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Walter Benjamin and the German "Reproduction Debate"

Gydrgy Markus
"The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technical Reproduction" is undoubtedly the best
known, most widely discussed and referred to writing of Benjamin. The editors of a recently
published volume dealing specifically with this essay go significantly further in their assessment of its impact. The Artwork essay, they write in their Foreword, "is probably the most
frequently cited and most intensely debated essay in the history of the academic humanities in
the twentieth century" (Gumbrecht XIII). To this, however, they immediately add: "[T]he past
seven decades have shown that almost none of Benjamin's central predictions have proven to
be right." (Gumbrecht XIII-XIV) The aura has not disappeared, but conquered even the field
of art's technical reproduction; film has not developed along the lines indicated by him into a
critical medium for the "masses"; politicisation of art hardly seems to be a relevant practical
proposal against its misuses today. These are, one should acknowledge, at least quite plausible
critical remarks, to which probably one could add several more.
This is the paradox of Benjamin's actuality to which this representative volume of more
than thirty essays is ultimately addressed. The book does not resolve its enigma, however, it
only dramatises it. Some contributors (passionately or ironically) reject the central ideas of the
Artwork essay, taking it to stand metonymically for Benjamin's whole oeuvre. Others seem to
be primarily interested in appropriating it as a "precursor" to some contemporary trends of
thought, as diverse as a McLuhanite media theory, Luhmann's conception of social systems
or Baudrillard's idea of simulacra. And in-between there are papers which - perhaps without
attempting a global evaluation - draw attention to some important observations of Benjamin
that point to developmental trends which reached a relative maturity only in our age of electronic media.
In this situation perhaps Benjamin's own views concerning the nature of understanding of
the works of the past can help to explain the paradox of his own afterlife. He certainly radically rejected the idea of interpretation as the disclosure of assumed authorial intentions, perhaps refracted through its reception by his/her contemporaries. Historical understanding is "an
afterlife of that which has been understood and whose pulse can be felt in the presenf (Benjamin II.2. 468/3. 262).' However fruitftil hermeneutically this formulation might be, it still
seems to assume - in its categorical lapidariness, so characteristic of Benjamin's style - that
there can be some safe method to identify and measure what truly pulsates in a work for us
today. If, however, such an understanding means, as he asserts, the ever renewed task of mak1

All references to Benjamin's works are to the Gesammelte Schriften and the Selected Writings. The pagination and volume are given in the text. The German precedes the English.


Gy orgy Markus

ing a work actual for the historical moment, for the Now in its openness, in its suspension between the past and future, then the idea of a single "true actuality" can only be projected into
that Messianic future, the stillstand of which renders the whole of history legible. For our profane, deeply divided Now this is not even an approachable ideal. There is no "solution" to the
paradox of Benjamin's influence, to the so diversely appreciated, but generally felt simultaneous radical actuality and inactuality of his ideas. For any understanding will depend on the
interpreter's grasp of his/her own situation, its potentialities, its weak ("Messianic") power if any - to interrupt the false continuity of history.
On the other hand Benjamin equally insists on the necessity of distinguishing the making
actual of a work for the Now from its superficial or false "actualisation". The former demands
a disclosure of its truth-content, which is distinct from, but approachable only through the investigation of its material content, tied to the time of its origin. To find out what "pulsates" in
a work thus requires the reconstruction of its historical context, not as anecdotal or positivistically accumulated facts, but in its bearing upon the situation of the writing itself, which in a
divided world cannot be but - implicitly or explicitly - polemical. This will not solve the
paradox of the simultaneous nearness and famess of Benjamin's thought for us, but it can at
least exclude some (perhaps not inconsequential and rare) misunderstandings.
Such recourse to the historical background seems to be particularly desirable in respect of
the Artwork essay. The extraordinary weight and significance attributed to it, together with its
striking originality, seem to render the pedestrian questions concerning its actual "origin" irrelevant. It is therefore rarely realised or acknowledged that the general question addressed in
the essay - does technical reproducibility change, and if so, then how, the situation of contemporary art? - was not at all peculiar or original to Benjamin. It had been widely discussed
in Weimar Germany, especially in respect of photography, which is also the subject-matter of
a paper from 1931 that already contains some of the fundamental ideas to which he then returns in the years of emigration, in the different versions of the Artwork essay. It was this
context to which Benjamin, then a publicist aiming at a strategic intervention into the most
broadly conceived literary life in Germany, first reacted in ways partly foreshadowing his
later discussion. To understand what is truly "original" in the Artwork essay, it is useful to
situate it in the context of its "origin".
There had been a lively dispute in Weimar Germany concerning the aesthetic, and more
broadly cultural, significance of photography as a new, technical form of representation and
reproduction. More precisely there was not one such dispute, but two. One of these concerned
the relationship between photography and painting, the latter exemplifying the classical conception of art. This was a long-standing polemic with a widespread echo, and Benjamin directly referred and reacted to it. The other was a very specific, short-lived and marginal dispute in a provincial art journal. Its peculiar topic, the possible function of photography of
works of art, plays, however, a fundamental role in his writings on technical reproducibility. It
cannot, however, be convincingly proven that he knew about it, though if not, this certainly

Walter Benjamin and the German "Reproduction Debate"


would be a rather strange case of coincidence. In any case, the views expressed in this later
debate - in their differences and even more in their underlying commonalities - were embedded in the cultural atmosphere of Germany at the end of the twenties.
It is somewhat arbitrary to date the first controversy, since it essentially continued the old
debate, going on from the middle of nineteenth century, about "photography as art", the obverse side - as Benjamin will later indicate - of its commercialisation. With the emergence of
the post-war avant-garde this dispute acquired, however (and not only in Germany), a new
direction and content. It no longer was concerned with the possibility of making aesthetically
satisfying, "truly painterly" photos, but rather questioned the future of traditionally understood paintings in view of all the new possibilities opened up (though still not sufficiently exploited) by the modem techniques of visual reproduction. For the German discussion the appearance of the book by Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, one of the central figures of the Bauhaus, in
1925 had a decisive significance. The short and somewhat impressionistic text of Malerei,
Photographie, Film served as the reference point for the ensuing discussion.
Painting, wrote Moholy-Nagy, traditionally fulfilled two, quite distinct functions: expression of the relations between colours and light-values, on the one hand, and representation of
the elements of external reality with their associative contents, on the other. The first is based
on culture-independent, biological universals, the second is necessarily culture-dependent
(Moholy-Nagy 8-9). Photography now allows the splitting of these two tasks corresponding to
the general tendency of human development. For this demands the purification of the expressional means pertaining to different functions so that they could reach their optimum, i. e. the
highest intensity rooted in their biological laws, the achievement of which is actually the task
of art (Moholy-Nagy 16-17). Photography and film can fulfil the task of representation incomparably better than easel painting; they emancipate this latter to concern itself solely with
pure colour compositions (abstract or absolute painting). "The traditional painting has become
a historical relic and is finished with." (Moholy-Nagy 45) The technologies of the camera not
only offer a much more accurate picture of reality, not only extend the scope of visibility ultimately they are able to produce purely optical, strictly objective representations as opposed to the unaided visual perception which is always embedded in a network of culturally
and individually specific associations, confounding the optical and the conceptual. With photography and film "we may say that we see the world with an entirely different eye" (MoholyNagy 29).
Moholy-Nagy certainly takes pains to underline repeatedly the legitimacy and future perspective of "absolute" painting (he certainly does not wish to alienate completely such colleagues at the Bauhaus as Klee or Kandinsky). However, even in this respect his emphasis
falls on the limited potential of painting in comparison with that opened up by the new optical
technologies. For painting is necessarily static, while these last - which "reach their highest
level in the film" (Moholy-Nagy 33) - are able to explore and visually express kinetic relations, "creating a light-space-time continuity in the synthesis of motion", "an optical passage
of time in a state of equilibrium" (Moholy-Nagy 21). These possibilities, however, are essentially still unrealised. Understandably so, since it usually takes a long time for the truly revo-


Gyorgy Markus

lutionary consequences of a new technology to be properly utilised. There are, however, already some attempts in this direction - Moholy refers to the photograms of Man Ray and
himself, and also to some experimental films. A large part of his book presents practical proposals for exploring these possibilities - some prophetic, some phantasmagoric technological
The realisation of these hidden potentialities promises to change radically the activities of
both the recipient public and the artist creator, and thereby the place of art in modem life. As
forms of mass production they make art widely available to the masses. As a way to trace art
back to its universal ground in the laws of the human sensorium, they correspond to the collectivist, universalising tendency of our age. Through the combination of photo and typography "the unambiguousness of the real, the truth in the everyday situation is there for all
classes" (Moholy-Nagy 38). At the same time the new kinetic images demand an increased
activity on the part of the recipient, who - instead of contemplatively immersing him/herself
in the static image - must actively participate in the optic event to seize it instantaneously in
its change. On the other hand, they unbound genuine creativity, emancipating it from the task
of manual execution, and more broadly from that of mere reproduction in the sense of the
repetition of the already achieved and familiar. "In fact, in comparison with the inventive
mental process of the genesis of the work, the question of its execution is important only in so
far as it must be mastered to the limit. The manner, however - whether personal or by assignment of labour, whether manual or mechanical - is irrelevant." (Moholy-Nagy 26)
Moholy-Nagy's book represented a synthesis of the various ideas underlying the general
enthusiasm of the post-war avant-garde towards photography. In the latter twenties, however,
they came under concentrated attack, provoking a wide-ranging debate that endured into the
late thirties. This opposition against the passionate involvement of the avant-garde with the
formal possibilities offered by the new media, the call for a "return to realism", was not
merely a German phenomenon. Neither was it restricted to the field of photography alone. A
similar dispute erupted around the same time in a particularly sharp form in France concerning the legitimacy of the experimental, "pure" film.^ Nor was such a turn solely, or even predominantly, motivated by conservative - aesthetical or political - impulses. In fact its main
initiator in Germany - beside the photographer Albert Renger-Patzsch - was Emo Kallai, another Hungarian emigrant, the editor of Sozialistische Monatshefte and one of the early theorists of the constructivist avant-garde. Though the causes of this change in the cultural atmosphere of the time were certainly diverse and manifold, a not unimportant role was played in it
by the growing disillusionment precisely of the Left with the sweeping promises and expectations of the avant-garde concerning the ability of the new art to contribute to the transformation of life. This was also connected with a broader disappointment with the prospects held
out by technical development itself, a critique of "progressivist" illusions. The slogan of "re-

See the material (and the editorial introduction) presented in Part IV of the anthology edited by R. Abel.

Walter Benjamin and the German "Reproduction Debate"


alism" frequently was a way of expressing the demand {one way of expressing it) for an art
more directly and critically engaged with social reality.
Initially Kallai's and Renger-Patzsch's criticisms were based on quite different considerations. Kallai's argument was of a general aesthetical character. Photography can never legitimately compete with painting, and still less supplement it, because of its principal aesthetic
insufficiency: the lack of facture. The artistic excellence of a painting ftindamentally depends
on the tension (and its resolution) between the palpable, tactile materiality of its surface and
the ideal meaning of the presented image, the sublated contradiction between the materiality
of the means and the spirituality of the expressed intention. The transparent, mirror-like surface of the photo makes it devoid of this creative strain. Instead of pursuing the unrealisable
end of creating on such a technical basis a new, superior realm of art, the future of photography lies in consistently following its genuine vocation: the truly objective, impersonal reproduction of meaningfully selected, socially significant aspects and fragments of reality.
The initial target of Renger-Patzsch's criticism was much narrower: the still prevalent
practice of "painterly", artificially arranged and posed, highly retouched photography (equally
rejected also by Moholy-Nagy and Kallai). It violates the fundamental law of art: the unity of
technique and material. Only "absolute realism" allows photography to achieve its inherent
end: to capture - beyond the means of painting - the hidden magic of material things, from
the transient beauty of flowers to the dynamism of machines.
In spite of these differing points of departure and diverse emphases, Kallai and RengerPatzsch soon found themselves in a solidaristically accepted common front. The avant-garde
experiments with photography represent only the latest phase of the failed, nonsensical attempts to emulate and compete with painting, now with its modem form, i. e. abstract painting. This can result only in vain, formal decorativeness, a craving for and affectation of originality, mere conversational fodder for the culture-mongers (cf Phillips 140-141).
Benjamin was undoubtedly familiar with this dispute and the standpoints of its main representatives. Though Moholy-Nagy's faith in the beneficial effects of technological progress
was truly alien (and alienating) to him, his sympathies concerning the parties in this debate
were unambiguous. In his essay, "Little History of Photography" (1931) he approvingly
quotes from Moholy's book, one of the few explicit references in this paper (cf Benjamin
ILL 382-383/2. 523).^ Renger-Patzsch, on the other hand, was one of his betes noires. He repeatedly referred to the highly successful album of this photographer. Die Welt ist schon, as
representing that photographischer Schmock, the pseudo-realism of which "has succeeded in
transforming even abject poverty - by apprehending it in fashionably perfected manner - into
an object of enjoymenf (Benjamin ILL 383/2. 526). This serves only one political function:
"to renew from within - that is, fashionably - the world as it is." (Benjamin II.2. 693/2. 775)
In fact it seems that Benjamin generally followed Moholy's writings with some interest. In his first paper
explicitly dealing with photography ("Neues von Blumen", from 1928), he quotes also from one of
Moholy's articles written after the publication of the book, an article that appeared in a small Viennese
photo-journal (see II.2. 151/2. 155-156).


Gyorgy Markus

Nevertheless, and in spite of his expressed sympathies with the photographic experiments
of the Constructivists, Dadaists and Surrealists, Benjamin already in his 1931 essay proposes
to side-step the traditional aesthetic debate about "photography-as-art". Instead, one should
investigate the social fact of "art-as-photography" and its function (Benjamin ILL 381/2.
530). In the sharper and clearer formulation of the Artwork essay this means no more to pose
the "misguided and confused" question as to whether photography is an art, but to raise "the
more fundamental question of whether the invention of photography had not transformed the
entire character of art", primarily effected through the photographic reproduction of works of
art (Benjamin 1.2. 486/4. 258).
Though this program is already formulated in the 1931 essay on the history of photography, it is only partially realised in it. For this whole history is in fact reconstructed by Benjamin in terms of the changing relation of an aesthetic competition between painting and photography. It is essentially described as a process in three stages. The early, "pre-industrial"
portrait daguerreotypes - owing to a complex of technical and social conditions - successfully
preserved the aura of their human subject, on which their lasting charm and "magical value"
is based. (This is also the first occasion that Benjamin explicitly defines the concept of "aura"
- Benjamin ILL 378/2. 518-519.) In this way they also finished off some genres of painting,
first of all portrait miniature. (Elsewhere Benjamin suggests that Impressionism was first of
all a defensive reaction against the competitive achievements of photography.) Further technical and social changes, however, slowly undermined the exact congruence of technique and
subject, upon which the artistic success of early daguerreotypes was based (Benjamin
376/517). The great precursors of modem photography - first of all Atget and Sander - radically faced up to the fundamental character of this change: the destruction of the aura and the
estrangement between man and his surroundings. Their images offered to the "politically educated eye" a direct, palpable testimony of the guilty secrets of the age by capturing its unremarked and unremarkable details, making the familiar suddenly strange (Benjamin 378379/518-519).
This was, however, an exceptional reaction. Commercial photography, following the imperatives of the market, in general responded to the destruction of the aura by its artificial
simulation - highly retouched, posed photos in the studio, among props borrowed from the
tradition of famous paintings, "the bad painters' revenge on photography". This was the long
(and still enduring) period of "painterly" photos, whose attempt to remain "artistic" resulted
in a "sharp decline of taste" (Benjamin 374-375/515). However, Benjamin unambiguously
suggests, now a new stage is beginning. "For once again, as eighty years before, photography
has taken the baton from painting." (Benjamin 382/523) This is heralded by Surrealist photography (and the Russian film) sacrificing the false allure of creativity and fashionable beauty
for the task of unmasking and/or construction, for the sake of a critical instruction that must
be brought home to the beholder by caption/inscription. In this way photography itself be-

Walter Benjamin and the German "Reproduction Debate"


comes a constitutive element in the general process of literarisation of conditions of life (Benjamin 385/527).^
Given this construction of the history of photography and especially its concluding prognosis, Benjamin's programmatic statement advocating a fundamental change of approach to
photography, the abandonment of its aesthetic comparison with painting, comes rather unexpectedly. In fact the brief discussion that follows and explicates it appears rather as an insertion interrupting the historical exposition. And this explication begins with a striking assertion: "[T]he impact of photographic reproduction of artworks is of very much greater importance for the function of art than the greater or lesser artistry of a photography that regards all
experience as fair game for the camera." (Benjamin 381/520)
Works of art as a particular class of subjects for representation: this had not even been
mentioned earlier in the essay, nor did it play any prominent role in the long-standing disputes
about the potentialities and values of photography.^ However, the problems associated with
them had been - particularly from a museological standpoint - vehemently disputed in a
short-lived debate that took place in a provincial art journal not much more than a year before
Benjamin wrote his essay.
Between March 1929 and March 1930 a polemical discussion, ultimately with ten participants, had taken place in the small, left-wing Hamburg journal Der Kreis. Zeitschrift filr
kilnstlerische Kultur.^ It began as a controversy between two directors of regional museums.
Max Sauerlandt (Hamburg) and Carl G. Heise (Lubeck), about the aesthetic and pedagogical
legitimacy of plaster and galvanoplastic reproduction of sculptures. The topic of the discussion, however, soon changed - it shifted to the value (or its lack) of various kinds of photographic reproductions of paintings. This shift to a large extent was a response to a minor cultural provocation. In the spring of 1929 a small exhibition (probably sponsored by the reproduction industry) was organised in Hannover that presented some original works of art on paper alongside their high quality reproductions (facsimile prints). A prize competition was offered to the visitors to distinguish between them. And, as was announced afterwards, no one
among the well over a hundred competitors could quite correctly solve this task.
As intended, this provocation had a rather wide echo in the press. The dispute in Der
Kreis was its theoretically most articulated part. The opposed "conservative" and "progressivist" positions were most clearly represented in it by the contributions of K. K. Eberling, on the

It is in the earliest notes ("Paralipomena") to the Artwork essay that this broad concept of "literarisation" is
replaced by Benjamin with that of "politicisation" (cf. Benjamin 1.3. 1039).
In fact Moholy-Nagy in his book (25) touches upon the use of photography for the creation of a "domestic
picture-gallery" of photos and transparencies, not to serve as pieces of lifeless room-decoration, but kept on
shelves or cupboards, essentially for purposes of eventual study. He does not ascribe, however, any broader
importance to it.
The history of this dispute is discussed in a paper by Diers.


Gyorgy Markus

one hand, and A. Domer, on the other. The widest and most searching discussion of the issues
involved was, however, contributed by Erwin Panofsky, whose paper, however, due to its
length (14 printed pages!), could not be included in this small journal, but was published as a
separatum, for a long time lost and forgotten.
The art-historian Eberling regards (as Sauerlandt did in his earlier paper) facsimile reproductions just as commercially clever forgeries. They bear testimony only to the visual barbarism of the times, to the common decline of the capacity of experience and memory. They
may have a limited usefulness, especially for a scholar, as mnemonic aids, but any wider use
of them reflects only the brutal utilitarianism and false democratism of the age. For "[t]here is
no universal right to art" (Phillips 148). It is an aristocratic thing, in an ethical, not a political
sense - its understanding and enjoyment have to be acquired and earned. Reproductions,
however good, offer only a cheap, falsifying substitute for genuine aesthetic experience, for
they lack the "epidermis" of the living work of art. (This is what Sauerlandt more emphatically called its mind-body unity: the absolute unification of the general form-idea with its irreplaceable, unique materialisation.) Uniqueness and authenticity are fundamental characteristics of a work of art. They constitute what Eberling calls its "mysterious, magical, biological
'flwra'" (Phillips 148), that can never be forged and without which art itself loses its sovereignty.
Domer (director of the Hannover Museum) in his reply concedes that facsimiles of artworks of the past violate their original meaning-intention to which being unique essentially
belonged. It is only some contemporary artists, like Mondrian or Lissitsky, whose works not
only allow, but actually welcome reproduction. But the tension between the integrity of the
works of the past and our present needs and interests does not originate with the use of mechanical reproductive technologies. It is already present in the institution and practice of the
art-museum. Museum exhibition itself violates the original purpose of the work and the intention of its creator. Ancient works of art are, however, not historical relics. The experience of
their historical authenticity is quite separable from the aesthetic apprehension of the artist's
ideas that reproductions even today can convey with minimal loss. This is the price to be paid
for not conserving art as an isolated island in the stream of modem life, but making its experience generally available. While he accepts that "the ideal artistic experience is naturally obtained before the original" (Phillips 153), he simultaneously envisages the possibility of such
a further development of the technologies of reproduction owing to which facsimiles in the
future ultimately may become capable of replacing the original (Phillips 151).
Panofsky opposes the standpoint of both camps in this dispute, arguing that they are
based on a shared misconception. Both assume that the ultimate end of reproductive technologies is to replace the original work of art. No doubt some (perhaps a great many) recipients today are unable to distinguish the original from its facsimile. This subjective failure,
however, as little proves the ability of the latter to replace the former, as the fear-reactions of
the members of an early cinema audience, when seeing on the screen an oncoming locomotive, proved the capacity of film to replace reality. In respect of the other great form of reproduction, musical records, even the minimally educated musical ear is capable today of making

Walter Benjamin and the German "Reproduction Debate"


such a distinction. Mechanical reproductions of whatever kind can never aim at replacing the
original, just because they are mechanical: they have their specific acoustics or optics of an
inorganic character, directly perceivable after some experience with them. Their end can be
nothing but to be a good (i. e. accurate) reproduction. And in this respects fme arts are in a
worse situation than music - because the reproduction of their works is still not sufficiently,
completely mechanical. The production of facsimiles still demands the intervening role of a
human person. Therefore such prints still lack that homogeneous quality which makes a musical record immediately recognisable as such. This is, however, merely a sign of their technical
underdevelopment (Panofsky 1079-1083).
Reproductions, however good they may be, can never replace the original artwork, because they can never convey that "experience of authenticity" {Echtheitserlebnis) that is an
irreplaceable ingredient - but only one ingredient - of the fiill aesthetic experience provided
by the latter. They are, however, necessary today, primarily because the general cultural interest in arts, stimulated and demanded in modernity, stands opposed to that practical limitation
of space and time that is freely available to the individual. Therefore they are needed not only
by the "poor student", but ultimately also by the well-to-do enthusiast of authentic experience
(Panofsky 1080-181).
At the same time Panofsky is sharply critical of those who regard authenticity as the defining feature of the artwork, by arguing that its aesthetic essence consists in the absolute
unity of an irreproducible, singular materialisation and an ideal meaning content. Such a view
hypostatises a particularly modem conception of art. It was ftindamentally alien both to its
Aristotelian and Neo-Platonic understanding, dominant in its earlier history, both of which
considered material embodiment of the form-idea its necessary, but discretional, merely passive substrate. The demand and experience of authenticity changes in history, and its weight
and significance are also different in different artistic genres, style epochs and for different
creative personalities. Furthermore important constituents of this experience - patina, weathering, discolouration, all the results of natural changes that the work as a material product has
undergone in time and which offer a testimony of its historically unique origin - in many
cases confound the intended meaning of the work. The experience of authenticity and the
comprehension of meaning (Sinn-Erlebnis) may follow completely different paths; overemphasising the first may seriously distort the second (Panofsky 1084-1088). Panofsky ends his
paper with an emphatic conclusion: if the ability to distinguish the original from its mechanical reproduction were lost, this would signal not only the end of the appropriate understanding
of art, but rather the end of art itself Its death, however, would not have been caused by the
technique and practices of reproduction.
This schematic overview of the main tenets of the Hamburg debate indicates, I think, not
only that its specific topic coincided with one of the fundamental issues discussed by Benjamin in his related papers. There are also a number of ideas and observations, even formulations, made by the protagonists of this controversy which in either a positive or negative, po-


Gyorgy Markus

lemical sense seem to return in his writings. Nevertheless, one cannot assume that he was acquainted with this dispute that took place in a marginal provincial journal. In fact he himself
explicitly pointed to another source of his ideas and interest in the topic itself.
In his "Paris Diary", published in the late spring of 1930, Benjamin describes his meeting
with Adrienne Mounier, the poet and Paris bookseller whom he respected greatly. The reported conversation at the end accidentally turns to the topic of photographs of artworks.
When Benjamin remarks that though they make it easier to "enjoy" the work, they are essentially a wretched and unnerving way to deal with art, she sharply objects to such a view. Great
creations are essentially collective objects. Their photographic reproduction and reduction in
size offer people a degree of power over them as the condition of their enjoyment. Benjamin
ends his recollections by characterising Mounier's remarks as a valuable gift presented to him
for rethinking the problem of reproduction (Benjamin IV. 582/2. 348).
This story, however, has a further twist.^ When a year and half later Benjamin publishes
(in the very same weekly where his "Diary" appeared) his "Little History of Photography", in
its short, but principally important excursus on "art-as-photography" he simply reproduces
(more exactly: with the - possibly significant - change of two single words) Mounier's statements as his own view - opposing them to that widespread opinion which in the conversation
was actually represented by himself (Benjamin ILL 382/2. 523).
All this is, no doubt, a bit strange. There is, however, no reason whatsoever to doubt the
essential accuracy of Benjamin's recollections and the significance of his conversation with
Mounier for the formation of his own ideas concerning the impact of technical reproduction
on art. Nor does it exclude a simultaneous acquaintance with the dispute in Der Kreis. In any
case, these unresolvable questions of biography are of secondary importance. Because against
the background of the Hamburg dispute one can clearly perceive what was genuinely original
in Benjamin's conception already in 1931. For there is a consensus underlying the sharply
opposed views of all the participants in this controversy, certainly expressing the silently accepted presupposition of all "experts". Under the present conditions (the technical imperfection even of the best facsimiles, their "inaccuracies") only viewing the original can offer a
truly adequate aesthetic experience. Benjamin, however, already in 1931 approaches the
whole problem in a different way. The question relevant to the fate of art is not that of the fidelity or accuracy of reproductions. He accepts without demur that there is an unmistakable
difference between the copy (Abbild) and its original {Bild) (cf Benjamin 379/519). The decisive point, however, is that reproduction, being mechanical, thus an indefinitely repeatable
and improvable process, makes the copy of the original, produced independently of subjective
intentions and individual skill, universally available by delivering it into the hand of the recipient. This concerns not simply its - desirable or disastrous - pedagogic effectiveness and is
not merely a question of "dissemination". It retroactively changes the recipient's basic attitude towards the original, and thereby the very status of art. The work ceases to be the unThis has been pointed out in a paper by Haxthausen.

Walter Benjamin and the German "Reproduction Debate"


touchable object of contemplative absorption in its unique totality, to be inspected and investigated in all its details and potential functions of use. Technical reproduction peels away the
beautiful shell of the art object, the aura of its enduring uniqueness and inapproachability as
the socially imposed norm of an adequate receptive attitude that constitutes the objective
ground of its illusory autonomy. It changes the very function of art - from an aesthetical to a
social (political) one.
It is, however, not solely the concept of the aura (whose definition in the paper on photography is simply repeated in the Artwork essay) and its destruction, with its assumed consequence of the "refunctionalisation" of art, that are already present in 1931. A number of fiindamentally important insights and contentions elaborated in the later writing were also there,
at least concisely indicated five years earlier. To mention perhaps the main ones: the notion of
the "optical unconscious" (Benjamin 371/510), the passionate inclination of the contemporary
masses to overcome the uniqueness of each object and situation (Benjamin 378/519), the potentially productive character of man's alienated relation to his surroundings (Benjamin
379/519), the significance of captions (Beschriftung) for photography as an aspect of the "literarisation" of all conditions of life (Benjamin 385/527), the production of, and adaptation to
shock as effects of the new technologies of reproduction (Benjamin 385/527), etc.
One could perhaps be inclined, on the basis of these observations, to regard the Artwork
essay as the radical continuation, the simultaneous deepening and widening of the ideas already present in the paper on photography. Its first half (parts I-VI of the latest version), one
could argue, represents a unified, now both anthropologically (changes in the modes of perception of human collectivities) and historically (the cultic origin of art, the distinction between cult and exhibition value) grounded, coherent framework for the dispersed and usually
laconically formulated observations in this earlier writing. In its second half, then, the scope
of discussion is fundamentally broadened, extended from photography to film, whose prominent role in the processes analysed has already been stated, but not explicated earlier.
This may seem to be a not implausible understanding of the relation between these two
essays dealing with the same problem of technical reproducibility. It is, however, fundamentally mistaken. The crucial four to five years that intervened resulted - notwithstanding all the
connections between them - in basic changes in Benjamin's view of the same issue. This is
most directly reflected in his changed attitude to photography.
To put it crudely: the Artwork essay does not deal with photography as such. True, in part
VI (Benjamin 1.2. 485/4. 257-258) he sums up in a single paragraph the fundamental results
of his view of its early history as it was presented in 1931. But this is rather an insert. For at
the very beginning he underlines that there are only two manifestations of the new technologies that are directly relevant to the fate of art: reproduction of artworks and the art of the film
(Benjamin 475/253). Both the development of technologies for the reproduction of sound and
the development of visual reproduction in the form of photography are taken into account
only as achievements which play a necessary preparatory role in the emergence of sound film
- except, of course, for the quite specific case of photos of works of art.


Gyorgy Markus

This pronounced change is clearly connected with Benjamin's re-evaluation of the perspectives of the development of photography. In 1931 he expected Surrealist photography to
overcome the constitutive limitations of painting, realising new possibilities of unmasking and
construction in art. In late 1936, in his second "Letter from Paris", after quoting Aragon expressing the very same belief in the revolutionary energy of this art, he comments: "This was
in 1930. Aragon would not make these statements today. The Surrealist attempt to master
photography by 'artistic' means has failed." (Benjamin III. 504/3. 241)
What changes during these years, however, are not simply particular prognoses, but the
very meaning of the attempted prognosis. Though making no such claim, the "Little History
of Photography" was in a sense prognostic in the ordinary meaning of the term: it predicted a
definite developmental trend of its subject, connected with (desirable) changes in the very
function of art. The Artwork essay makes the prognostic value of its theses ("defining the developmental tendencies of art") central to its whole enterprise (Benjamin 1.2. 473/4. 251-252).
But what kind of "developmental tendencies" is meant here, what is actually "predicted" in
respect of the main subject of this analysis, the film?
It is much easier to clarify what Benjamin did not mean by such a prognosis than to give a
positive answer to this question. First of all, he makes it clear at the very beginning that he is
not concerned with the future of art after the successfiil revolution or in a classless society. He
is asking about the tendencies of art "under the present conditions of production" (Benjamin
473/252). It is, however, also evident that he does not mean here predictable technical and/or
artistic, aesthetic or stylistic changes. His discussion of film is in this respect strikingly ahistorical. Even the great transition from silent to sound film is substantively treated by him only
in a longer footnote, and merelyfi*omthe viewpoint of its economic causes (and short-term
political effects). In fact he refers (especially in the last version) to concrete, particular films
only in very few cases, merely for illustrative purposes and without discriminating between
"old", silent and relatively recent sound films. Nor is he interested - in opposition to many
left-wing film theorists - in the potential role of film as a form of revolutionary enlightenment
and mobilisation. "We do not deny that in some cases today films can also foster revolutionary criticism of social conditions, even of property relations. But the present study is no more
specifically concerned with this than is Western European film production." (Benjamin
492/262) This is not an ad hoc delimitation of interest. On the one hand Benjamin is very
sceptical about the ultimate political effectiveness of such films of radical intent. From the
presentation before the radio and the camera "the star and the dictator emerge as victors"
(Benjamin 492/277). More importantly he is deeply suspicious of the aspirations of Leftist
artist-intellectuals to usurp the position of the instructors and guides of the revolutionary class
to which - in spite of their progressing proletarianisation - they themselves do not belong.
(This had been one of the basic motives of his hostility towards Neue Sachlichkeit.)
What, then, is Benjamin actually "predicting" in his discussion of film? First of all, whatever it is, it is predicated not on this or that genre, style or trend of contemporary cinema, but
on film in general, on its "technological structure" (Benjamin 503/267) as a particular mode
and technique of presentation and representation. And what he in such a way ascribes to the

Walter Benjamin and the German "Reproduction Debate"


cinema as the consequence and impact of filmic technique in most (and the most important)
cases does not easily fit under the concept of a "developmental tendency", something in becoming, some characteristic observable in an initial form already today that can unfold fully
only in the future. The most significant points made by him in this context are presented as
already accomplished and fully present states of affairs, as general observations and not as
predictive prognoses. This is so first of all in respect of the destruction of the aura, both of the
film actor (a fact that can only be artificially counteracted by the externally imposed cult of
personality) and that of the work owing to which "all semblance of art's autonomy disappeared forever" (Benjamin 486/258). The same is true of the fundamental characteristics of
the relation of the audience to the film: cinematic experience as an exercise in adaptation to
the shock-effects of modem life and to the demands of "second technology"; the inherently
collective character of this reception which is simultaneously visual and somatic-kinetic ("tactile"); the fusion of pleasure and appraisal, distraction and critical examination as its specific
feature etc. He regards, however, all these (for him) indubitable "facts" as prognoses, because
he treats them as signs. They are signs, isolated and restricted to some narrow domain, of the
possibility of a radically different future, of the realisability of Utopia, a world completely
transforming man's relation to nature and technology, and simultaneously the relationship between the individuals and their (newly formed) collectivities. He aims to make us apprehend
the inconspicuous sparks of the future, their presence in the present. In this respect, notwithstanding their quite different subject-matters and some not inconsequential changes in the
conceptual framework of their articulation, there is a fundamental commonness in the underlying intention and project of the Artwork essay and the Passagenwert. to make the possibility of another future actual for the Now.
The question of Benjamin's own "actuality"^ for us is primarily a question about what
this project can mean and teach us today, in our pedestrian "now". It would be hard to deny
that most of the issues it raised and addressed - both the most general and the more particular
ones - remain quite "actual". Are we condemned to "progress" at an ever more accelerated
tempo in a firmly set, unchangeable direction beyond our control or can we - in one way or
other - interrupt this fatal (and possibly catastrophic) continuity of history; is another fixture
possible, or even conceivable for us? What is the potential role of the new technologies of reproduction, representation and mass communication in these processes of change? How do
they impact upon art in its traditional understanding, some of the most important domains of
which (painting, theatre, novel, lyric poetry) are in the situation of a continuous crisis, already
sharply and convincingly characterised by Benjamin?
One cannot but admire and regard as exemplary the consistency of Benjamin's efforts in all his professed inconsistencies - to make these questions actual for his time. The problem
is not simply that the future he envisaged and so much willed failed to materialise - in this
respect his "predictions" shared the same fate as those of the invoked great model, Marx. Nor

Concerning the difficulties of this question see also the beautiful essay by Wohlfahrt.


Gyorgy Markus

can the paradox of his influence be resolved by exactly clarifying which of his concrete prognoses concerning his main, specific topics, photography and film, proved to be correct and
which were quite mistaken. The problem is that this whole project of reading the signs of future in the present (quite distinct from the causal model of Marx) was based on a Messianic,
secular theology of history that is perhaps even less attractive and acceptable today than
Marx's unquestioning faith in the power of an empirical science of society to predict the longrange course of history. The perplexity concerning the meaning of Benjamin's oeuvre for us
is rooted in its being genuinely exemplary, but an example that we cannot, should not follow.
Thus his non-accidental failures and mistakes are of no less import than his valid insights. Ultimately, however, our perplexity concerning his "actuality" is just part of a much larger,
weightier and more significant perplexity: how, on what theoretical basis, can we find answers effective in and for our present to his questions whose remaining actuality it would be
difficult to deny.
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Tiedemann. Frankfurt a. M.: Suhrkamp, 1972-1989.
-. Selected Writings. 4 vols. Ed. Marcus Bullock and Michael W. Jennings. Cambridge, MA:
Harvard University Press, 1996-2003.
Abel, Richard. French Film Theory and Criticism. A History/Anthology. Vol. I. Princeton:
Princeton University Press, 1988.
Diers, Michael. "Kunst und Reproduktion: Der Hamburger Faksimile Streit." Idea: Jahrbuch
der Hamburger Kunstsammlung 5 (1986): 125-137.
Gumbrecht, Hans Ulrich, and Michael Marrinan (ed.). Mapping Benjamin. The Work of Art in
the Digital Age. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003.
Haxthausen, Charles W. "Reproduction/Repetition: Walter Benjamin/Carl Einstein." October
107 (2004): 47-74.
Moholy-Nagy, Laszlo. Painting, Photography, Film. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1969.
Panofsky, Erwin. "Original und Faksimilereproduktion." Deutschsprachige Aufsdtze. Vol. II.
Ed. K. Michels und M. Wamke. Berlin: Akademie Verlag, 1999. 1078-1090.
Phillips, Christopher (ed.). Photography in the Modern Era. New York: The Metropolitan
Museum of Art, 1989.
Wohlfahrt, Irving. "'Einige wenige schwere Gewichte'? Zur 'Aktualitat' Walter Benjamins."
Global Benjamin. Ed. K. Garber und L. Rehm. Vol. 1. Munich: Fink Verlag, 1999. 3155.