Walter Benjamin’s The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (1935) is highly relevant to our current cultural and political situation, since aspects of fascist era history are being alarmingly repeated today in the rhetoric and policy of right wing populists. But an examination of Benjamin’s text also highlights essential differences between the media landscapes of the 1930s and 2020s.
For Benjamin, the production and consumption of art involves social class relationships, which link the aura of a given artwork with the exclusivity of the act of viewing it. However, increasingly ubiquitous printed copies of the artwork could be used to share the image of the original with the masses, bringing them an experience of art viewing hitherto only available to their class superiors. Anyone could now witness, for example, the form of the Mona Lisa—though this came at the expense of the work’s exclusivity, and the reproduced image inevitably suffered a loss in quality in the process of its reproduction. But the essay is not merely a lament over the loss of a romanticised quasi-spiritual aspect of artwork. For Benjamin, industrial production could fuel working class material aspirations, which would lead to greater egalitarianism, if those aspirations weren’t thwarted by reactionary forces.
However, Benjamin argues that the offer of a culture for all can prove disastrous when there is no coincident shift in material relations. This can lead to a frustrated population, open to exploitation by right wing populists (in his case, the fascists of the 1930s): “The masses have a right to change property relations; Fascism seeks to give them an expression while preserving property. The logical result of Fascism is the introduction of aesthetics into political life.”
Benjamin watched the fascist governments of the 1930s channel the public desire for fair property relations into the cult of the fascist leader: a kind of aestheticization of political life achieved via mass media propaganda and military parades. “The newsreel,” he argues, “offers everyone the opportunity to rise from passer-by to movie extra. In this way any man might even find himself part of a work of art.” This experience potentially opens up the roles of muse and protagonist—previously reserved for the wealthy and for mythical and Biblical figures—to anyone, which led to enormous expectations that could only be subdued by channelling the energy of the masses into adoration of a nationalist leader and the scapegoating of racial minorities.
Benjamin and New Media Culture
Today, billions of people are protagonists of media like YouTube, Twitch, Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok and Twitter and so on. These platforms offer the possibility—however remote—of an instant rise to fame, and potential access to seemingly boundless material wealth. Though since, of course, not everyone will become famous or rich, many people will inevitably end up disappointed.
Nevertheless, many people now enjoy a moderate degree of local fame on certain internet platforms. Someone who is instafamous (famous on Instagram) may have millions of followers, but be unrecognisable on the street. Content producers can also profit directly from their creative output. Such platforms therefore redraw the property relations which Benjamin saw as unchanging in the 1930s.
Horizontalization of Culture Through New Media Forms: Twitch and Patreon
Twitch was established in 2011, for the live streaming of video gaming. Within three years, it gained around 50 million users.
Its content varies from game play to cabaret-like performances and Jane Fonda style workouts, from dating advice to art tuition, cosplay, live music, political chat shows and cookery shows. The platform boasts 1.4 million concurrent viewers—more than MSNBC or CNN—and peak viewers numbering 4 million. There are 5 million individual live streaming channels operative on Twitch each month, around 60,000 of which stream daily.
This phenomenon extends the process which began in 1999 with fly-on-the-wall reality TV shows starring ordinary people, like Big Brother—though Twitch also offers the possibility of creating your own show, thus giving millions of people a new creative outlet. Through Twitch, the masses can not only enjoy moving image content, but to produce it and star in it, earning money through subscriptions from viewers.
Patreon began in 2013. Its founder, musician Jack Conte, sought a solution to the problem of how to monetise online popularity in an era in which listeners are used to streaming and downloading for free. Patreon has since become a global provider of membership businesses for creative practitioners. The model allows people to set monthly subscription rates in return for providing exclusive artworks, essays, videos and songs and is used by podcasters, publishers and Twitch and YouTube content producers as a source of supplemental income. (It was only possible to publish this article itself thanks to the generosity of subscribers to Areo’s own Patreon account.) As we approach a prolonged economic crisis with inevitable cuts to cultural funding, such a model could help redefine cultural capital, and culture itself.
One artist who has made use of both Twitch and Patreon is multimedia practitioner Joshua Citarella. While he often displays his artworks in galleries, Citarella also regularly streams on Twitch and hosts talks on art and internet culture. On 24 March, just days into the US lockdown, Citarella hosted sixteen writers, artists and academics on his Twitch channel for a conference entitled Coronacene: What Happens Next?
Streaming the conference on Twitch allowed for a degree of horizontality rarely seen in an academic conference. The Twitch chat feature enables viewers to write comments in real time, receive direct replies from the host and have their own parallel conversation. Citarella’s audience of over 1,000 could leave live comments. Using technology originally developed for audiences to interact with video gamers, the chat allowed irreverent comments to appear alongside more serious observations, thus challenging the rigid hierarchies of academia.
Citarella also used Patreon as an alternative publication format. In early 2020, he published 20 Interviews with young internet meme producers, who post extremist political imagery. The book, commissioned by digital arts research association Rhizome, was first made available to Citarella’s $40 per month subscribers and is now available to all $5+ subscribers as a PDF.
Removing the Middleman
Services like Twitch and Patreon cut out the middleman: the publisher, TV producer, gallerist or museum director. On 23 May 2020, Juhani Oivo organised a day-long livestreamed Twitch event entitled Hyperboreal, funded by Finnish arts foundation Arctic Pulse, featuring musicians accompanied by VJ sets (live mixed visuals). This was one many initiatives that have allowed artists to perform or display work during lockdown and that signal the possibility of a sea change in the format and funding of the cultural scene.
On 13 April, tens of people meet up on Zoom as part of the independent initiative Fare Foresta (“to make a forest”), curated by John Cascone, Arianna Desideri and Jacopo Natoli. The curators explained: “We urge you to participate in the collection of images that will be looped on the screen during the event. The screensavers will be like a large archive-patchwork, a collective unconscious, a visual imagery through which we will populate the forest.” Participants gathered on Zoom from midday to midnight to make forest noises to the accompaniment of looped images, thereby bringing people under lockdown in contact with an collectively imagined nature.
Funding platforms like Patreon and Twitch may allow independent artists to break free from the conventional art market altogether. To some degree, the promise of riches and independence offered by mass image reproduction in the 1930s is coming to fruition with the unprecedented freedom and financial independence this offers.
Benjamin and Today’s Right Wing Populism
Benjamin’s hypothesis that the increased public appetite for wealth and power produced by new forms of media will lead the political class to attempt to use populist rhetoric to divert public attention is borne out by very recent history. Jair Bolsanaro, Donald Trump and Boris Johnson all came to power by offering the public the voice it has come to believe it deserves, while working against the public interest. They appeal to the public to override the advice of experts—a strategy made possible by the new media that have increased the desire to circumvent power structures and gatekeepers to celebrity. Where pre-existing media structures restricted fame to a chosen few, it is now possible to become accidentally famous. In this climate, how do you explain to people that they are not worthy of attention and success? Or that their opinions are secondary to those of experts or career politicians?
However, the populist leaders remain on the other side of a glass ceiling that prevents people from using internet media to develop genuine political agency.
Attali and Post-Repetition
This is not the 1930s. There are huge differences between the mass media culture that Benjamin writes about and the interactive internet culture of today. In his 1985 book Noise: The Political Economy of Music, Jacques Attali argues that democratising changes to music production and reception have always precipitated social change. His model has parallels with internet culture and the freedoms it offers, however much those freedoms have been compromised.
Attali argues that music has gone through several stages of development, the last two of which are “repetition” and “post-repetition.” “Repetition” correlates to the period Benjamin refers to in The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction: “never before,” Attali writes, “have musicians tried so hard to communicate with their audience, and never before has that communication been so deceiving. Music now seems hardly more than a somewhat clumsy excuse for the self-glorification of musicians and the growth of a new industrial sector.” During “repetition,” even the most rebellious popular musical megastars, like Kurt Cobain, Johnny Rotten and Jimi Hendrix—whose influence rivalled that of many politicians—were merely icons that industrial capital utilised for profit.
“Post-repetition” marks the period of new music production beginning in the 70s, made possible by the development of musical technologies like electronic synthesizers. Attali saw the music that resulted from the use of such technologies as no longer tied into an economic system or logic of power. Post-repeating implies freedom from the repetition of recorded music tied to a recording industry, or of songs from sheet music sold by publishers closely linked to orchestras and maestros. Instead, we have noise, made in social or friendship groups, for its own sake. Attali terms this “composition”:
The listener is the operator. Composition, then, beyond the realm of music, calls into question the distinction between worker and consumer, between doing and destroying, a fundamental division of roles in all societies in which usage is defined by a code; to compose is to take pleasure in the instruments, the tools of communication, in use-time and exchange-time as lived and no longer as stockpiled.
Such a description seems to anticipate the dreams of the early internet. The early net was, however, subject to increasing expropriation by large corporations like Google, Facebook and Amazon. The extent to which independent initiatives can exist alongside these companies is open to debate: neither Patreon nor Twitch would enjoy the same visibility without Google. Amazon bought the latter platform in 2014.
Unless we use VPN networks and anonymous routers to hide our online activity, every online mouse click feeds into the capitalist system. However much we may exist in an era of “composition,” our creative activity—expressed through memes, YouTube videos, etc—is tightly bound up with capitalism, as the documentary The Social Dilemma has shown.
Your Every Sleeping Hour
In her 1973 essay In Plato’s Cave, Susan Sontag argues that the popularity of the tourist snapshot indicates the impossibility of escaping industrial and capitalist processes, even when on holiday. Even during their time off, people felt obligated to mechanically document their day and pay to have the photographic film processed. Likewise, our fevered attempts to document, capture and communicate our every moment online will always feed into the processes of capitalism, whatever our intentions.
We live in a society even more in thrall to capitalism than it was at the height of industrial modernism. A number of mostly female Twitch streamers, including Amouranth and JustaMinx, have even begun to monetise their sleep, by streaming themselves catching some zzzzs as their mostly male audience looks on and occasionally tips them. In future, capitalism will not only profit from our every waking hour, but from our every sleeping hour too. Yet we also have an unprecedented number of tools at our disposal for self expression, online congregation and education. Every loss that has been made by the worker and the left since the 1930s has been accompanied by a gain. Are we being watched by the apps and devices we use? Yes, but so are our politicians, leading to greater transparency. Are we subject to a constant bombardment of images and information? Yes, but we also make and disseminate information and images constantly. Are we constantly making money for the capitalist system? Yes, but we have the tools to monetise our own creative output like never before. The relative accessibility of media to both users and producers remains as politically crucial today as it was in the 1930s. It is up to us to leverage whatever freedom we have within capitalism to prevent the slide into tyranny that Benjamin witnessed.