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.

Walter Benjamin on mass distraction!

Walter Benjamin (1892-1940) was a German philosopher who committed suicide for not being able to escape under sieged France. The text was below was taken from his books The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (1936), an essay on cultural criticism on mass reproduction that undervalues the uniqueness of art.

“The mass is a matrix from which all traditional behavior toward works of art issues today in a new form. Quantity has been transmuted into quality. 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. Yet some people have launched spirited attacks against precisely this superficial aspect. Among these, Duhamel has expressed himself in the most radical manner. What he objects to most is the kind of participation which the movie elicits from the masses. Duhamel calls the movie “a pastime for helots, a diversion for uneducated, wretched, worn-out creatures who are consumed by their worries a spectacle which requires no concentration and presupposes no intelligence which kindles no light in the heart and awakens no hope other than the ridiculous one of someday becoming a ‘star’ in Los Angeles.” Clearly, this is at bottom the same ancient lament that the masses seek distraction whereas art demands concentration from the spectator. That is a commonplace.

Distraction and concentration form polar opposites which may be stated as follows: 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.

The distracted person, too, can form habits. More, the ability to master certain tasks in a state of distraction proves that their solution has become a matter of habit

Reception in a state of distraction, which is increasing noticeably in all fields of art and is symptomatic of profound changes in apperception, finds in the film its true means of exercise”.