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Kate Campbell

PHIL 247
Professor Eric Jarosinski
26 November 2013
The Fetishism of Art in the Age of Film
In his seminal essay The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility,
Walter Benjamin details the development of mechanical methods of artistic reproduction and the
subsequent evolution of art as a whole, specifically the politicization of its social function.
Beginning with the invention of lithography and continuing through the rise of photography and
film, he seeks to examine the role of art in the absence of its ritualistic value. A proponent of
Marxist aesthetic theory, Benjamin draws heavily from the economic writings of Karl Marx;
indeed, several parallels exist between his evaluation of the work of art and Marx's analysis of
the commodity, as outlined in Capital. Perhaps the most salient of these concepts is the fetishism
of art precipitated by increased technological reduction, an idea rooted in Marx's theory of
commodity fetishism.
Marx defines the commodity as an external object that "by its properties satisfies human
wants of some sort or another." It is comprised of two factors: use value, or the object's utility,
and exchange value, or the quantity of other objects that can be traded for it (2-3). Just as Marx
posits the notion of value as integral in understanding the wealth of capitalist societies, Benjamin
relies upon the idea of value to explain the role of the work of art within a capitalist system.
Artistic production functions in service of two potential characteristics, which Benjamin labels
cult value and exhibition value. He writes that the work of art was originally created in service of
rituals, and it is its historical embeddedness in cult tradition that is the source of its original use
value; meanwhile, its exhibition value is derived from public presentation (256). With the
promotion of technological reproduction of art, emphasis increasingly shifts onto a work's

exhibition value, while its cult value is diminished (257). The concept of value espoused by both
Marx and Benjamin can in some ways be understood as analogous, with cult value serving as a
determiner of art's utility and exhibition value a symbolic manifestation of its exchange value,
where the value of a work of art is determined by the ability of the masses to access its
reproductions. This notion of value is equally fundamental in both Marx and Benjamins analysis
of how various objects function within a capitalist system.
Benjamin points to the degradation of cult value as a facilitator of art's transformation
into a commodity. As technological reproduction enables the widespread distribution of art
among the masses, the original work is effectively stripped of its necessity as its reproductions
become increasingly designed for reproducibility. No longer does the work of art exist in service
of ritualistic practices; rather, its value is determined by the exhibition of its reproductions (257).
Benjamin's analysis of the commodification of art aligns heavily with Marx's writings on how a
product becomes a commodity. Marx states that a product created solely for one's own need has
use value, but fails to be a commodity; in order to become a commodity, the product must have
use value for others, as well (6). Works of art created in service of ritual exist only to satisfy the
needs of a fewcertain religious icons are accessible only to priests; paintings on the walls of
caves are meant for spirits rather than men. But technological reproducibility "emancipates the
work of art from its parasitic subservience to ritual," creating a social use value by allowing art
to be accessible to the masses through reproductions that can be exchanged and exhibited (256).
As such, art ceases to exist merely as an object of individual utility, instead evolving into a
The heightened accessibility of the work of art invariably results in the fetishism of art as
a commodity. Marx defines commodity fetishism as the process by which the social character of

production is perceived not as a relationship between people, but a relationship between objects.
The subjectivity of a commodity's value is believed to be objective and intrinsic to the object
(34). The effect of commodity fetishism is such that the producer's labor is viewed only in terms
of its exchange value, and the individual mechanisms that comprise the creation of a product are
effectively lost. The increased fetishism of art that Benjamin describes is especially evident in
the rise of film. Within the context of his analysis, the screen actor is analogous to the laborer of
Marx's writings. During the filmmaking process, the screen actor is made to perform for a
camera, and is subsequently denied the ability to directly interact with the consumers of his labor
(260). The film industry attempts to compensate for the actor's inherent separation from
consumers by artificially constructing his "personality" outside the studio (261). As a result, the
actor is further removed from those for whom he is performing; this public persona is not an
extension of him, but an instrument of the market.
Film as a technological art form is founded upon the inherent mysticism of its mode of
production. The mechanical manipulation of film is impossible for the consumer to perceive,
given the camera's ability to penetrate reality with an unprecedented depth (263). Though
cinematic reality is merely a fabrication, the collection of disjointed shots into a continuous
sequence, the illusion created by its production causes audiences to believe that what they
experience is an unadulterated extension of the real world. No longer is the commodity (in this
case, the film) seen as a product of social relations between various producers (actors, camera
crew, editors, et cetera), but a natural product possessing its own metaphysical autonomy. Like
Marx describes, the subjectivity of film is believed to be objective, and its value as a collection
of social relationships is reduced merely to its exhibition value.

Though Benjamin's analysis of the work of art, particularly the fetishism enabled by
technological reproducibility, closely aligns with the concept of the commodity espoused in
Marx's Capital, there exists a fundamental difference in how each approaches the nature of these
topics. Given art's status as a quasi-commoditythat is, an object not explicitly produced for the
market, with a value not based in its costit would be improbable for Benjamin and Marx to
follow the same line of reasoning in constructing their analyses. Benjamin posits art as a mystical
object, stemming from its original creation in service of ritual. He therefore frames art as
inherently predisposed to fetishismafter all, is the concept of the "aura" not a form of fetishism
in itself? In his description of the aura, Benjamin states that art's authenticity is determined by its
existence within time and space; in other words, its value is intrinsic and not a result of human
labor (253). Indeed, he clarifies the concept of the aura in naturalistic terms, evoking the image
of mountains on the horizon as "a unique apparition of distance" (255). In his analysis, the
fetishization of art occurs even before its transformation into a commodity; the increased
accessibility granted by technological reproduction merely facilitates fetishism on a grander
scale. Conversely, Marx believes that commodity fetishism arises not from the existence of the
object itself, but in its relationship with the consumer. It is apparent that art is predisposed to
fetishism, whereas the commodity becomes fetishized as a result of circumstance. This
difference in the nature of fetishism characterizes the disparity between the analyses of Marx and
Through his analysis of the rise of technological methods of artistic reproduction, Walter
Benjamin aims to elucidate the increased commodification of the work of art that results from
the degradation of its ritualistic value. Specifically, he describes how the invention of film
inevitably leads to a fetishism that deemphasizes the social relationships in artistic production in

favor of art's exhibition value. Though Benjamin finds the foundation of his analysis in Marx's
Capital, there exists a fundamental disparity between the two in their treatment of the origins of
fetishism. This difference indicates that the nature of art as a quasi-commodity founded in cult
tradition ultimately prevents it from being evaluated within the same context as the commodities
Marx describes.