Walter Benjamin vs. Oscar Wilde

There’s a question, of course, of utility when one talks about different aesthetic views. This feeling is impressed very keenly upon readers when reading the work of Walter Benjamin. He conveys a sense of extreme urgency about the fate of human life when discussing the aesthetic paradigm he endorses. Benjamin’s paradigm is one of pragmatism and democracy. Art exists not for its own sake, but for the sake of providing a utility - often a political one. Conversely, Oscar Wilde championed the idea that art is its own utility. It should be created in order not to further a goal or cause but rather to exist in itself. Oscar Wilde countered a familiar adage about art and life by saying that “life imitates art,” while Benjamin was horrified by this notion.

Benjamin and politics

Benjamin argued that the idea of art for arts sake was a fascist one. The aesthetic construct that establishes firm boundaries for what art is and isn’t, and values art based purely for its aesthetic proficiency, is one that leads society to (in Benjamin’s extreme words) war. In Benjamin’s essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproducibility,” Benjamin concedes the existence of a Wildian aesthetic presence. Art possesses a unique “aura” derived from its “here and now,” the context in which it was created and the tradition in which it is seated, which is degraded with each mechanical reproduction of the art. Benjamin reconciles this idea with his political concerns by asserting that the “aura” is not necessarily the only relevant consideration for putting art into the broad category of being “worthwhile.” Benjamin argues that film, an emerging art during the time he wrote, has no “aura” to speak of but serves an important purpose.

Benjamin admits to appreciating art from a Wildian perspective to a point, but says the most important facet of art in a modern world is that it be politicized. Film, as Benjamin sees it, is the consummate medium of art for the modern world. Film teaches humanity how to deal with the material processes that are required of them in modern life. While film does not impress upon viewers the “aura” of, say, a Rembrandt, film has a greater degree of utility due to its position in relation to modernity and the fact that its easily politicized. In the context of a global world in 1936, one that seems a lot smaller in the wake of World War I and with World War II on the horizon, Benjamin feels humanity’s choice of where to orient art in their life is of a key importance. Benjamin closes his essay with the dramatic quotation “Such is the aestheticizing of politics, as practiced by fascism. Communism replies by politicizing art.” The idea of life imitating art, and politics becoming aestheticized, is the threat to life which Benjamin identifies.

Benjamin today

Even in Wilde’s own time, he was seen as a self-gratifying hedonist. Such a philosophy seems to represent a significant portion of how art is created and consumed today. The idea that art exists to teach humanity how to be better, one that Wilde scoffed at and Benjamin extolled, appears to be an idealistic fantasy when a consumer of fine literature authorizes drone strikes which kill innocent people in far away places. It seems that Benjamin’s essay anticipated many of the issues faced by contemporary society, and his advice was not adequately heeded. Namely, Benjamin alludes to the threat of the capitalist exploitation of film. Looking at the state of film today, Benjamin would have been disappointed to see this prediction come to pass in a medium which was so inspiring to him. However, threads of Benjamin’s aesthetic theory (though, sadly, not the ones having to do with politics) still persist today.

Benjamin’s idea of “aura” seems sound in a culture which has significant populations that go through great lengths to acquire vinyl records over MP3s and take analog photography over digital photos. This idea speaks to the human processes involved in the creation of a vinyl record or a photograph in a darkroom which give the product a stronger “aura” by making them more difficult to imitate. Truly, no two human beings can repeat a process exactly. The fact that this idea of “aura” tends to exist as an unspoken undercurrent in today’s aesthetic zeitgeist lends itself to a Wildian paradigm. While Benjamin acknowledged the aesthetic pleasure art could provide, he hoped that art in the modern era would shift to serve a greater cause. Benjamin recognized that the art of antiquity was concerned only with itself was a product of isolation and independence of its various producers, but in a modern world with tenuous global relations a political art was called for. Today, however, it seems art is anything but politicized.

The political orientation of a work of art is a footnote to its aesthetic consideration, and people frequently enjoy art with which they are not politically aligned by removing it from the political context. “I don’t have to agree with it to enjoy it” is a very Wildian idea that art exists outside its material contexts and can be appraised by using an apolitical metric. Had Benjamin’s paradigm entered the hearts and minds of consumers of arts in a more significant way, art’s relationship with moral development may have been preserved in some sense. Ultimately, however, it seems we live a world which is defined by art. Consumers view their world through the lens of the art they engage with, and troublesome artistic productions manage to penetrate popular culture and identity.


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