For Walter Benjamin, art was a revolutionary tool. He wrote about the poetry of Baudelaire, the photographs of Atget, the work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction. In surrealism, the contemporary art of his day, he recognized both the spell of the dream and the potential for revolutionary transformation. In turn, artists have been deeply inspired, sometimes directly, sometimes via cultural transmission, by the mesmerizing reflections of Benjamin. A show of contemporary art informed by Benjamin’s writings could illuminate both the works themselves and the continuing relevance of Benjamin’s ideas. The show, The Arcades: Contemporary Art and Walter Benjamin, does not.
On display at the Jewish Museum in the spring of 2017 and featuring the work of thirty-seven artists, the exhibition focused on Benjamin’s magnum opus, The Arcades Project (Das Passagen-Werk.) It is less a book then a sprawling, frustrating, heartbreaking, poetic, brilliant, and often abstruse series of quotations, observations, and reflections. It remained unfinished, its structure emulating the fragmentation of twentieth-century capitalism and the unfinished business of social revolution. Whether Benjamin ever intended to finish it will remain unknown, since he took his own life by swallowing morphine in despair at not being allowed to cross the Spanish border while fleeing the Nazis.1
The Arcades Project was Benjamin’s attempt to understand and articulate both the promise and failure of modernity. It does so through illuminating the disparate elements of nineteenth-century Paris, then the most technically advanced city of its time. The work is less a history than an archaeology of its subject. For Benjamin, the meaning of the city could best be understood through the debris and effluvia it had left behind, tiny glimmers of which were still visible beneath the surface. Modernity’s promise and failure were embodied in every element of Paris: its arcades, bridges, advertisements, poetry, social order, leisure habits, and material culture. The glass and iron arcades were indoor streets designed for window-shopping, strolling, and the pleasures of the flâneur. Like the objects of an archive, these things from the past [End Page 875] could now only be glimpsed in tantalizing fragments. Benjamin structured these topics in a loose array of quotations, revelations, and images, which he called convolutes. Within them he charted a revolutionary city’s thrall to the narcotic of capitalism.
The curator of the exhibition, Jens Hoffman, deserves much credit for tackling such a fascinating and complex topic. It is hardly easy to fit The Arcades Project into any framework at all. The show is well conceived and the organization well planned. The problem with the show lies in its excision of Benjamin’s writing and in the selection of the works themselves, which fail to capture Benjamin’s spirit.
The exhibit is divided cleanly into two parts. It opens, in a cleverly designed space meant to evoke the iron-framed arches of the Arcades, with an homage to Benjamin. After a cursory description of The Arcades Project, which focuses largely on the categories of the convolutes and on Benjamin’s role as historian of Paris, the visitor is invited to look at facsimiles of important documents of his life: his childhood studies in Hebrew, his entry card to the Bibliothèque Nationale, his final letter to Theodor Adorno (addressed to “mein lieber Teddie”).
The visitor then enters a section devoted to contemporary art. Each of the works is displayed with two accompanying text boards, one a brief description or commentary on the convolute to which the work relates, the other a set of appropriated quotations chosen and put together by the poet Kenneth Goldsmith. The aim is to parallel the collage-like structure (or anti-structure) of Benjamin’s work, but chosen from a host of twentieth-century figures. Some of them, such as the “poem” for “Convolute X Marx” consists of quotations from Marshall Berman’s All that is Solid Melts into Air and works as a perfect compliment. 2 So, too, the reflections on boredom nicely compliment the ennui Benjamin mused on in Convolute D...