In lecture 8 we looked at four of the essays written by Walter Benjamin which are particularly relevant to Art and Photography. Benjamin was born into a wealthy Jewish family in Berlin in 1892. Unfortunately, he tragically ended his life after being deported back to France in 1940 whilst trying to escape to America to evade the Nazi’s.
He was heavily associated with the Frankfurt school, who looked at ‘critical theory’ which was grounded in Marxist theory. There main aims where:
- Treating society as a whole
- Aiming for a rational and free society
- They were fundamentally critical, revealing how a capitalist society, deceives and dominates the people.
The four main essays are:
- News about flowers
- A Small History of Photography
- The Author as Producer
- The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction.
In the lecture we looked at how these four lectures built upon his ideas and theory’s. They were fragmented in nature with each essay building on his previous thoughts as opposed to one essay revealing all.
News about Flowers.
News about Flowers was published in Die Literarische Welt 1928, and it was an essay that looked at and reviewed the work of Karl Blossfeldts on flowers. These photographs opened up a whole new way of viewing the world. Blossfledts had designed a special camera much like a modern day macro lens which could get very close to a subject. This opened up a new way of seeing and brings up something that gets mentioned through Benjamin’s later works, and that is ‘THE TRANSFORMATION OF HUMAN PERCEPTION THROUGH PHOTOGRAPHY’
- Immanual Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, 1781 States that Human perception must have two necessary forms, 3-Dimentional space and 1-Dimentional time. The human sensory and cognitive ‘equipment’ follows these forms regardless of what the world outside the mind is like, holding true for all human beings at all times.
- Benjamin’s writings in general, including his texts on photography, can be read in terms of the following claim:
the very form of human perception, the form that Kant thought of as ‘eternally valid’, is changing. Basically Benjamin challenges Kant’s views throughout his works.
Benjamins fundamental interest is TIME. He is interested in capturing a moment of time, something in which the eye cannot do without the help of the camera. It is this stopping of time which challenges Kant’s theory.
A Short History of Photography 1930
This essays despite its title only briefly looks at the history of photography. It goes beyond the chronological account of developments instead it starts to develop Benjamin’s ideas of the cognitive and political potential of photography and introduces his concept of the ‘Optical Unconscious’. “Photography, with its devices of slow motion and enlargement, reveals the secret. It is through photography that we first discover the existence of this optical unconscious, just as we discover the instinctual unconscious through psychoanalysis.”
To get a better understanding of this he looks at the moving image and in particular the work of Eadweard Muybridge. Muybridge used the moving image to freeze the motion of the race horse, revealing the “secret” of how they move. This interested Benjamin greatly, it was the photographs ability to freeze time, which brings him onto his next point: Time travel.
What Benjamin means by this is that with the photograph we can go back to when exact moment in which it was taken, it stops the individual in their tracks. He majors heavily on the work of David Octavius Hill, and the subjects he photographed, with the prior knowledge of who they are and what happened next. He looked back at these photographs in a way that didn’t conform to Kant’s theory, as through photography human time isn’t 1 dimensional and sequential, it was past, present, and future.
He also introduces the concept of Aura in this essay. He defines Aura as time and space, a unique appearance of distance, no matter how close at hand. He is interested in photography showing us a different world.
Author as the Producer
This text looks at how writers and artists should work together in order to be properly committed the aims of socialism. It was political in nature and he looks at John Heartfelds photomontages as a political tool. He feels that artists should intervene actively in transforming the forms of institutions and culture. But his views are random and he contradicts his previous work of how the photograph can make the ordinary interesting. He championed this view with Aget’s work in his previous essay, but now is worried about how the photograph can heighten the mundane, which isn’t necessarily a good thing. This is the problem with theorizing photographs, people can change their minds.
The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.
This essay examines the effects of the modern age on the work of art, and the transformation of the sense of perception bought about new technologies. It also extensively looks at the concept of ‘Aura’ and how mechanical reproduction upsets this tradition. There was a huge desire for reproduction and this took the aura away from art. At one time, art could only be described by words by those who had seen it, to those who hadn’t. With the reproduction methods it was accessible to everyone, it was closer, and it overcame its uniqueness that could only be witnessed when seen in the flesh. This was the decay of Aura. This was down to photography. In Art Aura is its distance, there but not there, unpossessed. Reproduction allows it to be possessed which in turn destroys the uniqueness of the piece. It allows it to be modified, and changed for entertainment. Reproduction emancipates art, we know it exists but we don’t need to see it. Some people see this as a benefit, and some don’t, what is clear though is that we may never again be amazed at seeing art for the first time as the chances are we have already seen some sort of reproduction of it.