Between Baudelaire and Benjamin: On Photography, Function, Fascism


Police detain a suspect at the event of Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s assassination, 1914

by Medha Singh

Art is an infinitely precious possession, a refreshing and warming drink that restores the stomach and the mind to the natural balance of the ideal. — Charles Baudelaire

Among photography’s earliest and famed detractors was poet and critic Charles Baudelaire. The grammar of images as we knew it had, with the advent of photography, transformed forever. Later, with a world war in the wings, life changed, as did the way we engaged with aesthetics, and interrogated a visual language. During this period, we saw the sombre figure of Walter Benjamin, who opined on photography with a fervour matched by few. In his essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction [1], he formulated a theory of art by evincing a relationship between what he calls ‘aura’ and its contingency on reproducibility. This was complemented by his essay A Short History of Photography [2] where he specifically talks about the erstwhile role of the photographic image. This essay compares the two positions, where they converge, diverge, and arrive at a point where art and politics no longer remain categories that are necessarily mutually exclusive.

Aura emanates from the work of art for Benjamin, seizing the viewer as it maintains a veritable distance between audience and author, between spectator and artist. Art, therefore, relies on the very novelty of an ‘irreproducible’ work to sustain its magnanimous power. Aura is the spatio-temporality that the work of art lays claim to, independent of its spectators. To Benjamin, this thread unravels as photography enters culture, renders the images reproducible, forging new boundaries, new categories and new necessities within and around society, around aesthetics, dragging technology into its fore and changing the space entirely. However, this does not erode the imminent subjective value of the work of art.

Baudelaire argues that this is precisely where the problem stands. He admired the romantic, colourful representations of the painters Eugène Delacroix and Gustave Courbet, with whom he shared a rich, and well known friendship. It was exactly this romantic outlook, this plenitude (of colour, imagination, lushness) in their artistic subjectivity that lay diminished in the photograph to the eyes of Baudelaire. For example, in the sustained and ‘realistic’ lines, aiming at photorealism, of Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres.

Photography, Baudelaire felt, was to serve art, to simply to preserve the forgotten, in the way print served literature. His was a clarion call against a sort of proto-positivism that seemed to threaten the romantic, otherworldly and occult views he held about creativity. He wrote in Pour Delacroix:

I trouble my own intellect to extract some formula that can express the specialty of Eugene Delacroix well. Excellent draftsman, prodigious colourist, ardent and prolific composer, all this is obvious, all this has been said. But where does producing the sensation of novelty emerge from? What more does it give us than the past does? Great as the greatest, skillful as the skilled, yet why do we like the latter more? One could say that, endowed with a richer imagination, he expresses above all the intimacy of the mind, the astonishing aspect of things, so much does his work faithfully keep the mark and the mood of his conception. [3]

Baudelaire did not, by any means, expect a realistic representation on a metallic plate to be apt enough an expression and formulation of ‘beauty’. Drawing a clear line between beauty and truth, he said that seeking truth was the domain of philosophers, moralists and that whole “other” lot that found itself too impatient to master the art of painting, or too lazy to finish their studies. There is, for him, the superior faculty of imagination, and this unique faculty was only something an artist laid full claim to (because only she explored it fully), and, indeed, photography at the time appealed to bourgeois vanity more than anything else. As Benjamin remarked, members of the upwardly mobile classes who had monetary and social means to access new technology used it to record family albums, and set them down as legacy, or family property. Benjamin uses the example of Kafka’s image as a young child. An image overly adorned in lace, he speaks of this as the very spectacle of the humiliation of a photographed subject. [4]

One ought to consider that both the ‘ineffable’ and the pre-linguistic, that Baudelaire may be speaking to, still rub up against the rational, webbed and structural totality of language as a movement through history (that is, the unfolding of social and political processes across linear time), this unnamed resource from which all romantic poets and artists have drawn power from. They run contra to the current of linguistic and cultural modalities that create meaning and signification throughout history, and transpersonal interaction. They may well and truly be a momentum towards rationality. However, historiality is another matter: it is in the history of being, of becoming, that art lives, for Baudelaire. Unperturbed and forever unconcealed.

In the time between 1859 and the 1920s, however, much had changed. Baudelaire passed on in 1867. As history marched onward, Benjamin saw emptiness in the images of Eugène Atget, , an absence of physiognomy. This set Atget apart and created an unspoken haunting, a sense of things having been there, and made them somewhat plaintive in their appeal: the absence of human anatomy, all these places without people. For Benjamin, this did not make up the real world. Spaces without the punctuation of human movement were unreal to him, instead these photographs made up Atget’s private mental universe. In another instance, in Karl Blossfeldt’s surrealist depictions of plants, Benjamin saw an impenetrable multiverse, one that was only the interest of botanists and gardeners before. In David Octavius Hills’ portraits, members of all classes appeared: an array of identities, the truth of the world became visible in their very garb. Inseparably intertwined with the dynamic, there appeared a shifting beauty of human existence, depicting all eccentricities and attitudes, realistic yet manifestly ‘beautiful’ representations of society at large. Not mainly restricted to the affluent classes, these portraits showed many, many modes of existence.

This was unforeseen to Baudelaire, who convincingly laments at the end of his review Salon de 1859, that when industry and ‘progress’ ‘exploded’ upon art, they only sought to damage the genius that the latter preserved from this very destruction; the functions of both industry and art got muddled up and neither fulfilled their duty in this confusion of roles. He feared that photography ‘deputising’ the role of art would decidedly corrupt it. His fear of photography taking on the role of art was not well founded, however.

Tangentially, this is a lament that echoed a parallel one among musicians in the brass bands from the late 1800s, who feared the role of a singular body manning the ‘drum kit’ as it is now known (with a snare drum stand and a bass drum pedal). The concern was that all other necessary percussive tools would replace the grandeur and effect of several men focused on their respective instruments. It may have been a cost-saving manoeuvre (it takes less money to hire one man than ten for a gig), but also sounded the foghorn for technology entering art in its most nascent form. It was feared that the artistic value of the performance would erode with such an intrusion, such a contraction of the spectacle. This was the role of technology. The concern was predominantly aesthetic and concomitant with the debates around photography: the dichotomies of form versus function, of beauty and practicality arose at this moment. Historically, however, it appears that Jazz music only evolved from that moment onward, and no one challenges this fact today. [5]

When photography takes itself out of the contexts established by Sander, Germaine Krull or Blossfeldt and frees itself from physiognomic, political and scientific interests, then it becomes creative. — Walter Benjamin

Is Benjamin thinking of aura within the same limits that Baudelaire is working with? The aura is attributed to a work of art that has an effectual presence within time, within space that validates its authenticity. A work of art ‘reproduced’ is never wholly there, it cannot establish its presence anywhere in its wholeness, its reproductions become limbs of a source now indistinguishable from its parts. In this manner, these works are also robbed of their authority. The aura disappears with the immanent prospect of ownership. The consumer now possesses something that would otherwise be found hung at an art gallery, distant from the ‘ownability’ of commonplace objects like a comb, or a sofa. Although, it is in this prising out of the object of art from its aura, when creativity, to Benjamin, is realised. Art does not depend on aura to exist, the mind is the progenitor of the work of art, and its infinite capacity to engender more such works guarantees the production of more objects of art, that become unique in this Benjaminian sense.

Surely, this idea favours the photograph, you can take photos endlessly. Baudelaire has other concerns, however. He is against the idea that art ought to represent things as they are. He writes “I consider it useless and tiresome to portray things as they are, because nothing that exists satisfies me. Nature is ugly and I prefer the monsters of my imagination to the trueness of actuality… the true artist, the true poet should paint only in accordance with what he sees or feels. He should be really true to his own nature, he should avoid, like death itself, borrowing the eyes and emotions of another man, however great that man may be; for in that case, his productions would be lies so far as he is concerned, and not realities.” [6]

To Baudelaire, here, imagination is the higher, no, highest human faculty. He adheres to a term called ‘constructive imagination’ and goes on to elaborate that “inasmuch as man is made in the likeness of God, he bears a distant relation to that sublime power by which the creator projects, creates, and upholds his universe.” Nature is a mere dictionary at the mind’s disposal. It gives art, in collusion with human imagination, a new physiognomy. In regard to Baudelaire’s idea of art, he has a conception he dubs the ‘true aesthetic’. He writes “The whole universe is but a storehouse of images and signs to which the imagination will give a relative place and value; it is a sort of food which the imagination must transform and digest. All the powers of the human soul must be subordinated to the imagination which commandeers them all at one in the same time.” [7]

Baudelaire begins his essay by first admitting that he did not attend the Salon that he chose to criticise. Salon de 1859 was the original title of his essay, yet he didn’t view the images that he proceeded to criticise for the ‘pomposity’ of their titles, neither did he feel their effect on the senses. Yet Baudelaire remained repulsed by the titles Amour et Gibelotte, Misanthropie, Catholique et Soldat, and a few others, so much so that he couldn’t bring himself to acknowledge their objective value as also things that were created out of nothing. As things, or entities, that his ideas on art pre-existed, as objects that emerged out of thin air, just as poems and paintings are wont to. He makes sense, however, given the background against which he sought imagination as the agent that emancipates the soul from the militaristic rigidity of ‘reality’, nature included. He had not seen fascism as Benjamin had, as discussed later in this essay.

Rene Descartes’ ‘La Dioptrique’ shows that the camera obscura works like the human eye

The New Way

How does a sincere lament for the past transform into a new way of accessing human subjectivity? What does art begin to do for us? How does it go from the flesh of human consciousness, to shaping it in turn? One may attribute this to technological innovations and the role of photography during war. What was imposed upon the ordinary human conscience and what did this do to artistic subjectivity henceforth?

At this point, a simple caution: one may venture to understand Benjamin as a credible questioner of Cartesian rationality. Descartes used the Camera Obscura as a working model for the eye and mind, asserting his philosophy of external certitude wedded with rationality, objectivity, and what was yet to become the dominant philosophical force in the political regimes to come for the next century in Europe: positivism. [8] His paradigm asserted the split between subject and object, between the cogito and the world, a proposition that both the Baudelairian and Benjaminian positions would appear to unwittingly reject.

It may be argued that Baudelaire inadvertently does so, by claiming that the exactness of reality is not a concern for artists and poets alike, in fact, it is of no importance at all for a life of the mind. To extrapolate, art has its own mechanism, which ‘extracts’ (‘arracher’, to use Baudelaire’s term) layers of meaning from reality, apprehends the multitudes within language and weaves for itself a complex world that is accessible to the thinking-feeling mind (there is no clear demarcation between the two anywhere in his writing) naturally assimilating the conscious and subconscious. It’s important to note that Leonardo Da Vinci had a similar position too, as the subject-object split did not exist at the time; surely, his keen interest in anatomy, mathematics and science (medicine) continued to inform his practice of art and painting. ‘The Vitruvian Man’ was a subject of observation for doctors and painters alike. This tendency changed by the time Descartes emerged on history’s map. The Renaissance period privileged a divergent intelligence (an intelligence that sees and does all), which took a backseat and made way for a convergent one (an eye that sees one thing and only one thing clearly through objective focus). This, of course, had a lot to do with industry, specialisation of skill, mechanisation and, eventually, the logic of profit and precision and, as we will come to it, war.

Rationality displaced emotional attachment to nature, forms of relating to the world were discarded if they opposed positivism, the imaginative capacity became wholly alien, fringe, relegated to the margins. All irrationalities were quarantined to categories of madness and the institutions that treat them, namely, the madhouse [9]: prostitutes, madmen, artists (often deemed mentally unstable, for instance, Vincent Van Gogh, and Paul Cezanne). We know this retrospectively, through Michel Foucault’s treatises on madness, as well as his example of the panopticon model as a metaphor for State rationality, as it was imposed upon large parts of the population. Until the late twentieth century, modern forms and principles of governance did not take this into account until the post-structuralists entered the fray and began to complement feminist ideas [10]. The whole ‘mad’ lot could not exercise ownership of property or avail of the principles of ‘egalite’, ‘liberte’ and ‘fraternite’.

This certitude created to stabilise and codify human subjectivity was, by this time, only possible through the possession of an objective grasp on the world, a responsibility that was self executing. It permitted thinking beings to acquire an unusual dominance over the universe, over nature, for it had claimed to have invented the intellectual wherewithal that empowers mankind to dominate and control the entire chaos of the world, to subjugate nature to man’s private ends.

Filippo Tommaso Marinetti’s Manifesto of Futurism (1909) on the Ethiopian colonial war reads:

For twenty-seven years we Futurists have rebelled against the branding of war as anti-aesthetic … Accordingly we state:… War is beautiful because it establishes man’s dominion over the subjugated machinery by means of gas masks, terrifying megaphones, flame throwers, and small tanks. War is beautiful because it initiates the dreamt-of metalization of the human body. War is beautiful because it enriches a flowering meadow with the fiery orchids of machine guns. War is beautiful because it combines the gunfire, the cannonades, the cease-fire, the scents, and the stench of putrefaction into a symphony. War is beautiful because it creates new architecture, like that of the big tanks, the geometrical formation flights, the smoke spirals from burning villages, and many others … Poets and artists of Futurism! … remember these principles of an aesthetics of war so that your struggle for a new literature and a new graphic art … may be illumined by them! [11]

Art cannot produce new democratic relations among institutions and their agents if the dominant power structures still maintain old relations of production. Existing property relations were well secured within the logic of rationality. Photography reinforced individual control over art, rational beings were the only ones who could possess property: a camera. An expensive photo plate was often kept neatly beside women’s jewels in gilded cases, as Benjamin notes. For the longest time, it remained a rich person’s fad.

Something changed with the invention of the Kodak film roll camera in the September of 1888. Did this sudden accessibility to art blur the class lines and make it more accessible?

The fact is that Baudelaire had not seen fascism flower to its full extent, unlike Benjamin. Fascism had not grasped at Baudelaire’s sanity the way it drove Walter Benjamin to suicide. Thus, it’s perfectly understandable that Baudelaire had a few vague doubts about photography. He proffered emotional arguments against the intertwining of industry and art, the only kind that he could have made, that anyone could have made at the time. A thread that began with the wild and ebullient Baudelaire seemed to have found its other end in the sober and intense Benjamin. Between the two essays, the photograph found a political formulation within the totality of the Benjaminian framework.

It is apt to say Baudelaire’s discontent with photography was naïve in its constitution, but only from the vantage point of the world we inhabit today. He found something diminished in the artistic subjectivity with the introduction of the metallic plate. Benjamin continued to give this doubt a full bodied form, although he is careful not to denounce photography with the same brashness as Baudelaire. In the epilogue from The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, there is a notable passage on the relationship between aesthetic agenda and social function. Benjamin notes that fascism seeks to assemble the Proletariat without affecting property and trade relations, which is precisely what a class conscious proletariat generally wants to dismount. It pretends to give them freedom, in that they are at liberty to express their anguish, and they may continue doing so without affecting the overall structure of state governance. With this instrument, it seeks to assuage any outrage that leads to revolution, or any kind of substantial change. Let’s call it passion. This, when taken to its logical extreme results in the aestheticization of political life. The gross trespassing of the proletariat and their human rights depends on the violation of a structure dedicated to the ‘production of ritual values.’ Any move towards aestheticising politics will have a singular result: war. It appears to Benjamin that it is war alone that has the capacity to mobilise individuals into large, politicised masses, while maintaining private property. This is its modus operandi. He notes in The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction:

The technological formula may be stated as follows: Only war makes it possible to mobilize all of today’s technical resources while maintaining the property system. It goes without saying that the Fascist apotheosis of war does not employ such arguments.

In this manner, Benjamin successfully chalks up the difference between turning politics into aesthetics and the politicisation of art. The former stands to serve fascists; the latter is an outcome of communism. In the latter, art has a social function, a strong political role to play, while in the former, with its prioritisation of technological innovation and advancement, it only seeks to establish an aesthetic that serves fascism, this technological ‘progress’ knows no end and culminates in the ‘disciplining’ of art, or, in other words, results in war.

Here, it is very difficult to say whether Benjamin favours the camera or not. Does he say that the camera undoes these layers of meaning that Baudelaire attributes to painting and poetry, completely transforming this pre-linguistic, visual language? Does it build an aesthetic of dangerous exactness that Benjamin attributes to the futurists and fascists? What about the proto-surrealist Rayographs of Man Ray, and the natural world of Karl Blossfeldt? Does this essay of his exonerate the particular artists he chooses, yet remain doubtful of the role of photography?

The First World War also saw photography’s significant role in disseminating information on war. Reportage, war journalism, documentation, they’d all found a niche alongside fine art photography, and family albums. Soon after Nicéphore Niépce’s ‘View from the Window at Le Gras’ [12], the military had begun to explore the possibilities of using photography as a military tool.

What does Fascism do with art?

Was Benjamin correct in suggesting the relationship between art and fascism? It’s difficult to say. Half-tone printing made it possible for images to be published in newspapers by the beginning of the twentieth century. Frederic Ives and George Meisenbach had worked to improve this process. The mass availability of pictorial depictions of war had left the milieu’s eye unseasoned to photography susceptible to state manipulation. The Illustrated London News (1842), L’Illustrazione Italiana (Italy, 1873), Niva (Russia, 1870), as well as younger media houses such as Berliner Illustrierte Zeitung (Germany, 1891) and The Sphere (Britain, 1900) became hugely popular because of their staff photographers.

All this existed alongside debates concerning photography as art in Alfred Stieglitz’s Camera Work. The invention of the ‘Kodak’ roll film camera, invented and marketed by George Eastman, made photography highly accessible. Soon after, its amateur takers were crawling all over the globe with the machine in hand. While this became a mass medium, the state also kept at its efforts to use photography for its own political ends. Aerial photography transformed military aviation: in 1914, war was inevitable, and photography ushered in aerial photographic reconnaissance and interpretation, aiding the British army, playing a key role in developing this new form of warfare. [13]

Aerial view, Netheravon Camp, June 1914

The reportage of the Crimean and the American Civil war had left armies averse to publicity; however, photographs weren’t taken to be tools of information dissemination. Rather, they were mere illustrations for newspaper articles. Photographs did not have much agency in or by themselves, as the predominance of literacy prevailed in the early twentieth century. Mathew Brady exhibited photographs of war casualties in New York [14] which solidified the stigma against photographers, causing a stir. A new kind of transparency that photography offered threatened the state and stood to hold a mirror against unethical war crimes. Yet, state intelligence was working in tandem on ways to use photography to its own ends with imponderable force (and, presumably, funds).

The tipping point of the First World War was the assassination of Austrian archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife. Is it legitimate to speculate that the photographic evidence of that episode contributed to the ignominy and outrage of the state, mobilised the masses, and, among other political conditions, led to the war as a knee-jerk retaliation?

To bolster the point, one must return to Baudelaire, and identify with his contempt at the shock value, the gimmick, the point at which audiences interact with photographs, to experience the sudden startle that a photographic image such as this provokes. To see shock as something that is forever divorced from the ameliorating capacity of art is an agreeable idea. In this moment of perceptual shock, we consider the murder of the Archduke, and notice a new impulse is born. This is a small pocket of time crucial to be noticed, as this is arguably when media sensationalism emerges for the first time in history. While Baudelaire thinks of the ephemerality of ‘shock and startle’ as a contemptible thing, inimical to art, posed against older forms of conveying beauty (or aura, as Benjamin would say), it also serves to stir the basest sentiment of the masses (anger, bloodlust, wrath). It seeks to mobilise them; the camera becomes the instrument through which politics is aestheticised.

Fear Realised

Benjamin notes that the reproducibility of art through mechanisation, through technology, changed the relationship of art with the masses. While Pablo Picasso’s work met a reactionary response, Charlie Chaplin’s films invoked a slightly more sophisticated and measured reaction. This owed itself to the straightforward, yet immediate conflation of the visual and emotional achieving its logical purpose. This becomes socially relevant, for the more the social function of an art form reduces, the sharper the split between entertainment and criticism/art. The more ritualistic, established, state mandated or ‘conventional’ the work, the lesser aversion it encounters, than does the new, the experimental, and the formally transgressive. Benjamin writes

… ‘Fiat ars – pereat mundus’, says Fascism, and, as Marinetti admits, expects war to supply the artistic gratification of a sense perception that has been changed by technology. This is evidently the consummation of ‘l’art pour l’art.’ Humankind, which in Homer’s time was an object of contemplation for the Olympian gods, now is one for itself. Its self- alienation has reached such a degree that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order. This is the situation of politics which Fascism is rendering aesthetic. Communism responds by politicizing art.

Archduke Franz Ferdinand lies beside his wife Sophie soon after his assassination. At this moment, Benjamin’s fear is realised. Therein lies the story of the Austro-Hungarian empire bearing its final shame. All sits behind this image, events all the more horrifying, now that they are at the mercy of mass paranoia and media exaggeration. (May we now say that Baudelaire’s exoneration of the human imagination is not all he has made it out to be?)

A murder has taken place. The political ignominy is, in this moment, stirring the masses into a vengeful microcosm. The armies are gathering. The war is imminent.

Franz Ferdinand lies dead with wife Sophie, in Vienna, soon after being assassinated


[1] Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.”; ed. Arendt, Hannah. Illuminations (Schocken, 1970)

[2] Siinne version: Ed. Trachtenberg, Alan. Classic Essays on Photography (Leete Island Books, 1980)

[3]  Je tourmente mon esprit pour en arracher quelque formule qui exprime bien la spécialité d’Eugène Delacroix. Excellent dessinateur, prodigieux coloriste, compositeur ardent et fécond, tout cela est évident, tout cela a été dit. Mais d’où vient qu’il produit la sensation de nouveauté ? Que nous donne-t-il de plus que le passé ? Aussi grand que les grands, aussi habile que les habiles, pourquoi nous plaît-il davantage ? On pourrait dire que, doué d’une plus riche imagination, il exprime surtout l’intime du cerveau, l’aspect étonnant des choses, tant son ouvrage garde fidèlement la marque et l’humeur de sa conception.

Translation my own. Baudelaire, Charles. Epigraph from Pour Delacroix (Complexe Editions, 1998)

[4] Benjamin, Walter. “A Short History of Photography”; ed. Leslie, Esther. On Photography: Walter Benjamin (Reaktion Books, 2015)

[5] Dean, Matt. The Drum: A History, pp.197-200 (Scarecrow Press, 2012)

[6] Hyslop, Francis E. (translator), Hyslop, Lois B. (translator). Baudelaire as a Literary Critic: Selected Essays, p. 186 (Pennsylvania State University Press, 1964)

[7] Ibid.

[8] Olson, Michael J. The Camera Obscura and the Nature of the Soul: On a Tension between the Mechanics of Sensation and the Metaphysics of the Soul (Intellectual History Review, 2014).

[9] Foucault, Michel. Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity In The Age of Reason (Vintage Books 1988/1965)

[10] Brooks, Ann. Postfeminisms: Feminism, Cultural Theory and Cultural Forms (Routledge, London, 1997).

[11] Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, F.T. Manifesto del Futurismo (1909)

[12] Considered the oldest surviving photographic image, taken by Niépce in 1826.

[13] Finnegan, Terrence. Shooting the Front: Allied Aerial Reconnaissance and Photographic Interpretation on the Western Front (Defense Intelligence Agency, 2006)

[14] Virtual tour of Mathew Brady’s work: Mathew Brady’s National Portrait Gallery


The photograph likely depicting the arrest of Ferdinand Behr is in the public domain.

The diagram of ocular refraction comes from the Science Museum Group and was released under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license, (via).

The aerial photograph was created and released by the Imperial War Museum on the IWM Non Commercial Licence (via).

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