[8] (Theory of) Art and Media


Walter Benjamin, 'what is Aura?' · Manuscript in context of the essay 'The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility' (1936). Page 1 of 3. © Akademie der Künste, Berlin, Walter Benjamin Archive 264/2
Radio in the Living room in the mid-1920s
Since the 1920s Social democratic and Communist Workers-Radio-Organisations have been involved in promoting participation for all in the new medium.
Nowadays community radios worldwide broadcast in a democratic and participatory manner

Social Impact of Technological Innovations

In the 1920s developments in media technology occur in rapid succession. The radio era begins in Europe with a first broadcast in the Netherlands in 1919, followed by France in 1921, Spain and Germany in 1923. The first (silent) films were shown as early as the turn of the century, in 1921 the first film with a sound track in Stockholm and in 1927 the first motion picture in the USA. The hand-held, portable 35mm camera embarked on its meteoric career at the Spring Fair in Leipzig in 1925. In the 1930s the tape recorder alongside the gramophone provided a relatively uncomplicated tool for recording and playing back sound.

Even as early as 1935 Benjamin recognises the emancipatory potential of the new technologies and danger of depreciation in the value of the original:
The weekly newsreel (Pathe News-English equivalent of Wochenschau), for example gives everyone the opportunity to progress from mere passer-by to film extra. (…). In fact, nowadays, there can be scarcely any European worker who, in principle, does not somewhere or other have the opportunity to publicise a work experience. In the Soviet Union work speaks for itself. And its presentation by means of words is part of the basic skills necessary for the job.
The philosopher, Theodor W. Adorno disagrees: In his essay On the Fetish-character in Music and the Regression of Listening in 1938, he draws a parallel to Marx’ analysis of money. According to Marx, money in capitalist economies loses its relationship to the actual man-made product, while according to Adorno the relationship becomes a work of art in its own right:
The principle of the star has become totalitarian. The reactions of the listener seem to have become detached from the actual musical performance and directed to the already accumulated success.

The Technological Reproducibility of the Work of Art

Prof. Dr. Jörg Zimmer, Girona, Endowed Chair for Walter Benjamin Studies
In his essay The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility (1935) Benjamin reflects on the changes resulting from the new technological possibilities. (1➘): Works of art can be studied almost anywhere, they can be put in new contexts, and copied any number of times, and the aura of the original work of art disappears. Prof. Dr. Jörg Zimmer, Girona. Endowed Chair for Walter Benjamin Studies at the University of Girona, provides clear examples of the changes mentioned by Benjamin (2➘).

Close What happens if I fragment a text or a classical work of art? Perhaps to use a small part of it for advertising? This is made possible by technological reproducibility, but in the process the 'aura' is lost and along with it the traditional 'place' of the work of art.

The Emancipatory Potential of Mass Culture

Benjamin is adamant that the dynamite of the split second of mass culture ignites the spark that frees the whole of society from its barbaric condition. Similar emancipatory possibilities of radio are also stressed by Bertolt Brecht in the 20s and 30s:
Radio would be the most marvellous communication device in public life, were it to understand that it should not only broadcast but also receive, that is, not only hear the listener, but make him speak, not isolate him but relate to him.
Free radios represent approaches to participation in accordance with the theories described.
When Benjamin criticises the separation between producers and their public and demands that, instead of broadcasting talks, the public should become active participants in interviews and discussions and that first one then the other should have their say, he anticipates precisely Hans Magnus Enzensberger’s Constituents of a Theory of the Media, 1970:
The question is not whether or not the media are manipulated but who manipulates them. A revolutionary concept does not necessarily eliminate the manipulators; on the contrary, it must enable everyone to become a manipulator.
It was entirely with these emancipatory goals that Free Radios were created, notably in the 1990s, most particularly in Latin America and Africa. They play an important role in social developments. 3➘ However, in the context of present day internet communication Enzensberger (2000) is sceptical:
The intellectual potency of digital media can only be very provisionally assessed. The very cornucopia they have to offer, at the same time represents a fatal loss. Wherever you look you stumble across terms, which for good reason leave open what they actually represent: Knowledge? Advertising? Data? Drivel?

Radau um Kasperl - The Emergence of the Radio Play

Shortly after the invention of radio, it develops its own art form: the radio play. Authors, dramatists, avant-gardists wrote plays that are still highly regarded today. Benjamin is also there when radio brings the theatre into the living room. Unfortunately only a few short excerpts of a recording by South West German Radio of his radio play Radau um Kasperl (1932, engl. Uproar around Punch) have survived: What at first glance appears to be a play for children, is actually intended by Benjamin to appeal to all ages, and elsewhere in the play the dialogues reflect on the new medium of radio.

© Deutsches Rundfunkarchiv

During the first golden age of the radio play towards the end of the Weimar Republic, the spoken word was dominant, while sounds were subservient to the plot. In Spuk by Rolf Gunold (1925), for example, a classic radio play, in which the action takes place in an acoustically recognisable space, or in Alfred Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz (1930). Political pressure on the medium radio meant that there were very few overtly political radio plays such as, for example, Heilige Johanna der Schlachthöfe by Bertolt Brecht (1932).

Sources and External Links

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  1. The essay The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility in the original. [EN] , [ES] (16 MB pdf) , [DE]
  2. Interview with Prof. Dr. Jörg Zimmer on the changed role of art as a result of the technological revolution at the beginning of the last century [DE] :
  3. The World Association of Community Radio Broadcasters (AMARC) is the International Association of Free Radios. [EN] , [FR] , [ES]