Beginning with Marx, Benjamin examines the changing nature of art as it relates to technological and cultural advances in an age where we can reproduce works of art, especially those of photography and film. He cites Marx’s expectation that capitalism would create and further conditions that would allow it “not only to exploit the proletariat with increasing intensity, but ultimately to create conditions which would make it possible to abolish capitalism itself,” going on to connect capitalistic modes of production to mechanical reproduction.
Benjamin contrasts mechanically-reproduced works of art with manual reproductions. He briefly cites craft (techne) in describing “man-made” replicas, noting that reproductions served to allow apprentices to practice their skills; he also notes that master artists could “diffus[e]” their works and that others could sell works for profit. The difference today, for him, is that mechanical reproduction distances a work of art from its “presence in time and space”:
This unique existence of the work of art determined the history to which it was subject throughout the time of its existence. This includes the changes which it may have suffered in physical condition over the years as well as the various changes in its ownership.
In separating a work of art from its sociocultural origins–from its “physical condition” and its provenance–Benjamin argues that the work loses authenticity for two reasons. Mechanical, industrialized reproduction isn’t limited to the natural senses or abilities (he provides the example of the camera lens seeing details that the naked eye cannot); it is more “independent” of (or, again, distanced from) the original. As well, mechanical reproduction creates copies that can be distributed via new modes and circulated via new means and reach new, broader, and unanticipated audiences (here, he discusses the cathedral “leav[ing] its locale to be received” in someone’s studio). Because mechanical reproduction depletes the authenticity of a work–that is, the cultural weight (or baggage, thinking of Bakhtin’s utterance) of the artifact–the thing’s aura “withers” through the process of reproduction. Copies come to not only represent but replace the original. (Yet, thinking of digital content that is shared, modified, and shared again, don’t those new user interactions and audiences create new auras?)
Discussing distance, Benjamin reflects on historical and natural objects, objects that are, according to him, both physically and culturally removed from the audience. It’s the “desire of the contemporary masses,” he notes, “to bring things ‘closer’ spatially and humanly, which is just as ardent as their bent toward overcoming the uniqueness of every reality by accepting its reproduction.” That is, new audiences are impatient in experiencing artifacts, seeking reproductions that lack authenticity in place of originals that demand distance and consideration of their uniqueness: originals embody “uniqueness and permanence,” while reproductions embody “transitoriness and reproducibility.” Along with the depletion of aura, mechanically-reproduced works of art experience a shift in function (and purpose?), and he argues this by moving to look specifically at photography and film.