Monday, April 26, 2010
St.Benjamin and I
If the world of critical theory venerates one secular saint, it is Walter Benjamin (1892 - 1940), a Jewish-German philosopher who grew famous in Anglophone countries following the publication in 1968 of a volume of translated prose edited by Hannah Arendt. The book, Illuminations, contains an essay titled The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction which is probably the single most influential composition within the domain of the visual arts (a text of the English version is available here). I read this essay first in my teens, and it became an important touchstone for my M.Phil. thesis about the European avant-garde's relationship with technology. When my German grew sufficiently fluent, Benjamin's essay was among the first pieces of literature I read in the original, along with Kafka's The Trial. Unfortunately, those language skills have atrophied through disuse.
Over time, I have grown increasingly suspicious of the merit of Benjamin's argument, and come to believe its influence today is mostly pernicious. Last August, at a seminar coinciding with the Art Summit in Delhi, I outlined why I felt the way I did. An expanded version of that talk has recently been published as the lead essay in the latest issue of Art India magazine. It is now available online, and those interested in a 4000 word critique of vanguardism might want to take a peek here.