Hubert Robert, “Imaginary View of the Grande Galerie in the Louvre” (1789), oil on canvas, 65 x 81 cm; Musée du Louvre, Paris
A generation ago, Walter Benjamin’s essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (1936) was much discussed. Little known when published, it influenced André Malraux’s famous books about the art museum before becoming widely known to the English-language audience. The essay’s argument is very much bound up in its now distant historical and political context, and so it’s late in the day to offer exegesis. Instead, I propose to use its viewpoint as a guide to the immediate present.
“The Work of Art” discusses two distinct transformations wrought by reproduction of visual art. The destruction of the aura of a unique original artwork leads to its effective replacement by multiple copies. And the creation of film changes how visual artworks are constructed. Older paintings and sculptures are thus understood in new ways. And a new visual art form is born.