The enormous impact on cultural theory of Walter Benjamin's famous essay on "The work of art in the age of its mechanical reproducibility" is largely due to his claim that photography has "transformed the entire nature of art," destroying its semblance of autonomy in relation to social and political processes, and liquidating "the traditional value of the cultural heritage." 1 Photographs (and especially moving pictures) cannot, he believed, be invested with the "aura" of timelessness and sanctity which Benjamin saw as essential to the classical artwork; they give themselves not to aesthetic contemplation by a chosen few but to absorption by the masses, who in this way acquire a mode of experience adequate to the social changes called for by technological development.
While Benjamin's friend and critic, T. W. Adorno, criticized his assumption of the politically and culturally "progressive" consequences of the practice of photography, a number of recent writers have questioned the very idea that photography has had these consequences. According to W. J. T. Mitchell, for instance, photography itself has been absorbed
by traditional notions of fine art. When Benjamin [in his "Short history of photography"] praises the production of aura in Nadar, and the destruction of aura in Atget, he is praising them as moments in the formation of a new, revolutionary conception of art that bypasses all the philistine twaddle about creative genius and beauty. And yet it is precisely these traditional notions of aesthetics, with all their attendant claims about craftsmanship, formal subtlety, and semantic complexity, that have sustained the case for the artistic status of photography. 2
Similarly, Christopher Phillips has shown to what extent Benjamin's predictions about the transformative role of photography seem to be "considerably at odds
1 W. Benjamin, "The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction," in idem, Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, ed. Hannah Arendt (New York: Schocken, 1969), pp. 227, 226, 231.
2 W. J. T. Mitchell, Iconology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986), pp. 181-4.