true meaning, Benjamin was an admirer of Hollywood cinema because the sound film could be enjoyed collectively by the public without the need for a critic to explain its meaning: “the greater the decrease in the social significance of an art form,” he said of the Hollywood film, “the sharper the distinction between criticism and enjoyment by the public.”

In the same frame of thought, Benjamin helped explain urbanization in terms of an historical and ideological shift from a culture of production to a culture of consumption and commodification.