The Artwork in Our Time

Miklos Legrady, an artist in Toronto who has a penchant for polemic, has just published on e-flux conversations what he thinks of as a rebuttal to Benjamin’s famous artwork essay. It takes the form of a close reading with commentary. A worthy effort, but I think it misses the point. For a long time I was saying that the artwork essay, which has been read by every art student in the last forty years at least, was Benjamin’s worst effort. Certainly it’s full of questionable assertions, and the best critique of it, definitive in my opinion, was by Robert Hullot-Kentor. All Hullot-Kentor had to point out was that every time a piece of music is played on the piano is an example of mechanical reproduction, as auratic as anything could be. Artists and art students would never think of that, because they’re fixated on photography and digital media, but it’s a big mistake to use Benjamin’s essay as a guide to practice. I think worse than any failings in the text is the literalist reception it’s had. If I had control of an art education syllabus, I would remove the artwork essay and replace it with Benjamin’s graduate dissertation, called “The Concept of Romantic Criticism.” That would certainly try the attention spans of art students, but it has more to teach about modern art and how it works than anything else they are usually given to read. But I went back to the artwork essay recently and was very impressed. It doesn’t matter if it’s wrong, and I find it disappointing that an artist would care about that at all. It’s full of ideas, literally overflowing with creativity and imagination. On that level, mere truth or accuracy is pretty much irrelevant.

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One Response to The Artwork in Our Time

  1. Miklos Legrady says:

    “it’s a big mistake to use Benjamin’s essay as a guide to practice”. John Berger did, while Benjamin’s deprecation of aesthetics, and reducing art to political activism, is used as the foundation of academic instruction and contemporary art practice.

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