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Benjamin, Walter

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Diametrically opposed to this stance is what Benjamin terms 'melancholy', a scepticism about the claims of science and empirical knowledge. The melancholic artist devises allegories and conceits to emphasize their despair at the inaccessibility of God's reality; the Baroque Trauerspiel is a typical example of this attitude. However, this is a rash response to the problems of mimetic realism, or 'symbolism', for there is a third possibility available to artists: an interventionist pragmatism. This depends on their ability to perceive their own activities within a wider, political frame. In Benjamin's view, if they can do this, they will 'awaken under the open sky of history'; but the precise nature of interventionist art is something that, in the early work, still remains obscure.

« Benjamin, Walter Walter Benjamin was one of the most influential twentieth-century philosophers of culture.

His work combines formal analysis of art works with social theory to generate an approach which is historical, but is far more subtle than either materialism or conventional Geistesgeschichte (cultural and stylistic chronology).

The ambiguous alignment of his work between Marxism and theology has made him a challenging and often controversial figure. 1 Life and works Benjamin was born into an affluent family of assimilated Berlin Jews.

He wrote his doctorate on Der Begriff der Kunstkritik in der deutschen Romantik (The Concept of Art Criticism in German Romanticism), and, in 1925 submitted Ursprung des deutschen Trauerspiels (The Origin of German Tragic Drama) for the degree of habilitated doctor at the University of Frankfurt.

This book is now considered a classic.

The application failed, however, and Benjamin abandoned his plans for a university career.

After some years as a feuilleton journalist in Berlin, during which he met and worked with Bertolt Brecht, Theodor Adorno and other left-wing intellectuals, Benjamin was forced to flee to Paris in 1933.

Under commission from the 'Institute for Social Research' (that is, the 'Frankfurt School' then in emigration in New York), he devoted himself to a major theoretical and historical project on nineteenth-century Paris (the 'Arcades Project').

After a financially and personally precarious decade, he was again forced to flee from the Nazis, and eventually took his own life after crossing the Pyrenees in a vain attempt to reach safety in Spain.

Benjamin was little known during his lifetime; since 1955, however, under the stewardship of such erstwhile associates as Adorno, his work has been widely published and translated. 2 Art: Nietzsche and Marx The agenda for modern aesthetic theory was set by Friedrich Nietzsche (§2), who believed that art expressed a realm more fundamental and constitutive than that accessible to the natural sciences.

His many followers were happy to invoke such a superior legitimation for the human sciences.

They were resisted by Marxists who, while assigning art a place in history, none the less insisted that this history was exclusively political, and that the nature of art was exhausted by determining the side it joined in the political struggle.

Art, in other words, was not constitutive even of its own reality, but was merely a 'superstructural' reflection of the political 'base'. Benjamin inclined by temperament and association towards the Marxists, not least because the most interesting art of the first third of the twentieth century was Marxist, at least by declaration (for example, Soviet Constructivism, Sergei Eisenstein, Brecht and the Bauhaus).

It was clear, however, that 'base-superstructure' model of orthodox Marxism could scarcely account for such creativity. Benjamin's project may be understood as an attempt to uncover the manner in which art engages in spheres describable in the terms of political economy, but autonomously and without adhering to simplistic criteria, such as 'progressive'.

By abandoning the Marxist categorization of art as mere epiphenomenal superstructure, then,. »


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