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Religion and the Expressionless—A Religious Perspective on Art in Benjamin

Department of Systematic Theology and Ethics, University of Vienna, 1010 Vienna, Austria
Religions 2023, 14(6), 703;
Submission received: 27 March 2023 / Revised: 26 April 2023 / Accepted: 17 May 2023 / Published: 25 May 2023
(This article belongs to the Special Issue Theology and Aesthetics)


In this article, I investigate the relationship between religion and art in the work of Walter Benjamin. I demonstrate how this relation is embedded in Benjamin’s understanding of a dialectic of secularization, which has recently been examined by Sigrid Weigel and Daniel Weidner. Within this context, I focus on the “expressionless” and its relation to the holy in Benjamin’s thought. I follow different applications of the expressionless in Benjamin’s texts from different periods and analyze their overall significance. My thesis is that the expressionless is a specifically aesthetic category that can rescue the difference between the holy and the profane, granting both spheres their own rights and thereby resisting any sacralization of art in an aesthetic cult. Therefore, with reference to the holy and to the expressionless, one can claim with Benjamin that a religious perspective on art in a secular context is of irreplaceable value, while the expressionless simultaneously safeguards the autonomy of art.

1. Introduction

In the following paper, I will address the relationship between religion and art in the thought of Walter Benjamin. One of Benjamin’s most famous and influential works on art is his 1935 essay The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility (Benjamin 1974, vol. 7.1, pp. 350–84)1. In addition to a variety of interesting observations about the work of art, this essay contains the thesis that, in the age of technological reproducibility, art emancipates itself from the sphere of religious rituals. This thesis raises several questions about the relationship between religion and art: Has the work of art—at least in the age of technological reproducibility—left the sphere of religion? Is Benjamin following a narrative of secularization according to which the religious dimension of art is replaced by other non-religious dimensions? Can religious concepts still illuminate works of art, and what is the significance of a religious perspective on art in Benjamin’s thought?
In order to deal with these questions, it is important to differentiate between different religious aspects in Benjamin’s thought, such as the ritual and the holy2 (in German: das Heilige). It is my intention to demonstrate that Benjamin’s understanding of the holy is not only very important for his approach to works of art, but it is also closely linked to a key concept of Benjamin’s aesthetics, which is the “expressionless” (in German: das Ausdruckslose). Moreover, it is the category of the expressionless that illuminates the meaning of Benjamin’s thesis of the emancipation of the work of art from the sphere of the ritual. Therefore, I will initially take Benjamin’s essay on The Work of Art as my point of departure. Afterwards, I will engage with earlier texts by Benjamin (from 1914 to 1922) in order to analyze his recourse to the concept of the holy within a dialectic of secularization (Section 2). In a further step, I will link Benjamin’s concept of the holy to the category of the expressionless and illustrate the richness of the latter category in Benjamin’s thought (Section 3). The path of my paper will return to Benjamin’s essay on The Work of Art in the concluding section, which will shed new light on the starting point.
In the first version of his essay on The Work of Art from 1935, Benjamin wrote the following: “The unique value of the ‘authentic’ work of art is always theologically founded. This foundation, however mediated it may be: it is still recognizable as secularized ritual in even the most profane forms of the cult of beauty” (Benjamin 1974, vol. 1.2, p. 441).3 To start with, I want to note three things about this passage.
Firstly, when Benjamin used the words “theologically founded” in this context, he was not thinking of a general theological fundament in the sense of a metaphysical or theoretical presupposition but of a very specific practical religious phenomenon: the specific ritual of the cult. Therefore, in the second version of the text, Benjamin erased the words “always theologically founded” and changed them to “always has its basis in ritual” (Benjamin 2008, p. 24; Benjamin 1974, vol. 7.1, p. 356)4.
Secondly, the quotation claims that the theological fundament, or—apparently more precisely—the ritualistic basis of the artwork, can be mediated while it can still be recognized in its mediation. The use of the phrase “however mediated it may be” implies that this basis can be very mediated: it can pass several forms of transformation and might not be given immediately at all. In fact, it might only be a trace or a repercussion of a ritualistic element in art, but it can still be recognized even in a secular context. Even in some form of cult of beauty (in German, Schönheitsdienst), which Benjamin can describe as the most profane, the ritualistic basis is still recognizable. Does this not demonstrate that, according to Benjamin, within an aesthetic phenomenon—referring to the very specific aesthetic phenomenon of a cult of beauty—it is not contradictory to state that the most profane simultaneously has a religious basis? This observation would entail an understanding of secularization, according to which religion would not disappear completely, but would be recognizable—even without major effort—at least in the context of works of art. However, this point of view reaches its limits with the third note that I want to make about this passage.
Thirdly, in the passage quoted above, Benjamin is only referring to the “unique value of the authentic work of art”, by which he refers to a concept of authenticity that he developed in a previous section of the essay. One of the most important definitions of authenticity that Benjamin gives reads as follows: “[t]he authenticity of a thing is the quintessence of all that is transmissible [in German tradierbar, D. K.] in it from its origin on, ranging from its physical duration to its historical testimony relating to it” (Benjamin 2008, p. 22; Benjamin 1974, vol. 7.1, p. 353). The authenticity of a thing consists in a form of temporality that has not merely a physical, but a historical sense and which guarantees a special form of transmissibility, namely, tradition. Tradition is based on the authenticity of a thing, and through its authenticity, the transmissibility of a thing can take the form of tradition. This is important because, for Benjamin, tradition presupposes a certain mode of reproduction, in which the authenticity, the uniqueness, and therefore authority of the original over the reproduction is preserved. As Benjamin clearly maintains, the work of art has always been reproducible (Benjamin 2008, p. 20; Benjamin 1974, vol. 7.1, p. 351), and tradition would hardly be possible without reproduction through time. The idea of tradition, however, is governed by the conviction that the unique and authentic work of art escapes reproduction and is untouched or even untouchable by it. For example, the history of events survived by a work of art cannot be simply reproduced. The original and authentic work of art always remains at a distance from its reception, even in its purest representation, and it is this distance that constitutes the “weight it derives from tradition” (Benjamin 2008, p. 22; Benjamin 1974, vol. 7.1, p. 353). Benjamin famously summarizes all of these characteristics under the concept of the “aura” (Benjamin 2008, p. 22; Benjamin 1974, vol. 7.1, p. 353). It is important to note that the aura of a work of art is not an isolated aspect of it, but the expression of the relations of the work’s authenticity, temporality, and transmissibility, which also convey the power relations that constitute its authority. Within these power relations, the concept of the aura highlights the experience of distance even within the greatest proximity, or in Benjamin’s words, “the unique apparition of a distance, however near it may be” (Benjamin 2008, p. 23; Benjamin 1974, vol. 7,1, p. 355). This closes the circle to the initial passage by Benjamin on the ritual basis of the authentic work of art by observing that the ritual is the form of praxis that corresponds to that experience of distance. Ritual is the form of praxis in which rules and norms organize the distance from a thing in a way that preserves its authority. However, Benjamin asserts one central thesis: that, in contrast to previous forms of reproduction, technological reproduction alters the whole framework in which a work of art is mediated and perceived. As Benjamin points out, through technological reproducibility, reproduction gains greater independence from the original (Benjamin 2008, p. 21; Benjamin 1974, vol. 7.1, p. 352). For example, the photographic reproduction of a painting can unveil details that cannot be seen in the original itself without the technological reproduction, or the recording of a piece of orchestral-music can sound totally new when being reproduced in a room in which an orchestra could never perform (Benjamin 2008, p. 21f; Benjamin 1974, vol. 7.1, p. 352f). In this way, technological reproducibility does not only increase the temporal and special independence of the reproduction from the original, but it also changes the whole value structure: the reproduction gains its own value and weight over the original, thereby devaluing the authenticity of the work of art. It is crucial to see that this change does not only affect modern works of art but alters the way in which any kind of art—also what is known as traditional works of art—is mediated through time: “[i]t might be stated as a general formula that the technology of reproduction detaches the reproduced object from the sphere of tradition” (Benjamin 2008, p. 22; Benjamin 1974, vol. 7.1, p. 353). For Benjamin, the importance of this change should not be underestimated, as he describes the “shattering of tradition” as the other side of a “renewal of humanity” (Benjamin 2008, p. 22; Benjamin 1974, vol. 7.1, p. 353). Nonetheless, it is similarly important to understand that the “shattering of tradition” is never to be confused with the shattering of traditional works of art. Additionally, the singularity or “uniqueness” of the work of art does not simply disappear in technological reproduction; the complete set of power structures and distribution of values between its authenticity, transmission, and reception is changed, which therefore demands another form of mediation than tradition. The “liquidation of the value of tradition”, as Benjamin puts it, also demands a liberation of art from power structures that use aesthetics as a means of their dominion. For the present purpose, however, it is decisive that technological reproducibility not only demands but also enables the art work’s emancipation from its ritualistic basis: “[…] for the first time in world history, technological reproducibility emancipates the work of art from its parasitic subservience [parasitären Dasein] to ritual” (Benjamin 2008, p. 24; Benjamin 1974, vol. 7.1, p. 356). This last quotation sheds new light on the relationship between art and ritual. Technological reproducibility reveals that at least some dimension of the work of art is foreign to the sphere of ritual, in which it only has a parasitic subservience. Does this mean that the work of art is fundamentally foreign to religion as such? For Benjamin, this at least means that instead of the ritual, the possibility of a very different practical attitude towards the work of art, including its production, arises. The basis in ritual has to make a place for another basis of the work of art: “[b]ut as soon as the criterion of authenticity ceases to be applied to artistic production, the whole social function of art is revolutionized. Instead of being founded in ritual, it is based on a different practice: politics” (Benjamin 2008, p. 25; Benjamin 1974, vol. 7.1, p. 357).
Clearly, Benjamin’s essay expresses a political point of view by trying to fight the instrumentalization of art in the age of technological reproducibility under fascism. For our present purpose concerning the relation between aesthetics and religion, his theory raises some important questions. Does the vanishing of the ritualistic basis of the work of art in the age of its technological reproducibility mean that the work of art is no longer composed of a religious dimension in general? Do all categories related to the religious sphere cease to be relevant for the interpretation of the work of art, or does this only apply to the category of ritual? Do religious experiences and their theological reflection still offer the potential to illuminate art in the age of technological reproducibility? Is a secularization narrative implied in Benjamin’s essay, according to which religion is replaced by politics? Does a religious perspective on modern art still have explanatory force, or has this explanatory force of religion reached its limits in this respect in a modern, secularized world?
In his 1935 essay on The Work of Art, Benjamin focuses primarily on the ritualistic, or cultic, aspect of religion, while other dimensions of religion fade into the background—as the aforementioned substitution of the word “theologically” by “ritual” shows. One (hypothetical) reason for this substitution of “theologically” by “ritual” may be seen in Benjamin’s awareness of the fact that theology cannot be reduced to the ritualistic aspect of religion and that theological reflection may highlight dimensions of religion that differ from the ritualistic/cultic praxis of institutionalized religion. In the following subsections of this article, my thesis is that in Benjamin’s thought, there is yet another dimension of art that is completely independent of the domain of the ritual and the cult and that has a religious index in the sense that it owes its life and meaning largely to the early Benjamin’s dealing with religious—sometimes biblical—concepts. Reflections on this dimension can be found, among others, in Benjamin’s reflections on the divine dimension of language, the name, and the holy, but they are translated into an aesthetic category under the name of the “expressionless”. Contrary to the metaphor of the ritualistic “basis”, the dimension of the expressionless does not share this metaphor of the fundament but is more likely to evoke the metaphor of the “core”: as a hidden dimension within the work of art, not immediately present, not its origin, the expressionless is still at the heart of art. I will refer to earlier texts by Benjamin (preceding his essay on The Work of Art from 1935) in order to demonstrate that the expressionless is an important category in his reflections on art. While the expressionless is not itself a religious category and as a category of aesthetics has a form of autonomy, I will argue that a religious view is indispensable to grasping the meaning of this category. Therefore, according to my thesis, religion remains a crucial and explanatory force with regards to modern art. This can be demonstrated with Benjamin, not least because he does not follow a secularization narrative in which religion is simply replaced by the secular, but the secular can only be properly (in its secularity) understood as a way of dealing with the religious heritage, a heritage that can be absent but not fully replaced.
After this introduction, I will first approach this topic in Section 2 on the framework within which one can read Benjamin’s approach to secularization. In this section, I will draw on Sigrid Weigel’s works on Benjamin’s understanding of secularization (Weigel 2008; Weigel 2010, pp. 66–94). Within this field, the category of the holy proves to be very important, since Benjamin attributes this concept not to religion alone but to the connection between religion and its afterlife in a secular world. I will then contend that a dialectic of secularization can be found in Benjamin’s texts. In a third Section 3, I will focus on the expressionless and show that this theme is already developed in the context of this dialectic of secularization. However, I will argue that this motif does not have only one source but that it can be traced to another—even earlier—text wherein Benjamin reflects upon color. In this way, an aesthetic and a religious line of thought can be seen to intersect in the notion of the expressionless. In the concluding Section 4, I will summarize the most important results, link them to Benjamin’s essay on The Work of Art from which the introduction departed, and draw conclusions regarding the relation between art and religion.

2. The Holy in the Context of Benjamin’s Approach to Secularization

In order to understand Benjamin’s approach to secularization, it is necessary to acknowledge that he does not address secularization as a meta-narrative. In recent years, Sigrid Weigel has investigated Benjamin’s understanding of secularization. She highlights that Benjamin never developed a theory of secularization in the sense of reflecting on this term and giving a definition. Instead, he deals with concrete texts and often also concrete works of art by setting them within a scene of secularization (Weigel 2010, p. 66). This neither means that he uses the term secularization explicitly, nor does it imply that he was referring to a historical-philosophical meta-narrative leading necessarily from the religious to the secular. In this sense, the outcome of the dynamics of secularization is not clear beforehand and rather depends on the way a concrete text, idea, or work of art deals with a religious heritage.5
Against this background, secularization is not understood to be a one-directional process from religion to secularism in the sense of a transition from point A to point B. Rather, it is a concrete and open-ended scenario that is characterized by an attempt either to appropriate or substitute the holy for another concept. One example—recently investigated by Weigel (2010, pp. 67–69)—of the attempt to substitute the holy by another concept is the tacit substitution of the holy by the concept of the law (Gesetz), which Benjamin (critically) analyzes in Stifter (Benjamin 1974, vol. 2.1, p. 340). An example of appropriating the holy can be observed in Benjamin’s critical reading of the sacralization of bare life in his essay Toward the Critique of Violence, in which he demonstrated that the holy functions as a means of power (of legal violence (Rechtsgewalt)) to get hold of bare life.6 This means that the ruling authority appropriates the holy in order to expand the sphere of its power. In both attempts, one of the most important results is the erasure of the difference between the holy and the profane in a way that gives rise to a form of power (legal violence or the law) that can turn everything into a means for itself. Regardless of whether this power gives itself the name of the holy or represents itself as a profane substitution of the latter, this constitutes an order without any possibility of escaping it. It constitutes a world in which everything is turned into a means, where everything can be instrumentalized, and a world without unavailability in which nothing eludes. Therefore, there is no true possibility of transcending the given order. It is a scenario in which a form of power attempts to determine the whole horizon, regardless of the difference between the holy and the profane.
One of many difficulties in interpreting Benjamin’s approach to secularization is that, even when he uses the word “secularization” explicitly, its meaning is not easy to determine. For instance, in many cases, he still frames the secular in religious terms, as when he speaks about the “total secularization of the historical in the state of creation [Schöpfungsstand]” (Benjamin 2019, p. 81; Benjamin 1974, vol. 1.1, p. 271). This phrase indicates not only that the holy constitutes some dimension of the historical but also that secularization can happen through religious representations (state of creation), which reduce the historical to an ahistorical nature. Within these dialectics of secularization, it is hard to grasp concrete scenes of secularization because they are not marked by a mere absence of the holy but instead always turn the holy into something that is—as is bare life—representable, identical with itself and given. For Benjamin, secularization does not just begin with the transformation or the displacement of the holy, but it already begins where the holy is represented as such. For reasons I will explain shortly, in Benjamin’s view, the holy is already misunderstood when it is represented as a self-identical being. The holy can never be turned into an object and forced into the category of identity because it cannot be thought of without its self-transcendence. Where the holy appears as a given self-identical representation, it is already turned into a means taken into service by a worldly power.
Benjamin’s approach to secularization includes not least, a critical intervention. This critical intervention is not critically directed against secularization as such but brings to light the dialectical character of secularization. Benjamin’s critique is directed against all forms of divinization or sacralization of worldly powers, or—as Weigel puts it—the critique of any kind of political theocracy is a central idea of his dialectics of secularization (Weigel 2010, p. 90). Therefore, the purpose of Benjamin’s interventions is to rescue the difference between the holy and the profane. To this end, his reflections on theological categories such as the holy and not seldom reflections on concrete biblical texts provide a perspective that can instigate the reappearance of the difference between the divine and the profane order while at the same time disempowering all forms of sacralized power as well as any power that claims to have replaced the holy as such. In this way, Benjamin refers to the holy in order to turn it against its own representations, appropriations, instrumentalizations, and substitutes. However, it is equally important to note that these critical interventions are neither designed to reestablish the illusion of a “purely” holy against its contamination, nor do they pursue the goal of showing that the profane always depends on the holy while it can never reach it properly. On the contrary, the effort to rescue the difference between the holy and the profane is as much an attempt to rescue the profane as the profane, that is, as something that has its own right.7 In general, one can assert that Benjamin’s approach to secularization pursues the point at which the profane does not represent itself as an unreflective appropriation or substitution of the holy but reflects its difference with the latter in a unique and contingent way (Weigel 2010, p. 69). It accounts for the dialectical character of Benjamin’s understanding of secularization that a complex understanding of the holy plays a key role in unveiling the profane in its profanity.
In order to continue, it is now necessary to address one of the crucial aspects of the holy as it is understood in Benjamin’s texts. For this purpose, I will take up a passage in Benjamin’s very early text entitled Socrates (Benjamin 2011b, pp. 233–37; Benjamin 1974, vol. 2.1, pp. 129–32) (1916), in which he uses the term holy (heilig) in an illuminating way, and which Sigrid Weigel brilliantly analyzed (Weigel 2010, p. 82f). I will first reconstruct the most important aspects of Weigel’s analysis and then extend the reading of this passage a little further to deepen the understanding of the holy in Benjamin’s text. In his rather short (three page-long) critique of Socrates, Benjamin not only distinguishes between Socrates and Plato’s method but also builds up an opposition between the Socratic and the holy (heilig) question when he writes:
[t]he Socratic inquiry is not the holy question that awaits an answer and whose echo resounds in the response [deren Resonanz erneut in der Antwort wieder auflebt]: it does not, as does the purely erotic or scientific question, intimate the methodos of the answer. Rather, a mere means to compel conversation, it forcibly, even impudently, dissimulates, ironizes—for it already knows the answer all to precisely. The Socratic question besets the answer from without, it corners it as dogs would a noble stag.
To begin with, I want to highlight three of Weigel’s observations about this passage. Firstly, she points out that the holy question is not only a means to bring knowledge to light in the answer and therefore does not simply vanish into the answer but that it resonates or resounds within the answer (Weigel 2010, p. 82). The Socratic question is erased in the answer, or—even more than that—is already erased in the question itself, because the answer is present in the question everyone knows the answer all too well. In contrast to that, the holy question does not know the answer beforehand but leaves something open, creating an open space in language. The “’life’ of language” (Weigel 2010, p. 82), as Weigel puts it, is given an open space as it is turned into a resonance or echo chamber in which the openness of the question is revived (“wieder auflebt”). In this way, the holy appears as language is revived not as a means for knowledge but as the resonance of its own openness.
Weigel’s second, very important insight is that the fact that the holy question is not a mere means is actually a characteristic of the holy that can be generalized. This means that the holy in general can never be turned into a pure means for something else, suggesting that when something is turned into a pure means, “the dimension of the holy in it is erased” (Weigel 2010, p. 82f, my translation). This insight unveils a common thread that runs through nearly all of Benjamin’s creative periods: the attempt to criticize any instrumentalization of religion and the search for the point where the means of power and knowledge are freed from their servitude and thereby freed from their existence as mere means in general.
Weigel’s third important observation is that in Benjamin, the holy is—not only in the case of the holy question but in general—understood in the sense of a resonance chamber (Resonanzraum), which excludes any representation of the holy as an attribute of an object or a unity (Weigel 2010, p. 83). It follows from this that there cannot be any holy object, person, origin, or holy being in itself because the holy has to be understood as a category of relation, meaning that it only exists as a resonance effect of something else. This also reveals why the holy and the historical are inseparable because the holy only exists within its temporal mediation. Consequently, in Benjamin, there can never be any such thing as a holy origin, as the holy could only apply to the origin in the echoes of its temporal becoming, which also means its loss. The holy can therefore only apply to a form of resonance in language of something that is not given as a representable being. Finally, as Weigel notices, language is the only subject to which the holy refers as an attribute because language in itself is understood as a resonance of the divine word, a matter to which I will turn in more detail in the following subsection (Weigel 2010, p. 83).
In order to conclude this subsection, I will extend Weigel’s reading of the above quoted passage from Socrates with a few thoughts. In the above passage, Benjamin describes the Socratic question in a quite polemic way. The Socratic question violently corners the answer as if it were a hunted stag; it closes every possible open space, leaving no chance for an escape. This scenario provides the greatest contrast to the holy question. The latter awaits an answer and, in this way, limits its own intention and takes the risk of remaining an open question without any answer. However, the crucial point is that when this open question, which is not already occupied with an answer, resonates within the answer, the answer itself resonates this openness, which risks the possibility of having no answer. When the open question resonates in the answer, its openness is not replaced by an answer. Rather, the answer becomes the mediation of an openness that cannot be filled by any answer at all. The question is not erased by the answer, but the answer continues and reveals the openness of the question at the same time. It is “so much creative as receptive”8, because it does not only repeat the openness of the question—it is after all an answer and not just a repetition of the question—but in its resonance, it transforms this openness into a definite openness that is not bound to the form of the question any more. The answer reveals that the openness of the question is not just the gap of an unanswered question, but an openness that can be mediated through the dialectics of language (question and answer) without being filled with any definitive content. This shows that the holy can only touch the life of language when the latter points beyond itself to an openness that it cannot delimit with its own means. Another consequence that follows from this is that the holy question is not holy, because it is a question, but because the holy question transcends itself in its resonance. It is only when the answer does not erase the openness of the question that it turns this openness into an absolute openness, not depending on its form as a question; in this way, the resonance in the answer even transcends the first openness. Therefore, the holy only revives and appears in an openness that transcends itself. Holiness only appears when it completely coincides with its own pointing beyond itself and, thereby, when it coincides with its resonance in something else.

3. The Expressionless

In the following subsection, I will reflect on several passages from different periods of Benjamin’s work in which he refers to the idea of the “expressionless” (das Ausdruckslose). Benjamin scholars have noticed that the “expressionless” is an important motif in many different contexts of the author’s work and at different stages of his thought.9 Moreover, as Weidner has noted, the expressionless is closely connected to Benjamin’s dialectical view on secularization, as it is simultaneously utterly profane and utterly holy, marking the exact border between both spheres (Weidner 2010, p. 23). It will not be possible in this article to consider all of the discourses linked to the expressionless in Benjamin. Therefore, I will focus on a specific aspect and explain why the expressionless plays an important role in the relationship between religion and aesthetics in Benjamin. My argument will be that the expressionless has a very close connection to the holy in Benjamin but is not identical with it because it is foremost an aesthetic category and, as such, bears some degree of independence. In the following paragraphs, I will demonstrate how the expressionless is the place in Benjamin at which the work of art, the holy, and the related motif of pure language all intersect.
In his very dense—and partly enigmatic—text entitled Socrates, Benjamin builds up an opposition between the Socratic and the holy. This opposition, which is also related to the above mentioned “erotic” character of Socratic knowledge as opposed to the “asexual” associated with the holy, cannot be analyzed in detail and on all of its many levels in this article. However, I want to point out that the expressionless appears in this text exactly at the point where it refers to the holy, not in the sense of an abstract idea but in the sense of an aesthetic appearance of the holy in a painting. Benjamin briefly refers to Grünewald in a way that allows me to approach the meaning of the expressionless when he writes as follows:
Grünewald painted the saints [die Heiligen] with such grandeur because10 their halos emerged from the greenest black. The radiant is true only where it is refracted in the nocturnal; only there is it great, only there is it expressionless, only there is it asexual and yet of supramundane sexuality.
As Sigrid Weigel points out, this short passage, in which Benjamin was most likely thinking of The Resurrection of Christ (in which Christ is surrounded by a spectacular halo) as part of Grünewald’s Isenheim Altar11, is one of many cases in which Benjamin references paintings and directly transposes an aspect of the painting on to a thought—in an exercise which Weigel calls “semanticization qua colors” (Weigel 2015, p. 420, my translation). As Weigel explains, Benjamin often develops a line of thought not from a text, a concept, an idea, or even the subject of a painting, but from the colors as the appearance of the materiality of the painting (Weigel 2015, p. 420). In order to approach the meaning of the word “expressionless” along these lines, it is important to note that when Benjamin is asking from what source the saints gain their grandeur, he is asking what makes their radiation appear great and “expressionless”. This source is neither the artist’s intention nor the special proportions of the composition or the shape of the figures—it is not even the way the artist painted them, but only to be found in the colors and particularly in the phrase “greenest black”. Together with the refraction of the radiant in the nocturnal, these verbalizations compel the reader to think of the way in which Christ’s halo in The Resurrection of Christ fades out into a shimmering green as it touches the darkness of the surrounding night. Even then, however, it is nearly impossible to demonstrate or express what exactly the “greenest black” means. However, this is a crucial aspect of the expressionless: its source lies in something that cannot simply be rationalized and conceptualized in a strict sense. Still, the expressionless is not unexpressed either. It simply points to the exact instance in which the colors transcend their status as a means of expression. Transcending the status of a means is also a precondition of the appearance of the holy, as demonstrated above. Within the painting, the colors also serve as a means of expression but firstly in the halo, they do not serve as the expression of any finite, real object and secondly, and more importantly, Benjamin points to the exact instant in which the color arrives at its superlative as it refers to no object at all, but to color itself, namely, “greenest black”.12 This implies that the expressionless is not to be confused with the mere absence of expression. The expressionless is not the ineffable. Rather, it is where any kind of expression reveals a dimension of materiality or, more generally, of externality which goes beyond its being a means to express the interiority of a subject, an intention of the artist or of any inwardness.
This approach is confirmed by the way the expressionless appears in many of Benjamin’s fragments on color and phantasy, which (although some of them are difficult to date) go back to very early stages of Benjamin’s writings in 1914/15 and which continued in later years.13 For example, in a few fragments from 1914/15 edited under the title Reflection in Art and in Color, Benjamin writes the following on color:
[t]he color is therefore originally for itself, that is: it does not refer to things, but also not to its appearance in color spots; but it refers to the highest concentration of seeing. […] Color has no natural medium of expression[.] It is therefore [,] viewed from the side of nature, only on things: Property[.]
When Benjamin writes that color has no natural means of expression, this clearly means that the expressionless refers not only to the fact that something is not the means of expression of a subject, but that it is also not the means of expression of an object. Color is deeply related to the expressionless because in Benjamin’s view, no natural object in the world can be the expression of color as such. Color is not a thing in the world and where it appears in things in the world, it does so only as a property and not for itself. Color for itself cannot be turned into a mere, representable object and it shares this impossibility with the holy. Color for itself cannot be reduced to the means of expression of any object. No doubt, there is color in the form of colored objects, but as objects, they are only the means of the knowledge of a subject. By contrast, what Benjamin describes as color for itself is neither objective nor subjective, but aesthetic. It is neither the expression of the interiority of a subject nor the expression of an object, but, as Benjamin puts it, the highest concentration of seeing. This is an important component of understanding why the expressionless is at the core of aesthetics. In this concentration of seeing, the subject receives something (it is not an introspection), but at the same time, the received is not a natural object of knowledge. This pure color only exists in its reception—“color has to be seen” (Benjamin 1974, vol. 6, p. 119, my translation)—as Benjamin notes, but this does not mean that it is only the product of the subject. Color is not created by the subject, but it is naturally received by the latter, and it transcends any natural object or shape.
This becomes clearer when one considers the close relationship between color and the complex concept of imagination (Phantasie). In the text On Shame (Über die Scham) from 1919/1920, Benjamin ascribes the expressionless dimension of color to a certain understanding of phantasy: “[t]o it [imagination, D.K.] the colors appertain, in which a being appears without being the expression of an interior. […] Expressionless significant appearance is the color of imagination” (Benjamin 1974, vol. 6, p. 71, my translation). In this quotation, the expressionless is not only bound to color but also to the concept of imagination. This concept of imagination in Benjamin is very complex, and I only want to briefly highlight two aspects of it. In contrast to a very common understanding of imagination, Benjamin maintains that it is not a creative or productive faculty but a receptive and negative. Benjamin uses the very unconventional German term “entstalten”, de-shaping (dissolving the shape), to describe the negative work of imagination (Benjamin 1974, vol. 6, p. 115). This work of imagination is best described by Benjamin as a de-shaping without destroying that which is de-shaped (Benjamin 1974, vol. 6, p. 115). In order to further investigate Benjamin’s use of the expressionless in this context, it is only necessary to highlight one detail concerning this negativity of imagination: this negativity is also directed against the classical aesthetic category of the beautiful semblance (schöner Schein), or in Benjamin’s words, “[i]t [imagination] is the infinite dissolution of the purified beautiful semblance [schöner Schein], discharged of all seduction” (Benjamin 1974, vol. 6, p. 115, my translation). Imagination is neither simply opposed to the beautiful semblance nor does the semblance vanish; it infinitely dissolves. Through the de-shaping of imagination, semblance shows that there is nothing behind semblance other than its own dissolution. There is no secret behind the semblance, and therefore, it is not only dispelled of all seduction but also loses (in the same way as color) any object that it resembles. Again, this resonates with the holy, which can never be reduced to an object. In as much as the semblance is dissolved by the de-shaping of imagination, the appearance of the holy might take shape. Similar to the expressionless essence of color, Benjamin’s thought is directed towards the point where the semblance is no longer a means of representation: imagination clears the space for the expressionless at the very instant in which the semblance is not the expression of anything behind the semblance anymore and therefore begins to dissolve. This is an important aspect because, in a later application of the expressionless, to which I will refer in a few paragraphs, the motif of the negation of semblance will be associated with the expressionless in a more direct way.
A further example of Benjamin’s recourse to the expressionless relates to his philosophy of language. Benjamin scholars broadly acknowledge that the essay On Language as Such and on the Language of Man (Benjamin 2011a, pp. 251–69; Benjamin 1974, vol. 2.1, pp. 140–57) (1916) and the text (an introduction to a translation of works by Baudelaire) entitled The Translator’s Task (Benjamin 1997, pp. 151–65; Benjamin 1974, vol. 4.1, pp. 8–21) (1923) are closely linked to each other and in fact form two sides of one philosophical view of language. Although the word expressionless does not appear as such in the first essay from 1916 and is only explicitly used in the second text from 1923, I want to single out a few crucial lines of thought from the first essay that are essential for a proper understanding of the expressionless.
On the first page of On Language as Such and on the Language of Man, we find a short passage that disproves any simplifying understanding of the expressionless as the absence of language:
[t]here is no event or thing in either animate or inanimate nature that does not in some way partake of language, for it is essential to each one to communicate its spiritual content. But in such usage the word “language” is in no way a metaphor. That we cannot conceive of anything that does not communicate its spiritual essence in expression is a matter of integral substantive knowledge; the greater or lesser degree of consciousness to which such communication is apparently (or really) conjoined cannot alter the fact that we are unable to imagine a total absence of language in anything.
In these lines, Benjamin is clearly speaking about language in a much broader sense than just the words used in human language; rather, he is speaking about language as the way in which every being communicates its essence, thereby meaning that every being has its own kind of language. Nevertheless, when he writes that there is no thing that does not express its essence and that we cannot even imagine a total absence of language, this means that the expressionless must not be understood as something that strictly opposes language or even expression. Does this mean that the expressionless does not actually exist? On the contrary, it shows that the expressionless has something to do with the innermost essence of language and expression as such.
In Benjamin’s view, the innermost essence of language is the name. In order to approach this thesis, however, it is necessary to mention that it is part of Benjamin’s critique of what he calls the “bourgeois conception of language” (Benjamin 2011a, p. 255; Benjamin 1974, vol. 2.1, p. 144). The bourgeois conception of language is an instrumentalist one, which conceives of language as a means through which something is communicated. Benjamin contrasts this bourgeois understanding by developing a conception of language as something in which (not through it!) something is communicated. This means that language is not primarily a manageable means to communicate information, knowledge about objects, or any other thing independent of language itself, even though in a certain state, language may also be used in that sense; primarily, the only thing expressed in language is language itself.15 From this, however, it follows, that language communicates something that we cannot designate as an object by using signs and words, as this would again only fall under the bourgeois conception of language. How, then, can this dimension of language in which Benjamin is interested even be expressed? The innermost essence of this conception of language is expressed in the name:
[t]he name, in the realm of language, has solely this meaning and this incomparably high significance: that it is the inmost essence of language itself. The name is that through which nothing more communicates itself, and in which language itself communicates itself absolutely.
The name is the purest expression of language, through which nothing is expressed. In the name, language is not used to identify any extralinguistic being. Instead, the name of something is a merely linguistic being which communicates itself within itself. The name of something is not a means to refer to it or to give information about it—when it is reduced to this, the name is already misused—, but it is its own being in language. Therefore, it is—similarly to the holy—not possible to reduce the name to a means of expression, while it is the pure expression of language at the same time. Moreover, in the name, all human forces of mastering language as a means come to their limit as the name is where Benjamin’s approach to language reaches a theological dimension: the name has no other addressee than God and, in this way, transcends the instrumentalist conception of language, in which humans address each other through the means of language (Benjamin 2011a, p. 255; Benjamin 1974, vol. 2.1, p. 144).
In this context, Benjamin puts forth an interpretation of the biblical text Gen 2, in which God wants to see how man names every living being (Gen 2,19). This interpretation entails the idea that the word of God is unmatched in its creativity, but this does not mean that the language of man stands under the dictate of God’s word, because God: “did not wish to subordinate him to language, but in man God liberated language, which has served him as medium of creation; he freed it from himself” (Benjamin 2011a, p. 259; Benjamin 1974, vol. 2.1, p. 149). As a result, the language of man is truly his own language and man can exist in this language absolutely freely. According to that, however, the word of man is not creative and active in the same way as the word of God; it does not create, but names things. This is not an unimportant detail, because it implies that the language of man relies on a translation from the language of things into the language of man:
[b]ut for reception and spontaneity together, found as they are in this singular conjunction only in the linguistic realm, language has its own word, and this word applies also to the receptive conception of the nameless in the name. It is the translation of the language of things into that of man.
The language of man is not solipsistic, but it is related to an alterity, the language of things16, and the name is also related to the nameless. The language of man thereby points to something beyond itself, which it cannot just signify by words. It cannot access the language of things by turning them into objects or describing them, but its connection to the language of things is only guaranteed by translation, which is at the same time spontaneous and receptive. The substantial phrase here is the “conception of the nameless in the name”: this means that the language of man can only point beyond itself where it creates an expression that is not used to express anything, only where the denominative function of language is abolished in the name. Only in the name, where pure language renounces any attempt to master its other, can the nameless resonate. That is to say that only where language is neither expressing, describing, nor objectifying anything, thereby restricting any form of mastery in the name, can it become a repercussion of its other, the nameless. An echo of the nameless always runs through every name. Concerning the relation between the expressionless and the language of man, the name shows how the expression of pure language and the expressionless that points beyond language can coincide.
Benjamin does not explicitly use the term “expressionless” in this essay. One reason for this is that according to his philosophical interpretation of the biblical narrative, the expressionless is only more explicitly addressed after the Fall of Man. This is because the expressionless only emerges as a countermovement after language is turned into a pure means of expression in the Fall of Man. What Benjamin describes as the “fall of the spirit of language” (Benjamin 2011a, p. 263; Benjamin 1974, vol. 2.1, p. 153) is a perfect example of how he draws on a biblical narrative in order to provide a critical perspective towards the instrumentalist conception of modern knowledge. In this fall, the pure language of the name is lost and turned into a pure means; the word is turned into a sign in order to denominate something else; and the preferred expression of knowledge, which only uses language, is the judgment (Benjamin 2011a, p. 263f.; Benjamin 1974, vol. 2.1, p. 152). Without being able to expand on this aspect here, I want to emphasize that this example provides a good illustration of how the dialectics of secularization work in Benjamin: he frames the instrumentalist conception of language as a means of knowledge, which is a “parody” of the divine word. In other words, knowledge, in its attempt to represent being, can never reach the creativity of the divine word but can only be a parody of creation (Benjamin 2011a, p. 263; Benjamin 1974, vol. 2.1, p. 153). By using this wording (“parody”), Benjamin is simultaneously implying that the quest for knowledge is attempting to replace the divine power by submitting everything to the mastery of judgment and that the difference between divine and human knowledge is irreplaceable because knowledge can never replace the creativity of the word of God. Knowledge’s attempt to represent everything can only be a parody of creation. This critical perspective preserves the difference between the biblical pure language and language as a means of knowledge, thus at least leaving the possibility to re-approach pure language. In The Translator’s Task from 1923, Benjamin shows that translation plays an important role in this rapprochement towards pure language.
I only want to add a few comments on the passage of The Translator’s Task, in which the expressionless is explicitly mentioned. For that purpose, it is necessary to explain that in Benjamin’s view, pure language is absent, though not fully lost, in the plurality of languages; instead, it simply remains hidden. His thesis is that what is ultimately intended in all languages is neither the intention of the speaker/author nor the intended object, but pure language itself:
[a]ll suprahistorical kinship of languages consists rather in the fact that in each of them as a whole, one and the same thing is intended; this cannot be attained by anyone of them alone, however, but only by the totality of their mutually complementary intentions: pure language.
In their totality all languages neither intend the meanings that every individual language signifies in a different way nor what their individual speakers intend, but on a deeper level, the intended of all languages is pure language itself. However, it is impossible to uncover pure language in the plurality of languages through a mere summation of languages. Instead, it is a task that can only be approached through translation. Pure language can at one and the same time be intended and hidden in every individual language, because the intended is “never encountered in relative independence” (Benjamin 1997, p. 157; Benjamin 1974, vol. 4.1, p. 14) in individual languages but is always mingled with a particular mode of intention, that is, a limited means of expression of one language. Pure language can only emerge in its independence when the limited mode of intention of one language is complemented by other modes of intention, because they not only complement but also relativize each other and thereby increasingly reveal the independence of the intended from all modes of intention. Moreover, in Benjamin’s view, every individual language is not an invariable entity, but constantly transforming, changing, and complementing its own modes of intention in a process he calls a “sacred growth of languages [heiliges Wachstum der Sprachen]” (Benjamin 1997, p. 157; Benjamin 1974, vol. 4.1, p. 14). The religious perspective on language that recalls the biblical-theological motifs of his earlier essay from 1916 is also very evident in the fact that Benjamin speaks about the growth of languages until they reach the “messianic end of their history” (Benjamin 1997, p. 157; Benjamin 1974, vol. 4.1, p. 14).
Now, translation is, on the one hand, always testing this “sacred growth of language” and revealing the remaining distance of a language from the messianic end of its history because, in translation, the mode of intention of one language is still to be complemented by the mode of intention of another language (Benjamin 1997, p. 157; Benjamin 1974, vol. 4.1, p. 14). Yet on the other hand, the role of translation is not only to test the growth of languages, but to play a more active and critical role: while translation cannot anticipate the messianic end of the growth of languages, it can to a certain extent liberate pure language from its mixture with individual languages. In connection with this second, critical role of translation, the expressionless appears in a very illuminating way. The following serves as a relevant passage:
[t]he translation alone possesses the mighty capacity to unbind it [pure language, D. K.] from meaning, to turn the symbolizing element into the symbolized itself, to recuperate the pure language growing in linguistic development. In this pure language—which no longer signifies or expresses anything, but rather as the expressionless and creative word that is the intended object of every language—all communication, all meaning, and all intention arrive at a level where they are destined to be extinguished.
Firstly, I want to recall the fact that pure language cannot simply be turned into the symbolized by describing it as an object, referring to it by means of signs, symbols, or any way of representing it. Pure language simply cannot be represented by such a denominative function of language. When translation alone has the capacity to turn it into the symbolized, though, this occurs because translation does not treat the translated language as an object; in the process of translation, language is received as a movement that liberates itself from the limitations of a particular language and its mode of intention. In translation, language becomes recognizable as a self-transcending movement that resonates with the self-transcending openness of the holy, as it appeared above in the holy question. Translation is able to take language as something that emancipates itself from all meaning and intention of an individual language that is alien to it. Even if we can only fix language in concrete expressions of individual languages, translation shows that there is a level of language that is absolutely independent from the concrete and limited expressions in which it is used. Translation can at least momentarily reveal a level of language that is freed from everything that reduces it to a means of communication and intention. The critical force of language is directed against any mingling of pure language with the level of language that is only used as a means of communication. When Benjamin characterizes pure language in this section as “expressionless”, this is not only to say that it does not express anything, but that pure language re-appears as expressionless only where it is the critical counterforce in which “all communication, all meaning, and all intention” are destined to be extinguished. This passage unveils that the expressionless is properly understood as a category of resistance: as the resistance of a means against its being a means. The expressionless only appears where something (in this case, language) that has been absolutely turned into a means resists its own status as a means and erases all forms of intention that attempt to master it. The expressionless appears within language, where language itself appears as a countermovement against the servitude of language to intention and communication. The expressionless immediately interrupts the mediation of means, reestablishes the possibility of something transcending the sphere of means, and thereby reintroduces the possibility of the holy as a critical force. The expressionless re-establishes the difference between the “fallen” language as a means of communication and the pure language as the sphere of the holy.

4. Conclusions: The Expressionless and the Work of Art

In the concluding section, I will now show that one of the most famous applications of the expressionless in his essay on Goethe’s Ellective Affinities (Goethes Wahlverwandtschaften, 1921/22) (Benjamin 2002, pp. 297–360; Benjamin 1974, vol. 1.1, pp. 123–201) confirms my interpretation of the expressionless. Moreover, I will demonstrate how the view on the expressionless in the Goethe essay together with the aforementioned examples, allows me to close the circle to the initial remarks of this article related to Benjamin’s essay on The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility. Finally, I will use this section to summarize and reflect on the most important results of this article concerning the relation between the holy and the expressionless, or, in other words, religion and the work of art.
Benjamin’s introduction of the expressionless in his Goethe essay draws the critical character of this category, which I already mentioned above, into greater relief: “[t]he expressionless is the critical violence [Gewalt] which, while unable to separate semblance from essence in art, prevents them from mingling” (Benjamin 2002, p. 340; Benjamin 1974, vol. 1.1, p. 181). Clearly, a vast number of discourses run through the Goethe essay, on which I cannot comment here without having done the prior analysis. Nonetheless, I want to argue that a line of thought already present in Benjamin’s text on imagination (Phantasie) appears to be further developed here. Imagination was not the replacement of semblance in its totality but a negative force that was described as the “infinite dissolution of the purified beautiful semblance”. Here in the Goethe essay, the expressionless itself does not simply subtract the dimension of semblance from the work of art but still critically resists it in the sense that it limits the sphere of semblance and resists its mingling with the essence of art. The difficulty in grasping the concept of semblance in this context has to do with the fact that semblance, in Benjamin’s view, can never be understood as something in itself because it is always only the veil pointing beyond itself towards something it represents and obscures at the same time: it represents and veils the life of the artist to which the work is bound by the dimension of semblance. When the expressionless is described here as a critical force (or violence, in German Gewalt) that resists a mingling of art and semblance, this means that in the expressionless, something within the work of art itself resists an aesthetics that would turn it into a means of expressing the author’s life. For Benjamin, art is only art when it contests its own tendency to coincide with semblance. When Benjamin describes the expressionless as “a category of language and art” (Benjamin 2002, p. 340; Benjamin 1974, vol. 1.1, p. 181) in general in his Goehte essay, it becomes clear how essential this category is for his view not only on language but also on art as such. In this view, the essence of a work of art can only be grasped where it contains—qua the expressionless—a counterthrust against its semblance, disempowering all the aesthetic forces—that are by no means external to it—that authorize its existence.
Against this background, it is now possible to interpret a thought that Benjamin advances in Section XI. of his essay on The Work of Art (second version) as a radicalization of the same line of thought that I just investigated. In the context of an analysis of film, it becomes clear that for Benjamin, the production of cinematic art is absolutely incompatible with the idea that the work of art is achieved by an act in which the actor expresses something. The filmic work cannot be reduced to an act of expression at all but is the result of a confrontation of the actor with the whole apparatus of production, as Benjamin illustrates by the following example:
[l]et us assume that an actor is supposed to be startled by a knock at the door. If his reaction is not satisfactory, the director can resort to an expedient: he could have a shot fired without warning behind the actor’s back on some other occasion when he happens to be in the studio. The actor’s frightened reaction at that moment could be recorded and then edited into the film. Nothing shows more graphically that art has escaped the realm of “beautiful semblance”, which for so long was regarded as the only sphere in which it could thrive.
The expressionless is a critical force that rescues the essence of the work of art from its mingling with the sphere of semblance. In the Goethe essay, though, it is still possible to maintain an equilibrium between the sphere of semblance and the expressionless, which opposes it. Beyond that, in the age of technological reproducibility, art is able to escape the realm of beautiful semblance as such. In light of previous remarks on the expressionless, however, it is possible to interpret this dynamic as an expansion and radicalization of a critical force that is in fact indispensable in every work of art. From this point of view, art was never fully reducible to the realm of beautiful semblance, and the expressionless can be seen as the instant in which every work of art at least transcended the realm of beautiful semblance, which was regarded as the only possible sphere of art. In the second version of The Work of Art, the above quotation is followed by a long footnote in which Benjamin relates the realm of beautiful semblance to classical thinkers such as Hegel and Goethe and to the way this motif appeared in the Goethe essay. Within this footnote, Benjamin also explains that the “significance of beautiful semblance [schöner Schein] is rooted in the age of auratic perception” as well as that the theory of beautiful semblance is grounded in the experience of the aura (Benjamin 2008, p. 48; Benjamin 1974, vol. 7.1, p. 368). This is relevant because it closes a circle by demonstrating how the sphere of semblance is connected, or better, grounded, in the ritualistic basis of the unique work of art, which I mentioned at the beginning of this article. As already mentioned, in Benjamin, the aura is related to a world in which the work of art is founded in ritual, respectively, cult. This remark also sheds some new light on the expressionless. When the expressionless is a critical force resisting the mingling of the essence of art with the semblance, this means that the expressionless resists the mingling of art with the sphere that is, ultimately, based on art as a cult. Therefore, the expressionless is a force within the work of art that resists any form of aesthetic cult. This explains why it plays such a fundamental role in the Goethe essay, in which Benjamin turns against the cult of genius in the circle of George. These findings yield a surprising result: whereas the expressionless shares a close relationship with the holy, the expressionless is exactly the side of art that resists any sacralization of the aesthetic, whether it is the sacralization of the poet or the sacralization of the work of art itself. This is further illuminated by Weigel’s observation that the expressionless appears where the work of art in general builds up a resistance against false mixtures, including the false mixture between the holy and the profane (Weigel 2008, p. 134). This train of thought leads to very crucial consequences for the purpose of the present article, which should be summarized now:
Firstly, the expressionless reveals that art has its own way of rescuing the difference between the holy and the profane. It is the critical counterthrust of art that restrains its own tendency to divinize itself.
Secondly, this brings to light that the dialectics of secularization—which oscillate between the loss and re-gain of the difference between the holy and the profane—cannot be decided by concepts and theories alone, but that concrete works of art have a critical power within this dialectic. The question of the secularization—as well as the question of the possible sacralization—of art cannot be decided by concepts about art but by the unforeseeable critical interventions of art itself. The expressionless is a non-reducible force within art that differentiates itself from all authorities that try to sacralize art.
Thirdly—recalling the results of the investigation of Benjamin’s understanding of secularization from the second subsection –, rescuing the difference between the holy and the profane is also the condition of the possibility of rescuing the holy itself from its representations and appropriations. As a consequence, the expressionless plays a unique role in the dialectics of secularization: as stated above, the expressionless appears where the means of expression resist their own status of being a means. In this way, the expressionless—at one and the same time—restricts any attempt to use artistic expression as a means to represent, appropriate, or replace the holy and makes a resonance of the holy in art perceptible because the holy only resonates where something is freed from being a means. In other words, the holy can only resound in art where art is not used to represent the holy. Perception of the holy in art becomes possible where a sacralization of art becomes impossible. The expressionless simultaneously discloses a sphere within art that points beyond it to the holy and resists any divinization of art as such. In the expressionless, the resonance of the holy in art only becomes possible inasmuch as it differentiates itself from the holy and is not to be identified with the holy. This is why Benjamin criticizes a sacralization of art in The Work of Art (Benjamin 2008, p. 24; Benjamin 1974, vol. 7.1, p. 356) and is careful to reject all attempts to re-establish a cultic form of art in the time of technological reproducibility, such as the star-cult (Benjamin 2008, p. 33; Benjamin 1974, vol. 7.1, p. 370) of cinema.
At the beginning of this article, I mentioned Benjamin’s thesis that in the age of technologically reproducible art, instead of being founded in ritual, is based on the practice of politics. In order to avoid a misunderstanding, it is important to clarify at the end that “politicizing art” (Benjamin 2008, p. 42; Benjamin 1974, vol. 7.1, p. 384), in the way Benjamin uses this term, does not per se mean an instrumentalization of art for political purposes. The above-mentioned ”liquidation” or “shattering” of the value of tradition, in Benjamin’s view, is in itself neither a positive nor a negative event. However, it transforms the work of art into a political space for a renegotiation of social power structures. This is an open-ended process that can lead to very different results. It can lead to an even more radical instrumentalization of art, which reduces art to a mere means of power. Nonetheless, the devaluation of the authority and unique value of the authentic work of art can also make art accessible, not as a means but as a place for self-reflection for those without authority and power. For instance, in Benjamin’s view, there is an “original and justified interest of the masses in film—an interest in understanding themselves and therefore their class” (Benjamin 2008, p. 34; Benjamin 1974, vol. 7.1, p. 372). Politization of art means that instead of worshiping the work of art, the masses recognize that it is not any authority represented by art or the representational function of art in general, but their own reception that matters. In this way, the political significance of art lies neither in its representation of an object nor in its representation of a subject, but in its aesthetic significance—in the same sense as described in Benjamin’s reflection on color as the highest concentration of seeing—which discloses a new way of perception for a subject. The masses can become the subject of art where art is not experienced as a means of representation but as a critical force that allows to realize new ways of perception and to prepare for the “tasks which face the human apparatus of perception at historical turning points” (Benjamin 2008, p. 40; Benjamin 1974, vol. 7.1, p. 381). Politization of art can mean that art is not understood as a means of representation but as a way in which the masses develop an awareness of themselves as the subjects of art, which are also the subjects of technological production and have a right to just social conditions. At the very end of his essay on The Work of Art, Benjamin claims that fascism instrumentalizes the technology of film in order to prevent the masses from becoming aware of their status as powerful subjects. Fascism deprives the masses of the chance to experience themselves as the subject of cinematic art by turning them into the objects of film. Benjamin writes about the filmic representation of the masses produced by national socialism: “It [fascism, D. K.] sees its salvation in granting expression to the masses—but on no account granting them rights. The masses have a right to changed property relations; fascism seeks to give them expression in keeping these relations unchanged” (Benjamin 2008, p. 41; Benjamin 1974, vol. 7.1, p. 382). The only way to prevent the subjectivation of the masses in technological reproduction is to turn them into the objects of this technology by giving them an expression—in other words, a representation—of themselves. The critical force of the expressionless in this scenario is to interrupt the instrumentalization of art as an aesthetic cult of (self-)representation. Benjamin’s critique of an aesthetic cult of l’art pour l’art demonstrates a crucial paradox: it is precisely the idea of l’art—POUR—l’art in which art is absolutely turned into its “being for…” (pour), in other words, into a means and nothing but a means. Instead of being freed from being a means, the cult of l’art pour l’art turns art into a means for those who find and preserve their power through the aesthetics of l’art pour l’art, because the latter deprives art of all political potential for social change.
According to the arguments developed in the present article, however, it is still possible to say that the religious perspective on art is an irreplaceable perspective, not in the sense of a cult of art, a religious art, or even a pseudo-religion that divinizes art, but in the knowledge that art, in its critical and independent existence, keeps alive the possibility of a resonance of the holy in the profane world. In this perspective, art functions not as a representation of the holy but as an indispensable force in rescuing the non-representability of the holy. It follows from this that the significance of aesthetics for religion should not be reduced to a primarily practical context, such as the ritual, the cult, or the liturgy. Aesthetics is not only a secondary expression of religious practices. Instead, one should acknowledge that the aesthetic dimension of religion is precisely an aesthetic one: religion can also be approached as a form of aisthesis in the Greek sense, as a way of perceiving the world in general and art in particular. Following this approach, I want to emphasize that religion has an aesthetic dimension that exceeds the theoretical as well as the practical level: religion does not necessarily have its predominant appearance in theoretical ideas, respectively, convictions about the world, or forms of religious praxis but rather as a cultivation of a perception of the openness of the holy. In this sense, a religious perspective can transform our perception of the world by reading the latter as the resonance of a self-transcending openness that can never be turned into an object, and art contributes to the cultivation of this transformed perception. A religious perspective on art in times of secularization does not necessarily mean projecting religion onto art, but it can mean cultivating legibility for the way in which art in the afterlife of religion freely resonates with the holy by differentiating itself from it. From this standpoint, the aesthetic program of religion would not be the aesthetic presentation or manifestation of religion itself, but it would coincide with a religious aesthesis of profane art. It may then, however, be necessary to complement the idea of an aesthetic program with the concept of an aesthetic post-scriptum, not following a prescription but answering religion in a more open way. The aesthetic post-scriptum of religion is legible in profane art when the latter is perceived as profane…and therefore refers to the holy.


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For the English translation of the (second version of the) essay, see (Benjamin 2008, pp. 19–55).
In the following, the German words “das Heilige/heilig” will be translated as “the holy” because it is closer to the German original which Benjamin uses. In some cases, it might also be translated as “sacred” without any loss of meaning, but in the following, I will use “the holy” for the sake of uniformity. The “sacred/sacral” will only be used in such forms as “sacralization” where a proper verb cannot be derived from “holy”.
Translation by the author. Benjamin produced different versions of his essay (one of them in French). In the following, I will refer to some of these different versions. Unlike the second version, the first version of the essay is still untranslated into English.
For the English translation of the second version, see (Benjamin 2008, pp. 19–55; Benjamin 1974, vol. 7.1, pp. 350–84). For a basic introduction into Benjamin’s essay see: Burkhardt Lindner, “Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit“, in (Lindner 2011, pp. 229–51).
Although it cannot be done within the scope of this article, it would be very promising to link Benjamin’s (mostly implicit) understanding of secularization to explicit theories of secularization within the context of the new secularization debate. For instance, Benjamin’s approach to secularization seems to be in line with Charles Taylor’s insight that secularization is rather an open-ended process whose outcome is not predictable but leading to a secular option which is not to be misunderstood as replacing faith. Cf. (Taylor 2007). For a profitable discussion of the new secularization debate see (Costa 2022).
Cf. (Benjamin 1974, vol. 2.1, p. 201f). For an analysis of the way in which the power which Benjamin calls “mythical violence (mytische Gewalt)” subjugates bare life in more detail see (Kuran 2019, pp. 31–41).
Weidner already highlights this dimension of Benjamin’s thought when he stresses that the profane must not be reduced to the negative of religion, but that it has its own order, its own independent reality, while this order, nonetheless, is to be understood through a complex relation to the holy. Cf. (Weidner 2010, p. 9).
The Socratic question is, in contrast to the holy question, not as so much creative as receptive, as Benjamin notes shortly after the above quoted passage. See (Benjamin 2011b, p. 235; Benjamin 1974, vol. 2.1, p. 131).
Menninghaus gave a very interesting reading of the expressionless in Benjamin in which he interprets it as a form of imagelessness (Bildlosigkeit) and links it to classical aesthetic categories such as the sublime and the beautiful. See (Menninghaus 2013, pp. 407–28).
I altered the translation here from “that” to “because”. The German sentence is “Grünewald hat die Heiligen dadurch so groß gemalt, daß ihre Glorie aus dem grünsten Schwarz tauchte.” So Benjamin is actually not saying that the halos emerge from the greenest black as an effect of the way Grünewald painted them, but the other way around: The reason for the judgment that Grünewald painted the saints grandeur is because their halos emerge from the greenest black. The significance of this distinction will become clear as soon as we try to understand what the expressionless means.
More Information and a depiction of the Isenheim Altar can be found at the website of the “Musée Unter Linden”. See (accessed on 7 March 2023).
The argument that black is not a color in the strict sense would only show that a conceptual distinction could not reach the concrete appearance to which Benjamin points by words.
For a more detailed interpretation of Benjamin’s writings on color that also considers the relation of Benjamin’s thought to Goethe’s theory of colors, see (Matsui 2014, pp. 1–21).
My translation. [Original: “Die Farbe ist daher ursprünglich für sich, das heißt: sie bezieht sich nicht auf Dinge, aber auch nicht etwa auf ihre Erscheinung in Farbflecken; sondern sie bezieht sich auf die höchste Konzentration des Sehens. […] Die Farbe hat kein natürliches Medium des Ausdrucks[.] Sie ist daher [,] von der Seite der Natur betrachtet, nur an den Dingen: Eigenschaft[.]”.
Benjamin writes: “The answer to the question: ‘What does language communicate?’ is therefore ‘All language communicates itself’” See (Benjamin 2011a, p. 253; Benjamin 1974, vol. 2.1, p. 142).
Even if everything has a linguistic essence in which it communicates itself, in Benjamin’s view, the essence of things does not coincide with its linguistic essence. Therefore, there is also non-linguistic being in things, namely, something that strictly escapes language.


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