Theodor Adorno “Letter to Walter Benjamin” Aesthetics and Politics
“Mechanical reproduction of art changes the reaction of the masses towards art. The reactionary attitude towards a Picasso painting changes into the progressive reaction towards a Chaplin movie”.
Walter Benjamin “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”
Reconstruct the debate between Adorno and Benjamin around the issue of “mass culture”. Whose arguments do you find most persuasive and why?
The construction of Adorno and Benjamin’s debate around that of ‘mass culture’ in both cases hold varying but relevant inside into the impact it holds over the production of new mediums and representations in art as well as the impact it has had on the audience and their perception of art forms.
Theodor Adorno’s quote in his letter to Walter Benjamin poses a reactionary one, for he has exposed a relevant opinion in his attention towards the blinding nature of film as it propels forward an idea to the audience that is pre-composed and manipulated in a way that blinds the audience of the ‘real,’ however he has simultaneously challenged the view that the enjoyment of film by the masses, which has presupposed laughter and the enjoyment of the masses as a negative thing. Regardless of whether the film is educating the masses can it not be argued that enjoyment and laughter are positive attributes so long as it is taken into account that a film does not hold essential realism with which we should be influenced? These statement in itself before even critiquing the extended development of his argument poses a reactionary response, undermining the group catharsis that is evoked in the enjoyment of ‘bourgeoisie sadism1.’
Benjamin’s quote deals with the differing reactions that are expressed by an audience that look at a Picasso painting and view it as shocking yet can view a Chaplin movie from which they find enjoyment.
This idea connects to an argument he make in this text about the immediacy of film and the progression of images with such rapidity that the image is propelled at the viewer with very little time for contemplation of what has actually been witnessed before the image has dissolved into a new one. Traditional paintings however offer a chance to ponder upon the image at hand; there is a chance for contemplation which itself requires an effort on the part on the viewer, the act of contemplation forms a bridge between the viewer and the image.
The emphasis on the ‘reactionary’ with reference to Picasso’s painting pre-empts some of the problems that may potentially occur with the medium of mechanical reproduction
If we look at a Chaplin film, for example the ‘Factory Scene’ from ‘Modern Times, 1936’ as the example of mechanical reproduction in art it is clear that is can be used as an example that supports aspects Benjamin’s argument as well as Adorno’s for it deals with both the aspects of exploited and the exploiting. By exposing the inside of the factory Chaplin exploits mass culture and industrialisation as it poses fun at the process of industry in a factory and draws attention to the fast paced tempo of work and how technological development dictates over humans, yet it simultaneously exposes Chaplin himself as a product of technology for he is manifest of the development of film and is involved in the industry that he is mocking. This idea also connects to Karl Marx theory of ‘capitalist alienation...treatment of workers as mere objects of exploitation.2’
So although the progressive reaction of the audience to the medium of cinema might be a concern of Adorno as not being progressive, it is possible that the self exploitation taking place within the construction of this scene shows the medium of film as self critiquing and therefore contributes to Benjamin’s ideas that in this