First Bread, Then Morality: Walter Benjamin and Art in a Time of Crisis

Guardian columnist Peter Thompson visits Walter Benjamin in his "How to Believe" series and, bless him, doesn't dumb Benjamin's views on the role of history, politics art in belief. 

Thompson starts with a quote from Benjamin's "Theses on the Philosophy of History" that distinguishes between material and spiritual struggle, summed in Brecht's dictum, "first bread, then morality." The struggle for material goods is always won by the most powerful, but Benjamin dismisses them as "mere booty." More important are the spiritual qualities "confidence, as courage, as humour, as cunning, as steadfastness in this struggle, and they reach far back into the mists of time."

Thompson links, over-hastily, this last clause to Benjamin's wish image, which is a repository of grievances from the past contained in a single image. It's one of Benjamin's dicier ideas, but it's hard to escape when reading his ruminations on art and politics.

Technologically advanced art crack open, as it were, the seamless flow of history by revealing what gets left behind when one era gives way to another. The Baroque Trauerspiel (or mourning-play) flourished just when Germans were starting to realize that no heaven on earth, or anything much like it, was coming. The emergence of film, Thompson points out, came at another critical moment.

art had to take on a political role in increasing the awareness of what was at long last the real human potential for the realisation of the old dreams. It could go either way though; down the Adornian route from the slingshot to the megaton bomb or onwards and upwards to the sunlit uplands of social liberation. Art and technology therefore become interlinked and politicised, predominantly in film. The "aura" of traditional art may have been destroyed by modernity but the future "aura" of liberated humanity as a living work of art had to take its place. If fascism represented the aestheticisation of politics then the fight against fascism had to involve the politicisation of aesthetics and the active creation of the aura of potential.

The cinema is already more that a century old. What about now? Technology and art could be moving in one of two directions: either they are re-enforcing the perpetual sense of phony crisis ("the tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the 'state of emergency' in which we live is not the exception but the rule," writes Benjamin), or they could reveal, or bring about, a real crisis that could change everything for the better.

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