There is much to dispute in Mr. Shivani’s article, particularly in his depiction of the German cultural critic Walter Benjamin.
Benjamin was hardly a doctrinaire thinker, though Mr. Shivani certainly portrays him as such. Had he been as radically narrow-minded as suggested by Mr. Shivani I doubt he could have remained close friends with the Jewish scholar Gershom Scholem, the dramatist Bertolt Brecht, and the philosopher Theodor Adorno.
Benjamin wrote numerous essays on bourgeois aesthetics, culture, and politics. He was very much involved with Soviet intellectual circles, though he was skeptical of party politics. According to Susan Buck-Morss, he greatly admired the avant-garde literary movement in Paris and “was inspired by reading Louis Aragon’s Surrealist novel, Le Paysan de Paris, in which the Paris arcades figure centrally.” Buck-Morss also notes: “At a time when the Communist Party was critical of the avant-garde, this essay [his 1929 essay on Surrealism] expresses Benjamin’s enthusiasm for the ‘radical concept of freedom’ to which the Surrealists gave voice, and for their ‘profane illumination’ of the material world” (The Dialectics of Seeing, 2).
In Benjamin’s essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility,” he speaks of the dialectical relationship between traditional art—sometimes called “high art” or “fine art”—and mass-produced art. Benjamin defines traditional art in specifically humanizing terms: it is mimetic and therefore involves traditional aesthetic behaviors such as observation, memory, and play. In contrast, art in the age of technology is de-humanizing: it is mechanically produced and strives for reproducibility, immediacy, and reality effects. When Benjamin speaks of “the stripping of the veil from the object,” he is referring to photography, film, and the ease with which it becomes possible to use this technology to reach large audiences. Contrary to Mr. Shivani’s thesis, the problem begins and ends with the technology and aesthetics of popular culture, not the avant-gardes.
Nor does Benjamin accuse the Paris avant-gardes of aestheticizing the kind of violence associated with fascist politics. The same, however, could not be said of the Italian Futurists, on whom Benjamin does pass judgment. As for his comments concerning art for art’s sake, there is no textual evidence that he felt that aestheticism was implicitly fascist. Far from denouncing Kant as a fascist, he states that aestheticism is a metaphysical concept. Benjamin believed in the possibility of a materialist metaphysics, which he thought was hidden behind the veil of the Jewish religion. I might also add that, although Benjamin refused to follow Scholem to Israel, he was not opposed to Zionism. He preferred Europe because he regarded it as his intellectual homeland, one that offered him the urban inspiration he needed. Ironically, for a man so enamored of the dream of a classless society, he disliked the idea of trying to build an agrarian utopia.
Theodor Adorno, a great admirer of Benjamin’s work, had a number of things to say about Benjamin’s article on mass culture in the age of industry. In Aesthetic Theory, he states that the essay is far too idealistic in its analysis of traditional art. He also states that Benjamin exhibits an unfortunate tendency to identify too completely with the aggressor, by which he meant the Nazis.
Mr. Shivani suggests that Benjamin defines the avant-garde aesthetic as inherently fascist—an idea that is simply not true. Nor does he bother to mention the extent to which all of Benjamin’s work is indebted to modernist and avant-garde art.
Kathryn A. Kopple, PhD