Why Walter Benjamin Is the Art World’s Favorite Theorist

Rob Sharp
Sep 24, 2015 9:46PM

Walter Benjamin in 1928. Image from the Walter Benjamin Archiv at Akademie der Künste, Berlin, via Wikimedia Commons.

At the end of her 2007 biography of German philosopher Walter Benjamin, London academic Esther Leslie recounts the German artist and filmmaker Lutz Dammbeck’s extrapolation of what might have happened to Benjamin had he not famously committed suicide while fleeing Europe in September 1940. Benjamin, she writes, “would have arrived in the United States after an arduous journey through the Pyrenees.” Once there, he would have continued the research of his friend and intellectual Theodor W. Adorno, and, rather more unusually, participated in the controversial psychological experiments of the Harvard Psilocybin Project with Timothy Leary.

Psychedelics aside, according to Leslie (a Benjamin specialist), countless artists have been directly inspired by Benjamin’s work. From Timm Ulrichs’s successive photocopies of the philosopher’s writing, in order to show its degradation through reproduction, to Volker März’s Benjamin figurines, the theorist has inspired countless creatives since his passing. According to a 2014 New Yorker article by Alex Ross, the Frankfurt School—with which Benjamin was closely associated—is in the throes of a popular renaissance. “Anyone who underwent a liberal-arts education in recent decades probably encountered the thorny theorists associated with [it],” the journalist writes, citing the work of writers including Astra Taylor and Evgeny Morozov as being in the “orbit” of the Frankfurt School.

“Benjamin appeals to writers and artists who don’t think that they fit in with the art world.”

A forthcoming series of events in London will commemorate the 75th anniversary of Benjamin’s death on September 26th, 1940. The series culminates this Saturday at London’s Whitechapel Gallery with discussions and a performance exploring Benjamin’s work; other events across London, including a talk at Carroll / Fletcher, are also set to take place.

Benjamin is perhaps best known for his 1936 essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproducibility,” which explored, among other ideas, the political uses of mass-produced art. But he was also a talented journalist, radio broadcaster, literary critic, and writer of experimental narratives and stories for children. That, and the dramatic circumstances of his death—morphine pills, in a tiny village in the Pyrenees, fleeing Nazi Germany only to be held up at the French-Spanish border—contribute to his continuing presence in the popular imagination.

“This absolutely seminal body of work only increases in importance as the years go on,” says writer and curator Gareth Evans, film curator at the Whitechapel Gallery and one of those who will be discussing Benjamin’s work this week. “The question is why? For me, he is an essayist above all else, and the essay has arguably become the great literary form of our time. It’s an open form, it allows many different tones of voice to exist within it. Perhaps that explains his influence today.”

“He theorizes visuality and the art object, and that poses a huge challenge to artists about whether it’s possible to keep making art.”

“I think it’s the strong visual quality of [Benjamin’s] thought,” Leslie told me in a telephone interview. “I think he also theorizes visuality and the art object, and that poses a huge challenge to artists about whether it’s possible to keep making art. Then there is the politicization of art which has occurred since the 1960s, which in certain ways has adopted his theses.”

Another of Benjamin’s most influential pieces of writing is the unfinished Arcades Project, written between 1927 and 1940. The work took its title from the glass-roofed arcades of Paris, where countless shops compete for trade from strolling consumers. Adopting its structural inspiration from this form, and from that of a flâneur walking through the city, Benjamin presented a montage of quotations and reflections on hundreds of sources, grouping them under headings including “Fashion,” “Boredom,” and “Photography.”

“Benjamin appeals to writers and artists who don’t think that they fit in with the art world,” says multimedia artist Vicki Bennett, who performs under the name People Like Us, and will appear alongside cultural activist and poet Kenneth Goldsmith at the Whitechapel event. She will present the work Citation City, which is directly inspired by The Arcades Project and collages together some 300 feature films shot or set in London. “I think the way I work is more like a conceptual writer…people see the way he accumulated and assembled information, taking texts, quotes, and sometimes pictures, and collecting them in the same way we download information from the internet and put them in folders. He was doing something in an analogue form that we do now.”

“He was doing something in an analogue form that we do now.”

Leslie is working on two forthcoming translations of Benjamin’s work—one of his photography criticism, and another of his short fiction—some of which has not appeared in English before. Alongside this, possible topics for her discussions on Saturday include whether Benjamin would be considered a “migrant or a refugee” in a contemporary context, making his relevance as pressing as ever.

“Recently, another [kind of] Benjamin has been brought back,” concludes Leslie. “People had always thought of him in terms of the mass reproduction of art. But with the recent publication of his radio programs in English, it has opened him up as a curious thinker. Benjamin is now coming to us as a producer, as an artist, as a maker, and that pulls him away from the hyper-academicism he got mired in during earlier times. He’s now drawn into these fields of production, and I think that’s because of his imaginative aspect, his valuation of the imagination.”

Rob Sharp