Marxism is not a one-man show that was just popular during Marx's lifetime and died after that. There have been many schools, philosophers, economists, and theorists, who have interpreted and used his theory and critique in various fields. The German literary critic and philosopher Walter Benjamin is one of them. In one of his most influential works "The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility" he describes a theory of art "useful for the formulation of revolutionary demands in the politics of art" (Benjamin 252).
He summarizes the historical advance in the techniques of mechanical reproduction of the literary and fine arts and begin to deal with the repercussions of reproducibility in art. But how could this be related to Marxism? To understand this without being lost in the whole depth of Benjamin's essay, here we will focus on two concepts: Marx's "commodity fetishism" and Benjamin's "aura. " Marx uses the word fetishism to make sense of the magical quality of the commodity. Literally fetishism means creating inanimate objects worshiped for their supposed magical powers or considering them to be inhabited by a spirit.
Marx uses this to explain what he calls "commodity fetishism. " For him, a product is simple when it only has its use-value. However, as soon as it "emerges as a commodity, it changes into a thing which transcends sensuousness. " The connection to the laborer is lost as soon as the product is connected to money for its exchange value. In a capitalist society therefore, commodities are treated like they have an intrinsic value, rather than earning it from the amount of real labor expended to produce it. What is, in fact, a social relation between people becomes "the fantastic form of a relation between things" (Marx 34).
The invisibility of the real producers is the reason for this. The products are used only "through the relations, which the act of exchange establishes between the products" (Marx 35). Since this is our only relation, labor is forgotten. Money becomes the "the direct incarnation of all human labor" (Marx 37), like in primitive societies, where the totem becomes the direct incarnation of godhead. Aura is the presence of the work of art in time and space, "its unique existence at the place where it happens to be" (Benjamin 253).As Michael Jennings explains in his introduction "a work of art has an aura if it claims a unique status based less on quality, use value, or per se than on its figurative distance from the beholder.
Figurative, since, this distance is not primarily a space between painting and spectator or between text and reader but the creation of psychological inapproachability - an authority - claimed for the work on the basis of its position within tradition. The distance that intrudes between work and viewer is a temporal distance" (Benjamin 14).For Benjamin, aura is inextricably linked with "the cult value of the work of art in categories of space and time perception". Therefore, the unique value of art has "its basis in ritual" (Benjamin 15). But how is this possibly related to fetishism? Just like Marx "grasped the fetishistic qualities of commodities, revealing them as displaced relations between men" and "stripped the veil from mystified bourgeois social relations", so did Benjamin analyze the concept of aura (Solomon 546).
Benjamin's concept of aura arises from this concept. Aura, then is commodity fetishism- that mystical veil which substitutes relations between human beings, the dealienation of which constitutes the motor of revolutionary consciousness. " (Solomon 546). It creates distance, mystifies, veils, invests, with ritual content. Dealination results from changing the mode of human sensation perception through technological advances on reproducibility of the arts. It is clear that Benajmin takes a concept from Marx and uses it for his own interpretation of art.
A side note here is, Benjamin does not use Marx's views on art but his critique of the capitalist economic system.In fact, in classical Marxian model, art becomes another species of alienated labor through its near reduction to commodity status. It becomes part of the fetishism. Although this view is true to an extent, artwork is not just like other commodity that is exchangeable for each other. Furthermore, it would also fail to account for complexity of social and historical factors in the functions of the artworld. Therefore Benjamin's analysis of aura is not simply a broader view of Marx's thoughts on art, but an expansion of materialist philosophy of art taking it beyond the simplistic fetishism theory to an analysis of the role of the art object.
Not only the commodification of objects is the key factor, but also their uniqueness, authenticity and their disruption with new reproduction technologies and the eventual commodification of images. For this reason Benjamin can take another step from production to reproduction and identify its social and political consequences. "What is jeopardized in the reproducibility is the authority of the object. The aura withers, because the unique artwork is replaced by a plurality of copies.This leads to a shattering of tradition, a liquidation of the traditional value of the cultural heritage. (Solomon 545).
Because the ritual basis is lost, art can become an instrument of politics. The politicizing of art is the dealineation of the cultural object and a necessary defense against the fascist aestheticizing of the war and racial myth. Only in this context and by understanding how this loss of aura affects the masses (which would require a whole other paper to explain) can one make sense of Benjamin's chiasmus at the end of his essay: "Such is the aestheticizing of politics, as practiced by fascism. Communism replies by politicizing art. " (Benjamin 270).