19. On Painting, or Sign and Mark

  • The first fundamental difference is to be seen in the fact that the sign is imprinted; the mark, by contrast, emerges. This indicates that the sphere of the mark is that of a medium. Whereas the absolute sign does not appear predominantly on living beings but rather is also impressed on inanimate buildings, trees, and so forth, the mark appears principally on living beings. The opposition between and absolute mark does not exist, for the mark is always absolute and in its appearing is similar to nothing else.
  • It is especially striking that, turning up as it does on the living, the mark is so often linked to guilt or innocence; indeed, even where the mark appears on the lifeless, it is often a warning sign of guilt … … The sign, however, appears not infrequently as something that distinguishes a person, and this opposition between sign and mark likewise seems to belong to the metaphysical order.
  • But on the other hand, the picture may be connected with something that it is not — that is to say, something that is not a mark — and indeed this connection is achieved by naming the picture. This relation to what the picture is named after, the relation to what transcends the mark, is created by the composition. This is the entry of a higher power into the medium of the mark — a power that, once there, remains in the state of neutrality, which is to say that it does not use any aspect of the graphic to explode the mark but finds its place within the mark without exploding it, because even though it is immeasurably higher than the mark, it is not hostile toward it but related to it.

confer: 授予

25. Some Remarks on Folk Art

  • If we ask ourselves what “art” in the modern sense means to folk art on the one hand and to kitsch on the other, the answer would be: all folk art draws the human being into itself.
  • As we stand in front of a painting by Titian or Monet, we never feel the urge to pull out our watch and set it by the position of the sun in the picture. But in the case of picture in children’s books, or in Utrillo’s paintings, which really do recuperate the primitive, we might easily get such an urge. This means that we find ourselves in a situation of the kind we are used to, and it is not so much that we compare the position of the sun with our watch as that we use the watch to compare this position of the sun with an earlier one.
  • In reality, the world is full of masks; we do not suspect the extent to which even the most unpretentious pieces of furniture used to be masks, too. Wearing a mask, man looks out on the situation and builds up his figures within it. To hand over these masks to us, and to form the space and the figure of our fate within it — this is what folk art approaches us with. Only from this vintage point can we say clearly and fundamentally what distinguishes it from actual “art”, in the narrower sense. Art teach us to see into things. Folk art and kitsch allow us to see outward from within things.

26. Chinese Paintings at the Bibliotheque Nationale

  • Here is a fact that is at once of utmost importance and somewhat strange in the eyes of Europeans: the link that has been revealed between the thought of a Valery, who says that Leonardo da Vinci “takes painting as his philosophy,” and the synthetic view of the universe which is characteristic of the painter-philosophers of China.
  • An essential feature of the image is that it incorporates something eternal. This eternal quality expresses itself in the fixity and stability of the stroke, but it is also manifest, more subtly, thanks to the fact that the image embodies something that is fluid and ever-changing. It is from this blending of the fixed and the mutable that Chinese painting derives all its meaning.


  • First, and most generally, Benjamin links the emergence of a photograph’s image-world to the way in which photographs — like film and other photo-based media — make possible for us the experience of the “optical unconscious.” … … To put this another way, in the optical unconscious the world presents itself to the photographic apparatus in an aspect different from any it could ever present to the unaided human senses.
  • But the optical unconscious clearly entails much more than the revelation of physical and temporal aspects of nature through the use of specific techniques … … They [commodities] are man-made objects that appear to have supernatural or magic powers and as such wield power over humans: commodities have a debilitating effect upon the human perceptual apparatus and intellect … … The photograph aids, in other words, in the process of the disenchantment of the world as it makes visible the effects of magic — unreason — upon human nature and human social interaction.
  • The image produced by the camera have a “shock effect” that “paralyzes the associative mechanisms in the beholder.” Benjamin here derives a set of claims from what is most often ascribed to photography as its sole capacity: the ability to capture things “as they are” and in so doing to replicate the apparently fixed, immutable quality of the world in a fixed and immutable sensory apparatus in the beholder.

28. Little History of Photography

  • Details of structure, cellular tissue, with which technology and medicine are normally concerned — all this is, in its origins, more closely related to the camera than is the emotionally evocative landscape or the soulful portrait. Yet at the same time, photography reveals in this material physiognomic aspects, image worlds, which dwell in the smallest things — meaningful yet covert enough to find a hiding place in waking dreams, but which, enlarged and available for formulation, make the difference between technology and magic visible as a thoroughly historical variable.
  • The peeling away of the object’s shell, the destruction of the aura, is the signature of a perception whose sense for all that is the same in the world has grown to the point where even the singular, unique, is divested of its uniqueness — by means of its reproduction.
  • As Brecht says: “The situation is complicated by the fact that less than ever does the mere ‘reproduction of reality’ say anything about reality. A photograph of the Krupp works or the AEG reveals next to nothing about these institutions. Actual reality has slipped into the functional. The reification of human relations — the factory, say — means that they are no longer explicit … … We must credit the Surrealists with having trained the pioneers of such photographic construction.

physiognomic: 地貌; covert: 隐蔽; reification: 物化; culprit:罪魁祸首; augur: 吉兆

29. Letters from Paris (2)

  • The theory of painting has split off from painting itself to become a special field of art criticism. Underlying this division of labor is the collapse of the solidarity which once existed between painting and public affairs. Courbet was perhaps the last painter gave answers to problems touching on areas other painting.
  • Courbet’s special position was that he was the last who could attempt to surpass photography. Later painters tried to evade it — first and foremost the Impressionists … … The proof was seen around the turn of the century, when photography, in turn, tried to emulate the Impressionists.

guild: 公会; argot: 隐语

30. Review of Freund’s Photographie en France au dix-neuvieme siecle

  • “Photography’s claim to be an art was raised precisely by those who were turning photography into a business”. In other words, photography’s claim to be an art is contemporaneous with its emergence as a commodity. This is consistent with the influence which photography, as a technique of reproduction, had on art itself. It isolated art from the patron, delivering it up to the anonymous market and its demand.
  • “The greater a writer is,” Plekhanov wrote in his polemic against Lanson, “the more strongly and clearly the character of his work depends on the character of his time, or in other words: the less the element which might be called the ‘personal’ can be found in his works.”

patron: 顾客; polemical: 争论的


  • The shock-quality of the montage in certain types of filmic image-sequences is crucial for Benjamin because, on the one hand, in their refusal of facile continuity, they correspond to a collective, distracted model of reception that serves as an alternative to the individual absorption and contemplation characteristic of the bourgeoisie’s cult of art.
  • … he [Benjamin] argues that concentration on the auratic work enables only the viewer’s absorption into the work, while distraction enables members of the massed audience to absorb the work into themselves. In a telling fragment from The Arcades Project, Benjamin characterizes this active appropriation of the work by the mass audience as a making present of something past: “The true method of making things present is to represent them in our space (not to represent ourselves in their space) … … We don’t displace our being into theirs; they step into our life.”

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