In an attempt to save Benjamin from being eclipsed by the very cultural theories and media studies he pioneered, The Arcades: Contemporary Art and Walter Benjamin at The Jewish Museum situates his thought in relation to current — and largely American — photography, painting, film, and sculpture, as well as appropriated texts collaged into bewildering typographic arrangements by Kenneth Goldsmith.
Each gallery room is devoted to a given section – what Benjamin called a “convolute” — in his thousand-plus page tome Das Passagen-Werk (1982), known in English translation as The Arcades Project (Belknap/Harvard 1999), a speculative dive into modernity through Paris’s 19th-century shopping arcades. Lobbing a history lesson into a multimedia funhouse, this uneven yet colorful and busy exhibition provides the prospective reader of the byzantine Arcades Project with timelines of the author’s life, as well as explicatory wall charts, print photographs, and reproductions of handwritten manuscripts, lists, journals and other keepsakes. It turns out that Benjamin’s road to TheArcades Project was a long and winding one.
In the streets of Paris, Benjamin earned a living as a journalist while hunting out concrete examples on which to field test and then synthesize cutting-edge social theories. Encouraged by fellow German expatriate author Franz Hessel, he learned how to wander Paris with a voyeuristic curiosity modeled on that of the flaneur — a detached, attentive spectator who believed in the “religious intoxication of great cities” — who passed through every line of Charles Baudelaire’s poetry, especially the groundbreaking volume Les Fleurs du Mal (1857).
Through voracious reading of French literature, Benjamin traced how Baudelaire’s flaneur, a nonconformist and “illuminati,” whom the poet himself found in Edgar Allen Poe’s story “The Man of the Crowd” (1854), was reinvented by Surrealist novels like Louis Aragon’s Paris Peasant, Andre Breton’s Nadja (1928), and in the sensory shocks registered by the meandering narrator in Marcel Proust’s introspective epic In Search of Lost Time (1913-1927).