walter benjamin

German Philosopher Walter Benjamin: 1892-1940

Walter Benjamin was a German philosopher (1892-1940) whose most famous work from 1936 was called The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. You can read here. In his famous work, he discusses originality, authenticity, and mass production of art. He writes about the “aura” that original works of art possess and the loss of that “aura” in works that have been reproduced. A painting by Picasso has an aura. A lithograph by Picasso in a run of 250 copies does not. The lithograph is not the original. Neither does photography have an aura. In his thinking, photos are the image of an image.

blue guitar_kind of blue

Why is Man With Blue Guitar worth so much more than Kind Of Blue?

What about music? Why is an original master tape of Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue worth eons less than Picasso’s Man with the Blue Guitar? Why do most iconic jazz musicians make so much less money than iconic fine artists? Why didn’t Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, or John Coltrane fetch the kind of money Jackson Pollock, Robert Rauschenberg, or Mark Rothko have made? Is it because record companies pressed thousands if not millions of their records, and that all performances on those records were identical? What about the master tape, the original? Is it worth less because it has been copied, just like lithographs?

And yet a signed copy of say, Kind of Blue would still be worth much less than a signed lithograph by Matisse or Picasso.

Walter Benjamin committed suicide in 1940 when he believed he couldn’t cross the Spanish / French border and escape death from the nazis. He had gone there, like Hemingway and George Orwell, to help the Republicans. When Franco called in the Luftwaffe to test out the new ME 109s and bomb Guernica, Picasso painted the horrendous painting of the same name. Too bad Walter Benjamin didn’t live longer, or write about musical recordings and the rise of the music industry after World War II.


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  • Roland Alden

    Great point to ponder. But I think you have a typo. Where it says “He writes about the loss of the “aura” in works of art that have never been reproduced.” I think you mean that he writes about the *presence* of an aura in works that have never been reproduced; or the *absence* of aura in works which have been mass-reproduced.

    • Leah E.

      Thank you Roland. I just re-read that and was thinking the same thing myself, or that it was poorly written. I hope they can correct it.

      • tomschnabel

        Hi Leah, I corrected this…thanks for your comment!

    • tomschnabel

      Thanks Roland, this error has been corrected. thanks for your comment!

  • Mary Falcone

    Thank you for the feedback! It was a mistake and has been edited.

  • Benoit Desmarais

    Benjamin did not go to Spain to fight Franco, nor was he killed by his army, but comitted suicide, believing he wouldn’t be able to cross over to escape the nazis. This information is quite easily available. Please check your facts.

    • tomschnabel

      Dear Benoit, You are absolutely right. I studied Benjamin and wrote this mostly from memory and obviously got this wrong. I’ve corrected it. Thank you for your comment.

    • tomschnabel

      mea culpa. i edited it and corrected the factual errors.
      merci pour votre reponse!

  • Russell Craig Richardson

    Where’s the article? A bit of cut and paste? Full of ‘half remembered’ “facts”. To answer but one obvious question, why did Rothko et al make more money than Coltrane et al? Because the jazz musicians were black. Simple, and nothing to do with Benjamin’s original argument, unless the real question is how mechanical reproduction increases the ability of companies to exploit creators (which cannot happen with oil paintings). Re the nice photos, am I being disingenuous to think many people will compare the two PHOTOS and remain unaware that the ‘Kind of Blue’ sleeve also contains a music artifact? And another rhetorical question for you, Benoit: am I wrong to expect a blog to have the same standards of accuracy and attention to quality as a newspaper article? I mean, it’s got to be more substantial than a twitter post, doesn’t it?

    • tomschnabel

      Dear Russell, I don’t pretend to be a Ph.D in art history, just a generalist who thinks about a lot of things and share my thoughts with a general audience. As such I probably err, and perhaps this was a infelicitous comparison. I don’t know what you mean by “have remembered “facts”.

      I have a small collection of African sculpture, Shona sculpture from Zimbabwe. It is considered “folk art” not “fine art”. Even though it influenced Picasso and Brancusi, the latter would fetch millions while the African pieces just a few thousand. That’s seems to me the Eurocentric angle that the art world evaluates art with.

      Music is the prime mover for me and I’ll never dance in front of a painting like I might to a great African or Afro-Cuban band. Perhaps I am myopic because of this passion for sound. And hence I write things that might best have been left unsaid.

      Thanks for your comments, and for reading the posts.


      • Russell Craig Richardson

        All that seems reasonable… but I was waiting for some relevant reference to Benjamin’s essay, especially as it might pertain to originals and multiple copies. The question of fame vs obscurity is a whole nuther can of worms, though there might be some overlap. Then there’s the sociological side about rarity and commodity, added value and use value… what the title of the article, the photo and the citation led me to believe was that you’d be exploring some aspect of music itself, or performance (maybe the ephemeral nature of it?) vs the commodity value (enshrined in) a ‘certified’ work of art like an oil painting.
        (‘half remembered facts’ refers to the point about why Benjamin was in Spain and how he died).
        There is a different angle, too, which would place, say, a Pharrell Williams song (‘Happy’) and all of its avatars and iterations (see YouTube) with its recognition and sale/resale values against any one of ten thousand contemporary paintings by unknown or scarcely known American painters. Same problem, different sociological slant.
        I had hoped your article was longer and delved into these or other questions.