From Teaching-Value to Exhibition-Value: Changes in the ‘Work of Art’ essay (1)


There was never a time when Benjamin’s artwork essay was not controversial – from the moment the typewritten, “second” version (the first was a handwritten draft) arrived on Horkheimer’s desk and provoked Adorno’s substantial response on March 18, 1936; through the cuts impose by Horkheimer on the essay’s first publication – translated into French by Pierre Klossowski – in the Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung (vol. 5.1, 1936); to the revised “third” German version, which remained a work in progress as late as 1939 and appeared only posthumously in Illuminationen (1955), edited by Adorno and Friedrich Podszus. There it rested until the late sixties when Benjamin’s writings were discovered by the German new left and student movement …the essay – along with other Benjamin texts written under the influence of Brecht, such as “The Author as Producer” (1934) – offered students a different version of intellectual and cultural practice than that represented by their teachers, even and especially scholars on the left affiliated with the Frankfurt School. (Miriam Bratu Hansen, Cinema and Experience: Siegfried Kracauer, Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno, p.83)

Initial notes for the essay… were written in the autumn of 1935. The first version was completed at the close of 1935. The second version was a partial and extended rewrite, completed in February 1936, and contains material and various theoretical formulations excluded from the final version. …Klossowski translated the second version of the ‘Artwork essay’ in the spring of 1936, but he made of it a shorter [third] French version …which appeared in the Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung in 1936 …without the first thesis and omitted other references to Marxism. Executing his task with the Institute’s full backing, Brill, a supervisor allocated to Benjamin in Paris in order to prepare the piece for translation, had attempted to efface the traces of Marxist theory from the second version of the essay. …The third German version [the fourth version of the essay] …was begun during the translation of the second version and was still described as a “work-in-progress” by Benjamin in 1938 and again in 1939 …[it] includes some material not previously used in the other …versions, notably references to Brecht’s Der Dreigroschenprozeß, and a selection of quotations from Paul Valery, Alexander Arnoux, Rudolph Arnhem and Georges Duhamel. In some senses it might be said that the Brechtian elements are amplified, perhaps as an act of defiance against Adorno… But other formulations and ideas central to the second version disappeared. (Esther Leslie, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Unbearable Capitulation’, Walter Benjamin: Overpowering Conformism, 130-132)

353The first German handwritten version from 1935 can be found in GS 1:431-69 but as far as I am aware remains untranslated in English. The ‘second, first typewritten version’ in German from 1936, ‘to which Benjamin referred as his “Urtext” …and of which he circulated copies, was rediscovered and published only in 1989 in GS 7:350-84′ and is translated in SW 3:101-33. The third (French) version of the essay, which was published in ZfS is reprinted in GS 1:709-39. The fourth version (the third German version) from 1939 can be found in GS 1:471-508, ‘was published, in a rather unreliable translation’ by Harry Zohn in Illuminations and in a revised translation by Harry Zohn and Edmund Jephcott in SW 4:251-283 (cf. Hansen, 307-8, n.28).


While the first and second version of the essay differ in important ways from the third, the basic argument is already in place …The assertion that communism responds to the fascist aestheticizing of politics by politicizing art rings hollow – at least, that is, without the anthropological materialist elaboration, in the essay’s 1936 version, of Benjamin’s concept of politics – and invites later readers to fill it with romantic notions of proletarian culture that he had explicitly omitted and implicitly opposed …If the weak version of that futurity amounts to “a general and mild politics of distraction” (Rose), the stronger version, articulated in the essay’s earlier incarnations, suggests a rather more bold and far-reaching politics of mimetic innervation… (Hansen, 85, 91)

Analysing the ‘sites of major discrepancy between the [second] 1936 and [fourth] 1939 versions’ of the essay, Hansen – who favours the second version of the essay – focuses on Benjamin’s discussion of the problematic difference between the cinema-going public and the ‘working-class masses assumed by traditional leftist and labour politics’, which ‘first emerges in his discussion of the screen actor’ in Section XII of the Urtext (this material appears in Section XI of the first 1935 version, entitled ‘Der Filmdarsteller’ and Section X of the fourth 1939 version), and specifically the long footnote on the masses that concludes Section XII (footnote 12 in GS; footnote 24 in SW).

But Hansen also focuses on how ‘the emphasis on the critical, testing function of distraction overshadows the elements of play and humour that Benjamin had considered key to film’s political task of redressing the pathological imbalance between humans and technology in the essay’s earlier versions – key precisely to the imperative of diffusing and disarming destructive forms of intoxication within the masses’ (102). In the later version of the essay, cinema offers ‘a training ground for an enlightened barbarism, rather than – as in the second version – a medium for new kinds of mimetic experience, a “Spiel-Raum” or room-for-play for trying out an alternative innervation of technology.’ (103). This ‘liquidations gesture disavows a crucial impulse of his own thinking – his lifelong concern with the fate of experience in the age of its declining transmissibility…’ (103). The discussion of a ‘second technology’ – and its associated concepts of spielraum and innervation –  takes place primarily in Section VI of the essay, entitled ‘Cult-Value and Exhibition-Value’ in the first version, and especially the long footnote of revolutionary innervation that concludes this section (footnote 4 in GS; footnote 10 in SW; this material repeated and expanded in the fragment on ‘A Different Utopian Will’ in GS 7:665-6, translated SW3:134-5).

As Peter Osborne points out, the discussion of the “training” and “teaching” functions of film in Section VI of the second version of the essay are the guise in which appears Benjamin’s even earlier discussions of the ‘education function’ or ‘education-value’ of art, from ‘The Author as Producer’ and the fragment on the ‘Theory of Distraction’ in GS 7:678-7, translated SW3: 141-2 (Peter Osborne, Anywhere or Not at All: Philosophy of Contemporary Art, n.38, 234). In ‘the third [German, actually fourth] version it appears as “the evaluating attitude” discussed in Section XV (Section XVIII of the second version). ‘Interestingly,’ Osborne adds, ‘these are the two sections in which there is the greatest difference between the two versions’. It should be added that Section VI, in particular, is considerably expanded and developed from the first to the second version of the essay and that the material added is at some points taken from the final section of his earlier text One-Way Street (written 1923-6, published in 1928).

As the preceding commentary has sought to suggest, the changes and revisions made in particular to Section VI of the ‘Artwork’ essay but also elsewhere, contain, I think, in condensed form the pre- and post-history of the shifting political investment Benjamin attached not only to art per se (and in particular cinema) but more generally to technology and its educational function. My own interest in these shifts, influenced by the authors above, is concerned with the way what Benjamin calls the ‘educational-value’ [Lehrwert] (for reasons connected to Benjamin’s philosophy of education, I prefer to translate this as teaching-value rather than education-value) of technologically reproduced art (foregrounded in One-Way Street written in the mid-1920s and ‘The Author as Producer’ and various texts associated with Benjamin’s radio plays from the early 1930s) is gradually submerged and replaced by a focus on the political potential of what  (in the ‘Theory of Distraction’ fragment) he calls its ‘consumer-value’ [Konsumwert] and then (in the ‘Work of Art’ essay) its ‘exhibition value’ [Ausstellungswert], and how this educational context is expanded from the first to the second version of the essay but then gradually repressed and eliminated in the subsequent versions.

In future posts, then, I’m going to be assembling and comparing the variants of the ‘Work of Art’ essay material (giving the original and English translation), beginning with Section VI and the earlier material related to its composition, and moving on to other related sections in due course.


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