Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Benjamin on youtube

I have to finish a paper soon for a class I took last semester. (Because I changed my topic a hundred times, I got some extra time.) I was thinking about posting something about it before, but I wasn't sure if it's appropriate. The paper is about an essay of the philosopher Walter Benjamin. In 1936, he wrote an essay called "The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility". It's the most famous writing of Benjamin today; it has almost become a winged word.

According to Benjamin, every hand-crafted piece of art (especially fine art but also music) has a certain "Aura". Contemplating an object, people experience this aura. However, it is destroyed when the piece of art is reproduced mechanically on LP (
CD, DVD, you tube...). Benjamin admits that every composition is intended to be reproduced in a certain way (painters teach students by letting them copy their own works, a composition is reproduced at every performance); however the value of a technical reproduction is different. A camera can copy a picture in the most perfect way, no painter could ever do it better. A recording can be played at any time any place, no musicians are needed. In both examples, the technical reproduction is superior to the manual version. However, the emphasis doesn't lie on the piece of art itself, but on the fact that it's reproduced. The sound of a recording is not art, but only a document of it.

This is just a very, very brief summary on one of the aspects and I'm not very happy with it. For the whole text, go to http://tinyurl.com/yqrqg. Benjamin has been criticized by many people, e.g. Adorno, his theory has been called incomplete and one-sided.

I'm not a fan of this text either, but I think it's incredibly interesting. He totally underestimated the role of the new evolving media. The very best advantage of reproduction, the easy accessibility, isn't considered at all. When he talks about "people", he has very few very intellectual old men in mind. This is an assumption, but I think I'm right. The question is only: are we right to laugh and shake our head about his ideas? Right now, we are probably as far away as we can be from the ideal musical world he had in mind. We are not even thinking about the "value" of a Mendelssohn symphony Nr. 5 radio broadcast, we are not hesitating to listen to it in the background. But we claim to listen to music and often forget that this music was intended to be art and not background noise. If I go on thinking, I'll probably become even more conservative (is that really conservative?) so I stop here.

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