Walter Benjamin and the Destructive Character

“Every act of creation is first an act of destruction.” – Pablo Picasso


“In the old days pictures went forward toward completion by stages. Every day brought something new. A picture used to be a sum of additions. In my case a picture is a sum of destructions. I do a picture – then I destroy it. In the end though, nothing is lost: the red I took away from one place turns up somewhere else,” Pablo Picasso famously said in 1968. The concept of destruction is received and valued on different paths. But perhaps the most powerful and profoundly unique approach to the very notion of destruction comes from the sociologist, philosopher and cultural critic Walter Benjamin with his 1931 essay “The Destructive Character,” published in the Frankfurter Zeitung.

Benjamin initially frames the traits of a “destructive character” and he writes:

“The destructive character knows only one watchword: make room. And only one activity: clearing away. His need for fresh air and open space is stronger than any hatred. The destructive character is young and cheerful. For destroying rejuvenates, because it clears away the traces of our own age; it cheers, because everything cleared away means to the destroyer a complete reduction, indeed a rooting out, out of his own condition.”

The destructive character, Benjamin argues, wants to change things and situations, by making them practicable and thus liquidating them. In this sense, the destructive character differs from the traditional man who looks comfort by making things untouchable and thus conserving them. Indeed, Benjamin’s desire for the change derives from his sufferings amid the atmosphere of Nazi terror and the extreme conservatism – and it may be regarded as the most inviolable form of resistance to the authoritarian regime. As he states:

“The destructive character sees nothing permanent. But for this very reason he sees ways everywhere. Where others encounter walls or mountains, there, too, he sees a way. But because he sees a way everywhere, he has to clear things from it everywhere. Not always by brute force; sometimes by the most refined. Because he sees ways everywhere, he always stands at a crossroads. No moment can know what the next will bring. What exists he reduces to rubble – not for the sake of rubble, but for that of the way leading through it.”

The Destructive Character is a unique read in its entirety and it should be ingested with caution; when taken out of context, it could easily become a manifesto for nihilism – associated with destructive anarchism, unemployed negativity and violence. But Benjamin’s insight is a prompt to get rid of the past and move forward into a future created through destruction. Benjamin considers destruction as a path of emancipation and explains his insights on destruction in his most dazzling essay titled Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Production (1936) – which asserts the emancipatory potential of the liquidation of the aura in the age of mechanical reproduction. Benjamin defines aura as the originality and authenticity of a work of art that has not been reproduced and illustrates the decay of aura with reference to the aura of natural ones, he writes:

“If, while resting on a summer afternoon, you follow with your eyes a mountain range on the horizon or a branch which casts its shadow over you, you experience the aura of those mountains, of that branch. This image makes it easy to comprehend the social bases of the contemporary decay of the aura. It rests on two circumstances, both of which are related to the increasing significance of the masses in contemporary life. Namely, the desire of contemporary masses to bring things “closer” spatially and humanly, which is just as ardent as their bent toward overcoming the uniqueness of every reality by accepting its reproduction. Every day the urge grows stronger to get hold of an object at very close range by way of its likeness, its reproduction.”

Reproduction, for Benjamin, substituted a plurality of copies for a unique existence, but at the same time it detached the work of art from the domain of tradition. The earliest art works, for instance, originated in the service of a ritual – first the magical, then the religious kind, viz.:

“Certain statues of gods are accessible only to the priest in the cella; certain Madonnas remain covered nearly all year round; certain sculptures on medieval cathedrals are invisible to the spectator on ground level. With the emancipation of the various art practices from ritual go increasing opportunities for the exhibition of their products. It is easier to exhibit a portrait bust that can be sent here and there than to exhibit the statue of a divinity that has its fixed place in the interior of a temple.”

This ritualistic basis of the work of art, however, declined as a result of the advent of the first truly revolutionary means of reproduction (e.g. photography and film). Therefore, for the first time in world history, mechanical reproduction emancipated the work of art from its parasitical dependence on ritual. As a result of the destruction of aura the total function of art is reversed and it is extended to ever new positions.

In this sense, Benjamin seeds in us a new kind understanding of the notion of destruction: creative destruction – a term coined by Joseph Schumpeter in his exquisite book titled Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy (1942). It refers to “process of industrial mutation that incessantly revolutionizes the economic structure from within, incessantly destroying the old one, incessantly creating a new one.”

As Hannah Arendt puts it, “the trouble with everything Benjamin wrote was that it always turned out to be sui generis.” But perhaps Benjamin had no interest in being understood since he himself was the destructive character of his own age; that’s how I’d like to interpret it.