Nowadays, hardly will you find a person who does not realize the incredible power of mass media, its huge impact on us, on our lifestyles, actions, our physical looks and even personal features. This especially refers to those who tend not to think much and analyze information they receive from TV or newspapers. The power of mass media became apparent from the very first days when technological advancements made it possible to spread information to larger masses of people. With time, it also became obvious that media can be used not only to inform people, but also manipulate their minds and make them think in a certain way.
In this paper, I will discuss two works of two German authors: The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction by a German philosopher and essayist Walter Benjamin and The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum by one of the most popular post-World War II writers Heinrich Boll. With the development of mass communication and mechanical reproduction, the very gist of art and its various forms transformed significantly, purposes of many artists for creating their works also changed. With time, mass communications became politicized and were used for creating distorted, deceitful images, political repressions, human rights violations, and violence.
The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction by Walter Benjamin
Walter Benjamin wrote this famous essay about art in 1935 and discussed various impacts that mechanical reproduction and mass communications had on art. Before I discuss some of Benjamin’s ideas covered in his essay, let me say a few words about political and cultural situation in Germany in the 1930s. Actually, it was a period when Germany was suffering from a cultural crisis, when fascism was on the rise, and when Marx’s communist ideas were popular as well. German society including various artists were split and had to choose a side to stand on – either fascist or communist ideology. Definitely, such political conditions affected art greatly.
Now, imagine that such dramatic changes in German cultural life are accompanied by the development of technologies and mechanical reproduction. What does it mean? It means that mass communications and art are available to the mass audience. Now, not only rich people can observe the works of art in museums or galleries. By means of mechanical reproduction, copies of the works of art can be quickly disseminated, and large masses of people can have access to them. Taking all this into consideration, Benjamin talks about art, changes that it undergoes, new functions that it gains, new values that it has for people. Benjamin notes that “instead of being based on ritual, art begins to be based on another practice – politics” (224). The works of art were no longer produced for art’s sake, but were affected by the political struggles. However, Benjamin talks not only about politization of art.
He mentions drastic transformations in the gist and value of art. For instance, in his essay Benjamin frequently uses such a term as “aura”, which means the uniqueness of the works of art. “Aura” is something that makes us stand and stare on a picture or sculpture realizing its value and uniqueness.
Reproduction of the works of art destroys “aura”, reproduced works do not seem that unique and valuable. Almost the same Benjamin says about film and theatre. Theatre actors have special relations with the audience, they play for the audience every time, and every time the same play can be different. Still, Benjamin states, and I can agree with this, that such transformations are not absolutely negative. On the one hand, a reproduced work loses its “aura”, but on the other hand if this work is really unique, we still will appreciate it, even in the reproduced form. The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum by Heinrich Boll Heinrich Boll wrote this novel in 1974 when mass communications were completely different from those in Benjamin’s times, but they still had a tremendous impact on the life of ordinary people. The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum is rather a tragic story of a young woman and terrible effects that mass media and journalistic rush for sensations had on her life.
Katharina Blum works as a housemaid, and one day falls in love with handsome young man Ludwig Gotten. As it turned out later, he is wanted by the police, and at this point, the calm and ordinary life of Katharina turns into hell. Local tabloids, particularly Die Zeitung, create distorted images of innocent Kathrina calling her a whore and other awful words. She has to go through humiliating police interrogations and extremely negative and crude attitude of the police inspector Beizmenne. The situation is made even worse by constant attacks of a journalist Totges who is trying to make a sensation from the story of a poor innocent woman. A press photographer Schonner tries to make sensational photos of Blum while she is arrested. “She was photographed repeatedly from the front, from behind, and from the side, and finally – with disheveled hair and an angry face” (Boll 22).
The story finishes with Katharina’s murder of Totges who “has been buried (with disproportionate pomp and ceremony, in the opinion of many)” (Boll 14), and I fully support this action of a poor woman. This novel of Heinrich Boll shows how unfair and even dangerous media and yellow press can be. Very often, now and 30 years ago, indecent journalists forget all human laws and want to make a sensation out of anything. What is more, such pseudo-journalists can make the readers believe all those nonsense they are talking about in their cheap, yellow press articles.
What I want to say at the end is that, first, art if it is really unique and original will not lose its value, no matter in what form it is presented. Second, I wish that we do not have such stories as Heinrich Boll describes in his novel. If we live according to our own moral principles and laws, if we think independently and maturely, we will never be victims of yellow press.
Benjamin, Walter. The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. New York: Schocken Books, 1969. Boll, Heinrich.
The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum, or, How Violence Develops and Where It Can Lead. New York: Penguin Books, 1994.