Em oi! #372: But is it Art?

I'm very popular on the internets in my head.

Comic to be filed under: B3209.B583W6 L86 2012, for Philosophy (General)—Modern(1450/1600-)—By region or country—Germany, Austria (German)—By period—Later 19th and 20th centuries—Individual philosophers—Avenarius – Brauer—Benjamin, Walter, 1892-1940—Separate works, A-Z. What a mouthful.

I have been trying to find a good summary of Walter Benjamin’s (say it like an academic: Ben-ya-mean) “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (or, alternatively, “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility”) essay. Because it is the most oft-quoted essay of the 20th century (maybe), there are a few available. Wikipedia has a very bare-bones, straightforward summation. Yale’s Modernism Lab (perhaps unsurprisingly) has a much better, more detailed explanation. Finally the (much beloved?) Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy offers some critical notes, not just on that piece (or rather the two pieces, since he wrote two versions of the essay) but on the themes of art and aura in Benjamin’s work.

Basically there are two things you probably need to know in order to understand the essay: The first thing is that Benjamin is worried about methods of reproducing art–specifically, methods like photography and film–and how they change the original. For example, when I was in college, I had a poster of the Creation of Man (by Michaelangelo) on my wall:

And G-d said, “Let there be naked people!” And lo…

Philosophically speaking, there are a lot of differences between the poster and the original version on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. I mean, one is a fresco and one is a photograph printed on (high quality) paper, but also, as Benjamin puts it, “reproduction…[places] the copy of the original in situations which the original itself cannot attain” (21). In other words, the Sistine Chapel would never fit in my dorm room, while the poster will. So reproducing the image creates this loss of authenticity, or what Benjamin refers to as “aura.” In his words,

It might be stated as a general formula that the technology of reproduction detaches the reproduced object from the sphere of tradition. By replicating the work many times over, it substitutes a mass existence for a unique existence. And in permitting the reproduction to reach the recipient in his or her own situation, it actualizes that which is reproduced. These two processes lead to a massive upheaval in the domain of objects handed down from the past–a shattering of tradition which is the reverse side of the present crisis and renewal of humanity. Both processes are intimately related to the mass movements of our day. (22)

By “the present crisis,” I believe Benjamin means the rise of fascism, specifically in Germany. And by “mass movements” he means both fascism and Marxism. That’s the second thing you have to understand about Benjamin: he was a German Jew who escaped to Paris in the early 1930s, from whence he published this essay; eventually, he committed suicide while trying to escape France to the US via Spain when the situation looked grim [edited to add: or perhaps he was killed by Stalin’s agents in the area!]. He had a brother who was killed in the Camps. Beyond this, he was a Marxist. So while his discussion of aura, as the Stanford Encyclopedia suggests, has been accused of being overly nostalgic, I don’t think that’s really the case–he doesn’t seem nostalgic about the changes he’s describing, more just trying to explain how he thinks art has changed since the advent of (specifically) the moving picture.

So as a good Marxist, Benjamin when confronted by film suggests that it is the masses who essentially control film–more than perhaps any other art, it has a clear economic driver behind it. “While [the screen actor] stands before the apparatus [camera], he knows that in the end he is confronting the masses. It is they who will control him” (33). This changes the relationship between the masses and the art (36). Here he leans heavily on some psychological theory (Freud among others) to suggest that because of the way film acts on the mind (conscious and unconscious), it can act as an “immunization against…mass psychoses” (38). However that means, in a sense, that film can also brainwash people.

Now, fascism (which Benjamin views as Marxism without the dissolution of property/class), is not the first political movement to have used that old lie, “Dolce et decorum est pro patria mori.” Sparta comes to mind, and Rome (that phrase comes from Horace), and the Vikings/Norse all glorified death in battle, to say nothing of the Crusades, the Samurai, WWII-era Kamikaze units (maybe?)… However, fascism’s “logical outcome…is an aestheticizing of political life” (41) which results in war. “War, and only war, makes it possible to set a goal for mass movements on the grandest scale while preserving traditional property relations” (ibid.). In essence, the fascists create an aesthetic glorification of war in order to promote this agenda. If you have ever seen Triumph of the Will, you will know exactly what Benjamin was talking about.

Benjamin concludes, famously:

“Fiat ars–pereat mundis,” [Let art flourish and the world pass away] says fascism, expecting from war…the artistic gratification of a sense perception altered by technology. This is evidently the consummation of l’art pour l’art [art for art’s sake]. Humankind, which once, in Homer, was an object of contemplation for the Olympian gods, has now become one for itself. Its self-alienation has reached the point where it can experience its own annihilation as a supreme aesthetic pleasure. Such is the aestheticizing of politics, as practiced by fascism. Communism replies by politicizing art. (42)

I have occasionally had reason to read Benjamin–his essay “The Task of the Translator” is another classic–and I often have this problem where I will have issues with the particulars of his argument but on the whole, I cannot refute his overall point. After reading this essay, I wondered if I could justify watching films that continue to glorify war.

I’m still going to see Skyfall. But one interesting problem to address in my own writing (as I think the more recent Bond writers have tried to do) will be to examine the non-glorified outcomes of violence.


Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility.” In The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility, and Other Writings on Media, edited by Michael W. Jennings, Brigid Doherty, and Thomas Y. Levin, translated by Edmund Jephcott, Rodney Livingstone, Howard Eiland, et al. (19-55) Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2008. (Also found here.)

Owen, Wilfred. “Dolce et Decorum Est.” The War Poetry Website, edited by David Roberts. Last updated 2011. http://www.warpoetry.co.uk/owen1.html. Retrieved 26 December 2012.

Flowers from Mormon Central

I took this picture at the Mormon Holy See in SLC a few weeks ago. Tonight my brother Daniel helped walk me through the process of making it “less red” (per B’s request). I think it looks pretty good now.

Say what you will about the Mormons (and I’m sure you will), they certainly have some nice gardens in Temple Square.


Illuminations: A Picture for Jesse and Keith

My cousin Jesse got married in June to a really great guy named Keith.

I just looked through all of our wedding photos and was unable to find any with both of them in it!  So here’s an amusing picture of Jesse alone with a large drink:

Big drink or small hands?

And here’s a photo of the two of them from Daniel and Claire’s wedding:

Click any of the photos to embiggen them, by the way.

Last year when Daniel and Clarie got married, I made a very fancy comic for them (this.) I knew I couldn’t let Jesse and Keith get married without doing something equally cool.

BUT there was a problem. I was around for all of Daniel and Claire’s courtship, so I could recount it in comic form. Jesse…was in Evanston, IL doing her doctoral work when she met Keith, and although I met him (through the magic of the internets) fairly early on, I wasn’t privy to the details of their life…and to call up and ask for some details would give the game away. So I had to come up with something else.

What I eventually did was an illumination. Jesse, see, is a medievalist, and Keith is…well, not a medievalist but he likes her. It made sense at the time. Go with it.

Anyway, I wanted to take a moment to post some of the in-progress photos, since this project consumed most of May and June and overall I’m pretty happy with how it came out. I’ll offer a little commentary on how I came up with the design, just in case anyone is curious.
First SketchKeith design the first

On the left here we have my first sketch of the design.  As you can see, I initially wanted to do Jesse’s name in a pseudo-Hebrew font and Keith’s name in a way that reflected his heritage somehow.  On the right is a closeup of some early attempts at that.  Above his name is the phrase, “A Musical Representation of Staggering is my Amy Winehouse Coverband.”  So we can date this to the night we went to the Jonathan Coulton/Paul and Storm show at the Majestic, which I think was late April (around the 24th).

You might also note that this version of the picture had small portraits of both Jesse and Keith in it.

The Initials


On the left, an early sketch of the J and the K initials. The design for the J was fairly easy; Jesse had listed an illuminated Haggadah on the registry (this one, in fact) so I just tried to make the J similar. But what to do about the K?

First I thought, well, Keith is African-American, I could do something using African patterns. But A) what part of Africa? It’s a huge country full of lots of different cultures. B) Anyway, he’s not African, he’s African-American. C) Also, isn’t that kind of weird, like othering or racializing or…I don’t know. Something. I started thinking at this point about traditional African-American art…which is mostly musical. First I thought, “Oh, the blues were invented by Picasso because he couldn’t afford other colors of paint.“*  So that should be an easy solution, just make it blue.

All kidding aside, I wasn’t entirely sure how to go from music to visual representation. And the main difference between me and a real artist is that I decided, instead of solving this problem, to change tracks. I made the Ks in the center and right. I put little finials on them in the style of the national wat in Vientiane (Laos) because Keith calls himself a “secular Buddhist” on his Facebook page.

I’m deep.

Layout 1.0
The first version of the Layout.

lettering version 1.0flowers and dog 1.0

On the left: some various small letters. I was trying to learn Caroline or Carolingian Minuscule. Since I’m not a monk, it took a lot of practice. On the right, an early layout for the dog/flowers. Of course, when I put everything together, the layout had to change.

Putting it all together:

Final Thumbnail

This one also shows some experimentation with the swirly orange things and the lettering.**

After I’d settled on a design, all that was left was sketching it, inking and coloring it, and then framing it.
Sketch 1Sketch 2



That’s not a terrific photo, but it’s the only one I have.  And it did end up blue, but more because of the Scrovegni Cappella by Giotto (in Padua, Italy) that I toured with Jesse in 2002 or 2003.

Thanks for coming along on this journey with me. I hope you found it interesting, at least. Now no one else get married for a couple of months, I need to finish my novel.

* I’m super good at art history. I even own a blue guitar. True story.
** Swirly orange things taken from a Tibetan tapestry I found, I think. Because of the Buddhist thing.