Walter Benjamin is a German philosopher who gained popularity within the intellectual community after the posthumous publication of his social criticisms, and he is now regarded as one of the most important philosophers of the early 20th century. He is most commonly associated with the economic and social doctrine of Marxism, which can be oversimplified as the opposite of capitalism, and similar to some socialist concepts. In 1933 after the Nazi’s rise to power, he fled his home country of Germany to live in Paris, France where he wrote most of his works. He tried to flee south to eventually escape to the United States once the Nazis were set to invade Paris but the chief of police at the border informed him that he was going to be handed over to the gestapo which, sadly, caused him to commit suicide. It follows, that his work tends to take on a pessimistic tone, however, his brilliance lies in his ability to see the entire situation and understand it in a way that is ultimately very helpful.
In his essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, he reflects upon the function of new art forms within culture, which develop from advances in technology and the aspirations of certain groups. According to Benjamin, a prime example of this concept is Dadaism which intended to mock the extravagance of the art world and crudely did so at the expense of their value within the market, but unintentionally became an immersive exercise in contemplation.
Furthermore, it seemed to Benjamin that Dada’s only intention was to outrage the public. For the first time in history, artists declared random objects to be art which caused viewers to ask the question, “Is this even art?” It was not well received and society considered their art to be worthless. Benjamin states that, “in the decline of middle-class society, contemplation became a school for asocial behavior; it was countered by distraction as a variant of social conduct.” This means that society encouraged people to pursue distractions rather than engaging in mindful contemplation. In this essay distractions mainly refer to films, but I believe that this statement can be applied to today’s society to also include things like reality TV, fluff news pieces, and, depending on the person, social media.
In the end, what was sparked by the controversy surrounding Dadaist art developed into something that broadened the minds of the public, artists and critics alike. Eventually it became more acceptable to mindfully consider the Dada’s works of art, and today they are even celebrated at major institutions. I believe it’s Benjamin’s opinion that there is no way to stop the advancement of new art forms and technology, nor is it possible to predict or control what will be done with them. However, the conversations which arise out of the friction between the actions of individuals and the opinion of society at large ultimately benefit society because of the required contemplation. As stated by Benjamin, “Like all shocks, [they] should be cushioned by heightened presence of mind.”