Walter and the Art-Space Cult


“Artistic production begins with ceremonial objects destined to serve in a cult.  One may assume that what mattered was their existence not their being on view…Certain statues of gods are accessible only to the priest…Certain Madonnas remain covered nearly all year round.”[1]

In his 1936 essay The Work of art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, Walter Benjamin declared that the arrival of industrial processes in the production of art, and the development of the masses as its audience, were having an irrevocable effect on the nature of art’s form and function. The growing incapacity of the traditional artwork to respond to social change provided the context in which Benjamin could argue that art might relocate to forms more suited to the demands of the modern age. 

Benjamin’s essay is a complex attempt to address the predicament of art which exists in a society whose technological development of new forms of culture threaten to marginalise and render obsolete those traditional forms in which ‘art’ had previously resided.  It does not seek to defend those traditional forms by ascribing to them the privileged category of ‘art’, and in so doing consigning the of new, mass forms of art to the dustbin of ‘entertainment’, or ‘kitsch’.  Nor does it reject the idea of art as a myth or a delusion. At its core, The Work of art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction attempts to mediate the abstract idea of art with the concrete reality of changing artistic forms, whilst relating this relationship to the wider imperative of art’s engagement within a class-divided society.  Consequently, the essay foresees the terminal decline of the unique ‘art object’ and the shifting of artistic concerns to the newly emerged and emerging forms of photography, sound reproduction and, most significantly, the cinema; “To an ever greater degree the work of art reproduced becomes the work of art designed for reproducibility.”[2]  Sixty years on, the cinema continues to thrive both as ‘entertainment’ and as ‘art’.  Much stranger, however, is the continued resilience of the art object, and of the art space that sustains it.

The central motif in The Work of art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction is the concept of the artwork’s ‘aura’. The aura, Benjamin argues, is a symptom of the social and economic conditions that had hitherto confined the artwork to the status of cult object, as the locus for magical or religious ritual.  It is the subjective relationship to an object caused by those conditions, or as Benjamin puts it-

The definition of the aura as a 'unique phenomenon of a distance however close it may be' represents nothing but the formulation of the cult value of the work of art in categories of space and time perception. Distance is the opposite of closeness. The essentially distant object is the unapproachable one. Unapproachability is indeed a major quality of the cult image. True to its nature, it remains 'distant, however close it may be.' The closeness which one may gain from its subject matter does not impair the distance which it retains in its appearance.[3]

The art work’s aura depends on its inaccessibility to its audience, and this inaccessibility is, according to Benjamin, traceable in the art work’s origins in the production fetishes, icons or altarpieces, objects whose status demanded worship or veneration. Of course, such relationships of worship or veneration are not generated by the presence of the object alone, but by the social context that demands the combination of subordination and authority implicit in that act of worship.  This does not mean that the object has no identity of its own, only that the manner in which it is perceived, and therefor the quality of the experience of which it is the centre, is dependent on the circumstances which it serves.

If the artwork’s aura were simply the manifestation of the religious cult value invested in an object, it would necessarily disappear with the decline of religious ritual.  But Benjamin argues that the aura persists through the emergence of other concerns, concerns which become cult values in their own right, albeit of a more secular nature, so that-

“To the extent to which the cult value of the painting is secuIarized the ideas of its fundamental uniqueness lose distinctness. In the imagination of the beholder the uniqueness of the phenomena which hold sway in the cult image is more and more displaced by the empirical uniqueness of the creator or of his creative achievement. To be sure, never completely so; the concept of authenticity always transcends mere genuineness. (This is particularly apparent in the collector who always retains some traces of the fetishist and who, by owning the work of art, shares in its ritual power.) Nevertheless, the function of the concept of authenticity remains determinate in the evaluation of art; with the secularization of art, authenticity displaces the cult value of the work.”[4]

As he goes on to point out, the conception of an object as ‘art’ in its own right emerges with the development of secular spaces of exchange, where religious ritual is no longer the defining condition of one’s relationship to the object.  However, the aura of the work of art persists with the investment of other social conditions which demand that the object’s inaccessibility be maintained.  Increasingly, the aura inhabits the ‘secular cult of beauty’[5], or ‘the empirical uniqueness of the creator or of his creative achievement’.  Critically for Benjamin’s argument, the recuperation of secular concerns into cult values, and the consequent persistence of the aura, are finally determined by the restricted technical circumstances in which an artwork is experienced.  For the unique work of art, its uniqueness is an integral part of the manner in which it is received.

The nature of the reproduction and distribution of a work of art has a profound effect on the way in which secular or artistic concerns become subsumed by the aura. The simple fact of the uniqueness of the work of art brings to the fore the significance of the individual creator.  In terms of the ‘cult of beauty’, the uniqueness of an artwork transforms beauty into a object of singular desire, rather than a generalised sense of quality. Inevitably, the prioritisation of the uniqueness of a work of art intersects with, and becomes subordinate to the proprietary requirements of the private collector; the aura of the work of art then becomes synonymous with another form of inaccessibility, that of the luxury object.

Benjamin’s formulation of the artwork’s aura is striking, in that it anticipates the contemporary preoccupation with the obsolescence of the art object and the art institution.  For if the aura of the traditional work of art is reduced to the simple fact of its inaccessibility relative to other, newer forms of art, its identity as a significant form of culture comes to an end.  Whilst its function is liberated from the archaic demands of religious cult, it is however unable to establish other relations of proximity to wider audiences who can associate more directly with mass-produced forms of art such as the cinema.  Relating this problem to the contemporary painting of his time, Benjamin proposes that;

“Mechanical reproduction of art changes the reaction of the masses toward art.  The reactionary attitude to a Picasso painting changes into the progressive reaction to a Chaplin movie…The greater the decrease in the social significance of an art form, the sharper the distinction between criticism and enjoyment by the public.  The conventional is uncritically enjoyed, and the truly new is criticized with aversion.”

For Benjamin, the relative value of a Chaplin movie over a painting by Picasso depended on the social significance of its form, rather than an evaluation according to aesthetic principles proper to each.  This led Benjamin’s contemporary, Theodore Adorno, to accuse Benjamin of romanticising the ‘art of the masses’ at the cost of the ‘autonomous’ work of art. In reply to what he saw as Benjamin’s outright conflation of it with obsolete conditions that preserved its mythical ‘aura’, Adorno contended that;

“…the centre of the autonomous work of art does not itself belong on the side of myth…but is inherently dialectical; within itself it juxtaposes the mythical and the mark of freedom…the uttermost consistency in the pursuit of the technical laws of autonomous art changes this art and instead of rendering it into a taboo or fetish, brings it close to the state of freedom of something that can be consciously produced and made.”[6]

These two themes were to be echoed long into the post-war era, even if in somewhat debased terms; that autonomous art should reflect the ultimate development of its own internal ‘laws’ was to find its way into Greenbergian formalism, and the notion that the art work could critically embody the contradictory terms of its own existence underpinned those practices that brought under scrutiny the constructed category of ‘art’, without bringing the same scrutiny to bear on the institutional frameworks that sustained it.

It was of course Adorno’s position which found greater favour with subsequent generations of artists, not least because Adorno’s position, primarily a politicised reinterpretation of aesthetics, allowed the increasingly redundant institution of art to recuperate some degree of significance, albeit in negative terms.  Rather than the withering away of art in its traditional forms that Benjamin foresaw, the institution of art became the scene for the negative aesthetics of what Adorno termed the  ‘disenchantment of art’; in the shadow of the mass-cultural forms, the secular church built around the traditional work of art became a curious and paradoxical sanctuary, in which the luxury habits of the elite could coexist uneasily with the radical aesthetic demands of the avant-garde.  This paradoxical relationship between the rarefied taste of the elite and the avant-garde’s demand for aesthetic autonomy (compromised only by its dependence on its wealthy patrons) was what Greenberg would later style the avant-garde’s ‘umbilical cord of gold’.

In the end the art space and the objects it contained did not disappear, but its relationship to the wider culture did, and consequently, so did the nature of the art space and its objects.  If, as Benjamin declared, technical reproduction resulted in the decay of the aura and, as in the case of the cinema, closed the gap between the masses and the work of art, the art space acquired an aura of its own; an aura which it achieved, in part, through its own representation in a medium such as the cinema.  A space which ‘however close, remains essentially unapproachable’, a space to which the cinematic spectator is always denied entry:  A white cube in which the rich and the glamorous  venerate a cult of impenetrable objects, whose significance remains forever hidden in the shadows cast by the temporal light of the projector.


[1] The Work of art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, p218, in Illuminations, London 1973

[2] ibid. p218

[3] ibid. p236, note 5

[4] ibid. p237, note 6

[5] ibid. P217.  Benjamin, as other critics, finds in the Renaissance conception of beauty the relocation of divine presence in the human form.

[6] Theodore Adorno, Letter to Walter Benjamin, in Art in Theory, Harrison ed. Blackwells, 1992



First published in 'Do you really want it that much?'-'...More!', Ursula Blickle Foundation, Germany 1999 back to top


all material copyright JJ Charlesworth 2009 and original publishers where indicated