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Walter Benjamin: technological development and democratising art

Walter Benjamin (1892-1940) was a German Marxist literary critic. Born into a wealthy Jewish family, he studied philosophy and worked as a critic and translator in Berlin in the 1920s. After Hitler came to power, Benjamin lived in Paris, where he continued to write essays and reviews for literary journals. When the Nazis occupied Paris in 1940, he committed suicide rather than be arrested by the Gestapo.

Since his death, Benjamin’s writings have gained a growing reputation, particularly in academia. Written in a dense style, his essays are often philosophical reflections on literature and combine social criticism, linguistic analysis and historical references.

In the 1930s, Benjamin was influenced by Marxist ideas. He steered an independent course and rejected the political and artistic straitjacket of Stalinist ‘socialist realism’. His most influential essays are collected in ‘Illuminations’ and ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’.

Marco Veruggio gives an introduction to Benjamin’s ideas.


Walter Benjamin

Walter Benjamin was a seminal thinker on how capitalism interacts with art

The approach to art in the degenerated Soviet Union under Stalin was typified by two things. First, by the persecution of all those who expressed any independent thought. Second, by the misnamed artistic school of ‘socialist realism’ – the view that art is dedicated to the (falsely) ‘realistic’ representation of simplistic, optimistic ‘proletarian values’ and working-class life.

Subsequent Marxist thinking about art, particularly in academia, has been greatly influenced by Walter Benjamin and Georg Lukács. Both were exponents of ‘Marxist humanism’, attempting to apply Marxism to aesthetics – the philosophy of beauty.

This approach, derived from the work of Karl Marx, is dialectical: based on the idea that conflict leads to change – and materialist: based on real, observable things, not the supernatural. Marxist humanism analysed the conditions in which humans work under capitalism. Workers’ consciousness is affected by ‘alienation’ – separation from and lack of control over production and society. Also by ‘reification’ – the shift from the tangible to the abstract. (Their use of these concepts was related to, but distinct from, Marx’s theories of alienation and commodity fetishism; reification is a specific form of alienation.)

Benjamin’s collection of essays ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’, published in 1936, attempts to describe the changed experience of art in the modern world. It sees the rise of fascism and ‘mass culture’ as the culmination of a process of debasement, whereby art ceases to be a means of instruction and becomes instead a mere gratification, a matter of taste alone. “Communism responds by politicising art,” Benjamin proposes. That is, by making art into an instrument by which what Benjamin considers false ideas can be countered and ultimately overcome.

“Capitalist production is the enemy of certain branches of intellectual production, for example, art (figurative) and poetry.” This observation by Marx – from his ‘Theories of Surplus Value’, volume one – reflects the tendency of capitalism to consider the work of art as a commodity, and the artist an intellectual worker subject to its rule.

At the same time, however, capitalism in the past revolutionised production. This included the massive application of new technology, laying the basis for the majority to practically access and enjoy art – art’s partial ‘democratisation’ – and for the birth of mass art in opposition to the ruling classes.

Benjamin came to Marxism through his friendship with Lukàcs, a Hungarian philosopher, literary historian, and critic; the German playwright and poet Bertolt Brecht; and some exponents of the semi-Marxist so-called ‘Frankfurt School’.

He postulated that fascism and rightwing totalitarian regimes, which are extreme expressions of capitalism, produce an “aestheticisation of politics”. This meant art was a means to celebrate established power – as in Leni Riefenstahl’s movies on the ‘beauty’ of the Nazi regime. Meanwhile, socialism and communism produced a “politicisation of art”. This meant art was a means to challenge power and change society – as in Pablo Picasso’s ‘Guernica’, a powerful cry aiming to exorcise war from history.

Art and ‘superstructure’ in Marxist thought

Capitalism is based on bosses’ exploitation of workers for profit, and the concentration of economic and political power in the hands of the ruling, capitalist class. The ruling class uses its economic clout and the forces of the state to exert material control over subordinate economic classes. As an expression and a way of reinforcing this material control, they exert control over ideas as well.

The structure of the economic ‘base’ of society – how goods and services are made and distributed – largely sets the boundaries for the cultural and ideological ‘superstructure’ which grows out of it – this includes politics, education, religion, art and so on. The cultural superstructure, in turn, can affect the economic base, through the actions of the various social groups and political forces in society.

The ruling classes have always exercised control of ideas through politicians, priests (organised, state-sanctioned religion), law, media and intellectuals. Capitalist division of labour can make this even more the case – one of its tendencies is to accentuate the separation between manual and intellectual work.

The historical phenomenon of artistic patronage reflects the idea that art is a celebration of power through the use of beauty. The ancient temples or Christian cathedrals, the splendour of imperial palaces or the houses of the nobility represent, in a spectacular way, the authority of power.

By revolutionising the way humanity makes things – away from feudalism’s subsistence production towards the factory’s collective mass production – capitalism laid the basis for the same to happen in the field of arts, culture and ideas. The invention of the photograph had similar effects in the field of art to that produced by the appearance of the steam engine in the capitalist economy.

Art, like industry, progressively becomes a mass phenomenon. Artistic objects become ‘commodities’ – things produced for their sales value rather than their actual usefulness or beauty. And artists are transformed – at least partly – into workers; intellectual labourers.

‘Non-productive’ intellectual labourers – those like the early modern English poet John Milton, who produced ‘Paradise Lost’ for just £5 – produced works of art “for the same reason that a silk worm produces silk,” says Marx.

As capitalism developed, they were in part substituted by ‘productive’ intellectual labourers, whose work “is subsumed under capital and comes to light only when it is to be valued” – just as a “singer who sells her song on her own account is a non-productive labourer. But the same singer, commissioned by an entrepreneur to sing in order to make money for him, is a productive labourer, since she produces capital” (Marx, Theories of Surplus Value).

Capitalism also produces contradictions in the intellectual field. The ‘proletarianisation’ of intellectuals and artisans – transformed from self-employed small businesspeople to wage-slaves – pushes them into the ranks of the workers’ movement and trade unions.

But there is another aspect: “The same criteria are applied to art and literature as are applied to sugar, leather and setola [shaving] brushes. However, to consider art and its freedom as an object, as a commodity, is in profound opposition to the internal character of art itself.” (Marx, ‘On Freedom of the Press’).

The French poet Charles Baudelaire, a contemporary of Marx, draws in verse the consequences Marx writes on in prose:

To earn your daily bread you have to
Spread around incense like a choirboy
And unwillingly intone the Te Deum
– from ‘The Venal Muse’ in ‘The Flowers of Evil’ (1857)

A few decades later, George Grosz, a German artist known especially for his caricatures and paintings of Berlin life in the 1920s, wrote: “No epoch has been as hostile to art as today’s” (Art Is in Danger).

For this reason, many children of the capitalist and upper-middle classes broke from their own class, and were attracted to the working-class demands emerging in revolutionary movements. Karl Marx and his co-philosopher Friedrich Engels were themselves examples of this phenomenon even before they examined and explained it.

So, from the second half of the 19th century, the anticapitalist sentiment of ‘avant-garde’ artists was quite strong. Baudelaire sympathised with the Parisian revolutionaries in 1848, and claimed he wanted to shoot his stepfather, first commander of the ‘École polytechnique’ university, then French ambassador to Constantinople. The hugely influential French poet Arthur Rimbaud participated in and was enthused by the 1871 Paris Commune.

The German-language Czech writer Franz Kafka attended progressive political meetings, and perhaps some anarchist ones. He had experience of capitalism first of all in his family: “In this period the factory is really entrusted to a sole worker boss, and no financier, least of all a nervous man like my father, will have doubts about the real fraudulent workings of the factory these days.” He then saw more of it in his profession as an office worker. The Swiss-German artist Paul Klee wrote: “The more the building of my individuality is strengthened, the more all the bourgeois [capitalists] around me appear weakened” (Diaries, 1898-1918).

This does not mean that all artists experiencing anticapitalist feelings become revolutionaries. Sometimes they end up feeding reactionary movements. Consider the support that the Italian Futurists gave to fascism. But when they come across Marxism, they often pass to the side of the revolution.

Art and mass production

In this framework, we see the consequences of technological development, as analysed by Benjamin. The ancient Greeks, he observes, knew only two forms of technically reproducing works of art: founding and stamping. Scientific development enriches the range of reproduction: movable type printing, wood-engraving, lithography.

But with the advent of photography and cinema, a qualitative leap occurs. Art possesses the means to fix ‘reality’ in an instant, and reproduce it in an unlimited number of copies, through a technique which rapidly becomes ever cheaper, and therefore (potentially) accessible to anyone.

In this way, art loses what Benjamin calls its “aura”: its unique, non-reproducible and unchangeable essence – enjoyable only in a restricted context decided by the ruling elite, like a church. In short, that quality which allowed the ruling classes to assimilate artworks into objects of worship.

The possibility of hanging a photographic reproduction of the Mona Lisa in the living room of a working-class home – or interfering with it, as Marcel Duchamp did, tracing a moustache on her face; brightening up the image, like Man Ray; transforming the shades into acrylic colours like advertisement boards, as Andy Warhol did – contorts the photo’s connection with the original artwork, eliminating its sacredness.

This, in turn, modifies the function of art in our society, says Benjamin. “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.”

This statement helps in understanding some aspects of the relationship between the artistic avant-garde and revolutionary movements. This relationship is based not only on the choice of social themes and style, as with Stalin’s ‘socialist realism’. Nor only on the elaboration of “certain theses about proletarian art after the taking of power, and even less on theses about that of a classless society, but rather theses about the tendencies of the development of art in the current conditions
of production.”

In other words, the point is not just using art as a ‘communication strategy’ subordinated to a political programme. Rather it is recognising art as work, and as a necessary human activity, whose labourers and products are a necessary part of the struggle against capitalism and to build a socialist society in their own right.

Art must become accessible to all not only in terms of enjoyment, but also in practice. Technological development partially marginalises technical skills, reduces the capacity of the art schools to control and restrict style and content. But it also shows the possibility of building a society in which “there will not be painters, but there will be at most men who, amongst other things, will also paint; in which I will have the possibility to do this today and that tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the evening, tomorrow maybe raise cattle and after lunch, for example, to critique, according to my tastes at the time, and nevertheless I will never become a hunter, a fisherman, a shepherd, a critic” (Marx, ‘The German Ideology’).

Without a revolutionary process to take the wealth and means of producing it out of the hands of the capitalists, the reproduction of artworks risks producing, in the main, mere commodities, of poor quality.

The 20th century English novelist and philosopher Aldous Huxley wrote: “School education and relatively high salaries have created a wide public which is capable of reading and able to obtain objects to read and illustrative material. To produce this, an important industry has been created. Now, however, artistic talents are something very rare.” This is a comment which Benjamin describes – rightly – as ‘non-progressive’. But it grasps a real danger.

Just as mass production lays the basis for creating a socialist society, without socialism, mass art becomes simply standardisation and technical, zombie-like reproduction. The technology prefigures a real democratisation of art, but in the meantime results merely in the creation of a capitalist culture market. That is effectively what has happened. That is what we must fight against.

Marco Veruggio is editor of the ControCorrente journal in Italy.

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