Art In Age Of Enlightenment And Mass Deception: Analysis Of Benjamin And Adorno

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This response paper is about Walter Benjamin’s iconic essay ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ and it’s interwoven philosophical interaction with Theodor W. Adorno’s essay ‘The Cultural Industry: Enlightenment and Mass Deception’, both of which are massive contributions to the understanding of popular culture, aesthetics and politics of art. Both the theorists are members of the Frankfurt school, which is known for bringing alternative path for societal understanding and establishing a rationale and critical judgment.

Both these essays are of indispensable importance to understand where we are, how we got there, and how does the human society need to evolve in the future. In sections ahead, I have written my humble response and understanding of Benjamin and Theodor’s respective essays as well as classroom discourse on each, and tried to read them both through eyes of one another. I’ve tried to develop a sense of their interlinked fugue, i.e., a set of independent yet contrapuntal theories that develop separately and yet interlocked to contribute to same direction. I’ve attempted to summarize my own understanding and translate what I’ve thought about their relationship to each other as well as their relationship to contemporary questions that concerns art, aesthetics, politics, and media culture today.

Understanding Benjamin’s essay Walter Benjamin’s essay allows for new political possibilities to emerge in the light of massification of audience that has taken in terms of technological production of art and in terms of what construes political possibilities and aspirations of the artwork or what constitutes a revolutionary art. Coming from Marxist scholarship, for Walter Benjamin, revolutionary art is important. It is what art and social order must strive for. For him, anything that allows us and takes us further in that direction, must be considered positively. Benjamin secures this account of art by forging a new sense of aesthetics. By his discussion on “aura”, he close in the distance between the artwork and observer/viewer, which is the exact inverse of Kantian understanding of beauty. Photography, for him, became a movement where a new kind of technological reproducibility is taking place. Benjamin is more interested in what this movement, the advent of photography is inaugurating, what horizons has this technology opened up, and what are the possibilities of being revolutionary. I could draw an analogy with the age of Internet, imagining it as an art form, and what has it inaugurated so far. The answer is: a new kind of language; which is not limited to Internet alone anymore, but has far surpassed and spilled outside the medium itself. Benjamin was concerned with the form and medium of photography and not the content of it. If I take up Benjamin’s curiosity and apply to my own interest, I find myself asking what Instagram does. I’m asking the question of medium and form and not the content of it.

Benjamin has extended the thought to imagining the contrast that has developed between the technological ambition and traditional concepts of art. Here, we find him in contrast with Kantian theory of beauty, juxtaposed where exactly this distinction is coming from. The aura of the art is what keeps the viewer and the art apart and the interaction depends solidly on contemplation, which is why there is a distance between artwork and the audience. But Benjamin removes the essence of aura and hence shortens the distance between the artwork and viewer. The account of art no longer depends on contemplation, and no longer depends on aesthetic difference between artwork and audience. In contrast to Kant, Benjamin does sounds like somebody who likes to keep looking at the sun and forget the shadow, since he’s only interested in the new possibilities that the advent of Photography in launching. Which is also where exactly his opinions counteract with Theodor Adorno’s.

Benjamin looks at photography in 19th century and cinema in 20th, as possibilities of revolutionary art. Unlike other theorists, Benjamin doesn’t mourn the loss of aura, he claims that aura belong to all photos and not just one photo. It carries with it a sense of immediacy and pastness, and hence there is a double movement. This contingency that produces both immediacy and pastness is what carries the experience of the optical unconscious. Benjamin is engaged with what photography and cinema inaugurates, for him, he’s not looking at something to mourn, but his position as a historian tells you that here is where things have changed. This is how he tackles the loss of aura with possibility of revolutionary art. Walter Benjamin talked about wider circulation, how printmaking gave ample space for same print to be reproduced and replicated each time, how hand was relieved of artistic responsibility and now the responsibility lied with the eye. He felt there was an authentic aura or glow in the earlier paintings of early 19th century and that photography had lesser aura as it was a reproduced copy of the real object.

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This became the source of major criticism from theorists that came later and even by Theodor Adorno, that now the society cannot tell what is real any longer. We will be living in a state similar to Simulacra from Matrix. People can longer tell the difference from original reality, till a point where no original was left at all, and all there was, were perfect copies of original. This idea was made popular by Jean Baudrillard in his book Simulacra and Simulation (1981). The essay discusses photography’s impact on our visual cultural inception. Aura shifts from ritual to political. For example, the family photo album compensates for this loss of the aura through cultural values and constructs. They retain their exhibition value but lose the ritual value of an art object. We prescribe number of ways in which we inject aura into our photographs. The point that has been missed for years is that Benjamin’s piece is not only about reality but showing optimism and that’s the beauty of it. There is a potential that makes human beings capable of political conscious.

Understanding Adorno’s ‘cultural industry’ Theodor Adorno is more balanced, realistic and understands the ground well. In contrast to Benjamin, he thinks that to become better and revolutionize, having only ambitions and potential is not all that is enough. Adorno dismisses all mass culture and its possibilities. He writes extensively on cultural industry, claims that it convert us into consumers that are unthinking. He makes a distance with rational critical thinking and claims that culture industry is a monolithic institution that only ever produces consumers and that cultural industry creates a binary between rationality and non-rationality. Adorno calls us out on our naivety, he claims that there were many multitude of possibilities that cultural industry produced, and since we missed a major point and in doing so they have said that these subversions is what resistance can look like.

This counteracts with Benjamin’s argument since the essence of his (Benjamin’s) argument was that the revolutionary is resistance. Adorno makes a powerful contribution to rereading representation in 21st century. He shifts how we look at representation, as it also delves with the question of non-representation. According to Adorno, Media industry isn’t as positive as it seems. It’s a gigantic self-evolving culture of profit making, with toxic and scary contradictions. Adorno thinks that human beings can be better than the system only when they understand the need to critique that system. He points towards the hegemony of markets and how markets rule our livings and are dominated only by profit making. To find the roadmap to the new fate of humanity, we need to first decode the system, the very labyrinth we’re a part of. He does also lay some tools to help us do so.

Firstly, he says, to understand the system itself, we need to know the concepts and constellations that lie outside of the system. Once we’re able to get a hold of it, it doesn’t remain just a system. And, secondly, we must understand the magnitude of the object. We, human society are constantly shaped by our system, and we function under it. We can’t remain passive recipients to it, we must strive to change it’s meaning.

This is the political motive of a digital citizen, in today’s day and age. We must strive to create our own interactions, our own consequences and our own resist market. Hence so, with respect to my interest in the field of virtual space, I believe our interactions online must aspire to create changes large enough to revolutionize the medium of internet and discourse of virtuality itself. Adorno-Benjamin Fugue Benjamin emancipates art, frees it. Democratizes it.Adorno puts it under microscope, stirs it. Releases it. It is indeed noticeable how Adorno begins with mourning (/facepalming himself) for Benjamin’s blind optimism and in the end of his discourse, reaches exactly where Benjamin was. This is why I find them both in constant fugue, like a musical composition that are distinct from each other and yet reaching the same composition, complimentary to each other. Adorno accuses Benjamin of his myopic positivism and inadequacy of dialectic in his theory. He is afraid that Benjamin might give too much of ideological ambition to a piece of art, that must be sustained and restrained, for it is a weapon of understanding the political constellation of society. Adorno treats artwork with his astute lens and takes away its imaginative aspirations.

Adorno has a different take on culture in modern society. For him, this culture is awfully responsible for regulation of products, rationalization of dispensation techniques. Cultural industry transfers the profit motive into culture forms, art becomes a cultural commodity and the purpose of art is reduced to ‘sell a product’. This in turn has, over the period, suffocated all individuality and destroyed critical thinking. Benjamin focuses on democratization of culture and Adorno claims that art links to exploitation. One lays the precondition of the other, disagree with each other and yet answer each other’s questions. The interaction between them sounds like an extended analogy of generation gap. The two have been in a philosophical agreement with each other and over the years, the mutual influence that they draw on each other has not been appreciated. Their interaction did not end with Benjamin’s unfortunate death in 1940s. Even though not once have either been mentioned in the other’s writing but they both seem to be answering the same question, which being the function, ambition and purpose of art in society.


In 1960s, Adorno revisited his essay and clarified some of the key arguments of his early work, primary of which was what he does not dismiss popular culture and rather that his emphases on the changing of the terms was only to ensure cultural production and had nothing to do with popular culture. In the beginning of the essay, “Cultural Industry Revisited”, Adorno announces that he has replaced the term ‘mass culture’ with culture industry’ as it sounds like something that amalgamates the old and familiar into new quality. Despite the clarifications, several theorists accused Frankfurt school of elitism. Individually, both the essays are incomplete without each other. They have a common destiny to fulfill and they both are headed for the same future. It seems like Adorno has written this essay as a disclaimer to the human society before they sink in to the new kind of brutalism, for which Benjamin’s theory could be held a provoking catalyst.

The question today becomes how does it change modes of participation and reception, now that the objects are severed from the domains of tradition? Art is mediated by technology, the camera has substituted the audience. The contemporary question about art becomes whether art democratize the cultural production? Indeed. Now there is less distinction between author and public especially as we enter the age of Internet. Distinction between high art and popular culture are now blurred. I find my own understanding and curiosity aligned with Thijs Lijster, an American scholar, who, in the introduction to his recently published PhD thesis asks a similar question that is often raised by modernist theorists too: Why Art? (Lijster 12). The Book supports the possibility of amiable friendship between the Adorno and Benjamin, instead of focusing on their disparity. they leave it open to interpret how to end of it all will be, thus for contemporary theorists of art to conceive their own end and future.

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