The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction

Benjamin, Vinyl, and Almost Famous

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With sound and music studies in mind, I recently re-read Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Benjamin famously suggests that the mass reproduction of art has stripped it of its “aura,” which he defines as the mystical emanation surrounding an aesthetic object that identifies its authenticity. Proposing three stages of art, Benjamin explains how this aura originates and decays: in the first stage, art is appreciated for its cult or ritualistic value; that is, someone would create a unique piece of art (like a sculpture) for worship.  Second, following this religious stage is a secular one, where people value art for its aesthetic beauty. Benjamin claims that during the Renaissance and for three centuries thereafter, aesthetic objects retain their aura. (Think of any famous Renaissance painting; there is still a spiritual presence surrounding that very object, which is why, in part, we revere them.) In the third stage machines begin to mass-produce art, and the aesthetic object’s aura disappears. Once art is made for reproduction, Benjamin explains, the “authentic” product is no longer valued, and the original will become indistinguishable from its innumerable duplicates. He gives the example of a photo, which does not carry the same presence as, say, a Renaissance portrait; we value the photo for its (reproducible) content, not for its original print. As Benjamin writes, “one can make any number of prints; to ask for the ‘authentic’ print makes no sense” (256).

Walter Benjamin

But has mechanical reproduction totally diminished art’s aura? My immediate counter-argument to Benjamin’s history of art is the vinyl record. I have what may be a very subjective response to vinyl: when I hold one of my records, I can sense the very aura Benjamin describes. Yet maybe my feelings aren’t so unique; the recent resurgence in record sales cannot be attributed only to the (often debated) difference in sound between vinyls and CDs/MP3s. There is an allure to records — no other format (CDs, cassettes, and, especially, digital music) has the same cultish appeal.  Even though records are mass produced, their form — not to mention the music they hold — still carries some cultish and aesthetic value.

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