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Walter Benjamin and the Language of Things: Art History between Aesthetics

and Production
Jennifer Reed Dillon Duke University, U.S.
jennifer.dillon@duke.edu
I had first prepared a rather large-scale history for today, which would track the ways that the
work of German theorist Walter Benjamin has been taken up in the field of art history since
1968. This kind of discussion would be useful for art historians to reflect on how the concept of
aesthetics has developed and evolved, has been used and revised in their field. However, in
the context of the interdisciplinary group gathered here, I have changed the focus, in order to
discuss one particular episode from this history and describe its implications both for art history
and for the questions being dealt with here this weekend. Without interpreting Walter Benjamins
ideas about art at length, I will introduce a certain aspect of English-language reception history,
which concerned a statement Benjamin made regarding the photograph and its caption. My
interest in this exercise is partly historiographical : That is, I want to consider a transformation
that has emerged as a recurring theme at this conference the transformation from the so-called
esthetic priorities of Greenbergian Modernism to the anti-esthetic attitudes of
Postmodernism. Because Benjamins work was so central to critics who were theorizing the
postmodern during the 1970s, this kind of meta-criticism, conducted at some distance, offers an
interesting perspective on the substance of this transformation, which relates closely to the
concept of esthetics in the recent historiography of art. This paper will suggest that the
importance of Benjamin to many postmodern critics of the late 1970s can be partially attributed
to a desire precisely to maintain and redraw aesthetic criteria, and that these efforts also sought
to emphasize objectness and form, albeit not in the sense that Fried and Greenberg had defined
them. Rather, postmodernists sought the rigor and negativity of the autonomous work theorized
by Greenberg and Adorno, but reengaged a concept of esthetics that investigated the
relationship between the art object and the human mind, its particular moment and position, the
sensations and associations evoked. Benjamins work claimed to ground these questions in a
radical praxis of history and experience.
The title of this paper, Walter Benjamin and the Language of Things incorporates a citation
from an early, unpublished essay from 1916, entitled On Language as Such and on the
Language of Man, which suggests: It is conceivable that the language of sculpture or painting
is founded on certain kinds of thing-languages, that in them we find a translation of the language

of things into an infinitely higher language We are concerned here with nameless, non-acoustic
languages, languages issuing from matter; here we should recall the material community of things
in their communication. The vast majority of art historians working today would define their
area of expertise in one way or another with regard to objects. Most of them would be more
exact, specifying the study of art objects, of a particular medium, others might define their focus
on objects with a high degree of visual information, etc. I quote from Benjamins Language essay
because it corresponds to the desire of writers about art to be able to read and interpret objects,
not as commentators or taste-makers, but as translators of the works formal properties. This
role as a translator is related to esthetic judgement, which in Benjamins later work became
closely associated with political critique and social activism. Thus, the critics task of making the
object speak came to replace a judgement of esthetic quality, while relying on many of the same
subjective associations belonging to the latter.
Benjamins early idealist writings on literature and aesthetics, like On Language as Such are
conventionally set aside from his later, so-called Marxist writings which date from the late
1920s. In contrast to his early metaphysical reflections on universal language and a fallen
nature comprised of mute objects, Benjamins later work analyses complex historical
transformations within perception, production, and technology in history. When Benjamins
essays first became accessible to a large English audience in 1968, in an anthology of essays
called Illuminations, only one of the essays included dated from the early period. The others,
including The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, On Some Motifs in
Baudelaire The Author as Producer all date from the 1930s. These later essays have been,
until recently, by far the most influential works by Benjamin in Anglo-American criticism. Yet,
they continued to be mined as a way to critically confront and translate the muteness of
contemporary artworks, implicitly evoking Benjamins early esthetic discourse, in the midst of
what sought to be a highly politicized body of writing.
If most art historians today describe their work as object-oriented this is partly the result of
social histories of art in the 1970s, which engaged the field in the analysis of material and
historical conditions of the artwork, while remaining committed to reading the formal structures
of art.1 T.J. Clark, one of the pioneers of this methodology, was one of the first art historians

This pairing is also associated with Vienna School art history and particularly with Aby Warburg, although these
works have only been recently translated into English. Wolfgang Kemp, however, published two articles in Kritische
Berichte in 1973 and 1975 calling attention to the importance of art historians to Walter Benjamin, an intellectual
constellation only thematized in the 1988 issue of October by Thomas Levin.
1

working in English to cite Benjamins work in his historical studies of nineteenth-century French
painting. Clark was introduced to Benjamins work in the mid 1960s and drew from Benjamins
essay Paris, capital of the 19th century for a 1969 article entitled, A bourgeois dance of death
Max Buchon on Courbet. The project of the article is clarify Courts political intentions in 1849
and 1850. However, to this apparently revisionist goal, Clark adds the following explanation,
Why do we need a new theory of the genesis and reception of Courts realism? Because the
available accounts fail to explain many of the mysteries which surround the Salon. Whydid
the Enterrement a Ornans become the focus of critical fury, while the Casseurs de Pierre remained
relatively unscathed even though its imagery may appear to us more radical in style and more
explicitly proletarian in content? Clark used the methodologies of formal analysis from art
history and period style to describe and compare historical artworks and their publics. This
approach, he wrote in 1973, was indebted to Benjamins writing on Baudelaire. The dialectical
method, Benjamin had reflected, is said to aim at doing justice to the concrete historical
situation of its object. But that is not enough. For it is just as concerned with doing justice to
the concrete, historical situation of the interest in its object.
In 1971, Fredric Jameson characterized previous Marxist aesthetics as genetic, which perceived
artworks of the past as essentially parts of a historical evolution, which revealed the present to be
damaged by capitalist practices and techniques. Such a project, he argued had been predicated
upon the assumption that new politicization of thinking would occur, when we were allowed to
see a socially functional art of the past. This assumption, he went on, was no longer viable
people had little faith in the power of art to produce social change. Besides that, culture had
become so all-encompassing that it simply isnt possible to think from a point outside it, we can
only consider our thoughts and experiences as aspects of its own self-expression. T.J. Clarks
social history of artworks partially shares this genetic assumption of traditional Marxist
esthetics that it is possible to generate a better set of options in the present by interrupting a
dominant view of the past. In Benjamins work, as Jameson remarked, the moment of
importance between history and politics is an aesthetic mediation. its is revealed by attention to
qualities of the work of art. Therefore, aesthetic thought paired with a historical understanding
becomes, in Benjamins essays on Paris, a political act.
The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (which I will hereafter refer to as the
Artwork essay) continues to be one of the most frequently cited works in art history, despite
the fact that almost every one of its historical and esthetic predictions have been contested or

disproved. For those who have not encountered this essay, I will attempt to summarize the
salient points briefly: Benjamin argued in the Artwork essay, that the advent of photography - a
form of mimesis unrelated to the hand of the individual artist - had finally removed art from its
origins in ritual, by making concepts of genius, craft and uniqueness obsolete. In the traditional
work of art, the beholder experiences an aura surrounding each isolated work artwork it
evokes sense of fascination or mystery and inspires a contemplative attitude. Or, as Benjamin
defined aura ins 1931, it is the unique apparition of distance, no matter how close it may be.
To gaze in repose at a mountain range in the distance on a summer afternoon, or the branch of a
tree casting its shadow on the viewer that means to inhale the aura of these mountains, of this
branch. In photography and related technologies in which an original can be copied, or in
which there is no one original, artworks lose this sense of distance, they can be owned and
embraced, and aura disappears. This occurs not only in new works of art, but also when Great
Works of art can be copied, disseminated, and possessed. Therefore, even in beholding
traditional Masterpieces, the viewing subject does not experience aura in the same way as viewers
did in previous historical periods. In 1923, Benjamin had written, The concept of life is given its
due only if everything that has a history of its own is credited with life. With technologies of
reproduction, the unique history of a single work, which gave traditional artworks life was
replaced by democratic demands for accessibility and immediacy. Benjamins Artwork Essay
thus introduces the demand that a new non-bourgeois subject for the artwork be imagined, and
he makes his most polemic statement on the positive, revolutionary function of the end of aura,
which concludes with the call for politicized art to combat the aestheticization of politics
under fascism.
This is a highly reductive summary of a complicated text, and it has often been noted, that the
demise of aura was not a progressive or entirely positive development in Benjamins fuller
treatment of the term. The 1931 essay, A Short History of Photography he writes: The
destruction of the aura is the symptom of a perception in which the feeling for sameness in the
world has grown so much, that it apprehends it through reproductions even in that which is
unique. Despite these ambiguities, the Artwork essay became the point of departure for art
critics in the United states, who wanted to affirm a radical post-Greenbergian but critical
aesthetics, an alternative to formalism which nonetheless maintained the stakes of a both the
individual work and critical art practice. Benjamins work was cited with increasing frequency in
Artforum, and New German Critique, and after 1976, October magazine. A Short History of
Photography was published in the British film journal, Screen in 1972, and once again in Artforum

in 1977. By the end of the decade, Heinz Puppe wrote disparagingly of the increasing frequency
of Benjamin citations in art publications, noting that that publications serving the art industry
have found another fashionable authority to be cited out of context. Yet, was through these
publications that art critics and then historians developed perspectives which reinstated the form
of the art object as way to read of contemporary culture.
Two related citations became crucial in critical writings on art during the period 1975-1980, both
taken from Benjamins Short History of Photography. The first concerned the necessity of
supplementary material to photographic representation. Citing Brecht, Benjamin declared, Less
than at any time does a simple reproduction of reality tell us anything about reality Reality
proper has slipped into the functional. The reification of human relationships, the factory no
longer reveals those relationships. Therefore something has actually to be constructed,
something artificial, something set up Continuing along these lines, Benjamin interrogated the
ethical dimension of representation, Is it not the task of the photographer descendent of the
augurs and haruspices to uncover the guilt and name the guilty in his pictures? The illiterate
of the future it has been said, will not be the man who cannot read the alphabet but on who
cannot take a photograph. But must we not also count as illiterate the photographer who cannot
read his own pictures? Will not the caption become the most important component of the
shot?
Between 1975 and 1980, there was a surge in critical essays drawing from Benjamins writings in
order to first describe artworks and then to evaluate their quality. I will briefly discuss three of
these in order to illustrate the development of a interpretative framework which is commonly
associated with the development of postmodern esthetics. The first example sets up the
problem: In 1976, Linda Chase wrote an essay for Art International entitled, Photo Realism:
Post-Modernist Illusionism. In this essay, Chase discussed a wide range of Photo Realist artists
including: John Salt, Ralph Goings, Chuck Close, Richard Estes, and Audrey Flack. The analysis
struggles to formulate Chases supportive response to their project. The Photo Realists in the
mid 1970s developed practices of recording a scene photographically, and then translating the
image to canvas. The subject matter was intentionally middle-American, focusing on certain
array of prosaic icons. Yet the works disavowed kitsch through an overdetermined painterly
mode of production. Thus, they reproduced the emphasis on popular culture associated with
Pop Art, but lacked humor or satire as an affect of their images. In a genre defined by intensive
labor and mimetic skill, the works evoked the visually marvelous effect of standing in front of a

Van Eyck, but were devoid of beauty. This type of representation is confusing. Chases article
explored, in a meandering fashion, a wide range of contradictory questions and impressions
provoked by this cumulative body of work. What is representative to me about Chases essay, is
that there is no rejection of the esthetic experience of the work. Quite the contrary, it is the
inconclusive messages inherent in the form of Photo Realism that intrigue her, but also leave
her without interpretive authority as a critic. It is through Benjamins Artwork essay that she is
able to formulate a positive value for the formal qualities of these paintings, without the essay
being specifically cited until the final section of the discussion.
Chase notices that the paintings are very cool toward their own subject matter, and that this
subject matter often borders on the vulgar. Initially she suggests that the Photo Realists awaken
us to the beauty slumbering beneath the banality but then attributes her pleasure as the
pleasure of seeing freed from preconceptions of the image. Chase moves between a tentative
subjective appraisal, and then explores how this experience fits into a range of Benjaminian
concepts. The coolness described above is translated to radical objectivity, the absence of
elevated content is a refusal to affirm individual genius of the artist. Chase suggests that this
mode of representation registers an enormous change in the area of our visual perception
which is pleasurable because it emulates a commercial and cinematic way of seeing, which we
accept and enjoy. Along the way she acknowledges a debt to T.J. Clark and Linda Nochlin, art
historians whose analysis of the photograph and its influence on 19th century composition, gives
her the basis for a comparison between the Photo Realists and 19th century Realists. The
difference, she continues, between the Realists reacting to the rise of photography in the 19th C
and the Photo-Realists, is that there is no feeling for anything the latter group is representing,
The shifting of emphasis away from the humanistic use of the figure in Photo Realism can be
seen as a function of the photographic source and as a reflection of mans sense of alienation in
an increasingly artificial world, an alienation which is itself inextricably intertwined with the
dominance of media. Unable to resolve the problem of the neutralization of subject matter
and labor expended in representing it, Chase concludes that the Photo Realists express the
desire to chronicle the physical observable aspects of our existence.we cant know how or
why, it might help to at least know what. With this conclusion, Chase indirectly affirms the
autonomous value of artworks which refuse to be interpreted. Furthermore, just as
Greenbergs early writing emphasized the relationship between form and history as the moral
basis for his esthetic judgement, Chases article, appraises the form of Photo Realism via
Benjamins determination of the technological with proletarian radicalism. With its numerous

inconsistencies and conflicting priorities, Chase seeks critical authority in Benjamins Artwork
Essay. This type of analysis recurs throughout the 1970s, in which a stalled interpretation, an
inability to interpret artworks themselves proved to be a major critical obstacle.
In 1975, Victor Burgins essay on Photographic Practice and Art Theory in Studio International
also addressed the problem of interpreting artworks that lack articulated esthetic criteria. Burgin
also opens up the problem of contemporary art with the quotation from a Short History of
Photography, in which the photographic image is essentially incomplete, because it contains no
information about the social reality of what it records, and concludes that something else has to
be built up. Burgin agrees with Benjamin that traditional art genres are obsolete and only
sustained by a regressive, Romantic, anti-technical notion of art. However, Since Benjamins
time, Burgin argues, there has been a lot of attention to how signification happens and theorists
like Roland Barthes Jacques Derrida and Umberto Eco offer ways to understand how meanings
can be generated by appearances. Semiotics offered a way of reading as a way of penetrating
the language of images sheds new light on Benjamins conclusions. Carol Squiers 1978 essay in
Artforum considered the same question with regard to the photography of Mark Cohen. Known
in the mid 1970s as a photographer of cropped photographs, Squiers's essay focuses mainly on
Cohen's images of people, facing forward, with the top border of the photograph sliced off the
upper sections of their heads and lower legs. Like Burgin, Squiers's contests Benjamins claim
that captions are a necessary aspect of a shot. On the contrary, she asserted, the media, have
educated as well as undermined our perceptual capabilities. The world has been brought to us in
a confusion of bits and pieces, but we are quite able to read parts of it without feeling reduced
much less completely halted. Squiers however, relies on her own intuitive grasp of image
meanings, in contrast to Burgins suggestion that language theory supplements our own
experience of a work. Despite this, Squiers larger ethical context for the work of art is drawn
from the aspects of the artwork which Benjamins Artwork Essay lays out. In contemplating the
individual style of a photographer, Squiers finds Cohens example instructive because it is not
a style of gesture or expression, but based on the eye as a field of action. Squiers, cites
Benjamins valorization of the camera as a register of reality, in which all objects (human or
insect, for example) which enter this field possess equal status. Second, despite this impassive
field, Squiers notices that certain subjects of Cohens photography look back not with their
eyes but with their bodies, and thus establish an auratic presence between viewer and things.
Again citing Benjamin (citing Valery) The things I see, see me just as much as I see them. Yet,
in concluding her interpretation of Mark Cohen Squiers, with Chase, concludes that this

photographs stand apart from meaning and cannot be interpreted. They leave us with a sense
of a whole fabric of perception which is unavailable in its entirety, but which can be pierced by
the dislodged fragments of an inquiring vision. Thinking about Benjamins description of the
secret, fleeting images produced by the advanced technology of photography, Squiers struggles
to find an explanation for pictures so rooted in the sheer visual recognition of experience that
they reach for neither transcendence nor critique Nothing in particular is emphasized except
the perception of an existence Obliquely referencing Benjamins description of Atgets
photographs of Paris as scenes from a crime , Squiers valorizes Cohens indeterminate work on
an amorphous basis of phenomenological evocation.
Perhaps the most complex formal readings of artworks derived from Benjamin were produced
by Rosalind Krauss. In a well-known 1977 essay, Notes on the Index Krauss considered the
nature of art in the 1970s. Bypassing for a moment the details of her larger poststructuralist
argument, the essay is significant because it illustrates the way that Krauss appropriates
Benjamins analysis of the caption and the photograph, the technological mode of production,
but removes the materialist basis in base and superstructure. Krauss argues that the moment
when the caption becomes obligatory heralds a disruption in the anatomy of the sign.
Rephrasing and revising Benjamins argument for the demise of aura and his notion of the
distracted working-class subject, Krauss argues that photography is an index a kind of sign
bearing the trace of the object to which it refers. In an extended analysis of Duchamps The
Bride Stripped Bare of Her Bachelors, Even or, The Large Glass from 1915-1923, she
concludes that Duchamp, who described his Readymades as snapshots, manifests a trauma of
signification occasioned by the abstracting of pictorial language (i.e. Cubism) and the rise of
photography. Krauss concludes that art in the 1970s its diverse practices of conceptual art,
site-specific work, Photo Realism etc. is indexical. That is, these artworks are unable to create
the proper distance for aesthetic reflection. Therefore, they function by replacing the sheer
physical presence for that which was once articulated and translated via aesthetic language.
Thus Krausss essay re-reads the demise of aura and its attendant problems of interpretation as a
trauma of representation.
To summarize, although Benjamins writings on the artwork, aura and technology related to a
particular set of historical circumstances, they had a profound influence on the way that diverse
forms of art were theorized in the 1970s. The problem was the political rules of Modernist
aesthetics were grounded in a Marxist-Hegelian conception of the relationship between history

and cultural forms. This notion continued to be integrally related to art criticism and theory
even after the particular aesthetic guidelines associated with Modernism were subsumed by
manifold art practices and the postmodern anti-aesthetic. Benjamins essay provided a set of
terms for art critics which were easy to apply to these practices, but whose interpretive guidelines
relied on an uneasy blending of subjective, visceral experience and a materialist historical telos.
Benjamin theorized the loss of contemplation and complete meaning within the work as the loss
of aura; Krauss changed the terms to reduce the political teleology, replacing them with an
autonomous history of form. This is the situation in which art history still finds itself:
constantly managing the space left behind by Marxism, inhabited by an abandoned dialectic of
historical materialism and the aesthetic criteria of artworks.