Benjamin, Walter (1892 - 1940)
German Marxist literary critic. Born into a prosperous Jewish family, Benjamin studied philosophy in Berlin, Freiburg, Munich, and Bern. He settled in Berlin in 1920 and worked thereafter as a literary critic and translator. His half-hearted pursuit of an academic career was cut short when the University of Frankfurt rejected his brilliant but unconventional doctoral thesis, The Origin of German Tragic Drama (1928). Benjamin eventually settled in Paris after leaving Germany in 1933 after Hitler came to power. He continued to write essays and reviews for literary journals, but when Paris fell to the Nazis in 1940 he fled south with the hope of escaping to the US via Spain. Informed by the chief of police at the Franco-Spanish border that he would be turned over to the Gestapo, Benjamin committed suicide.
The posthumous publication of Benjamin’s prolific output won him a growing reputation in the later 20th century. The essays containing his philosophical reflections on literature are written in a dense and concentrated style that contains a strong poetic strain. He mixes social criticism and linguistic analysis with historical nostalgia while communicating an underlying sense of pathos and pessimism. The metaphysical quality of his early critical thought gave way to a Marxist inclination in the 1930s. Benjamin’s pronounced intellectual independence and originality are evident in the extended essay Goethe’s Elective Affinities and the essays collected in Illuminations.
The approach to art of the USSR under Stalin was typified, first, by the persecution of all those who expressed any independent thought, and, second, by the adoption of Socialist Realism - the view that art is dedicated to the "realistic" representation of - simplistic, optimistic - "proletarian values" and proletarian life. Subsequent Marxist thinking about art has been largely influenced by Walter Benjamin and Georg Lukács however. Both were exponents of Marxist humanism who saw the important contribution of Marxist theory to aesthetics in the analysis of the condition of labour and in the critique of the alienated and "reified" consciousness of man under capitalism. Benjamin’s collection of essays The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (1936) attempts to describe the changed experience of art in the modern world and sees the rise of Fascism and mass society as the culmination of a process of debasement, whereby art ceases to be a means of instruction and becomes instead a mere gratification, a matter of taste alone. "Communism responds by politicising art" - that is, by making art into the instrument by which the false consciousness of the mass man is to be overthrown. - http://www.marxists.org/glossary/people/b/e.htm#benjamin-walter