This is an interesting little book. At first I thought is it a bit dated, in for example, it’s view of the depiction of women in art and haven’t things moved on since the 1970s when it was written? But the more I thought about the wave of news stories over the last year perhaps things have not changed as much as you initially think or hope.
The first chapter introduces the notion that our view of art is affected by what we know, what we believe, the text next to the art work and the context/environment in which we are viewing the art. It also states that the introduction of perspective into Western Art enabled the viewer to be at the centre of the image/visual world. However, this changed with the introduction of photography (in particular the moving image), as the fixed central viewpoint became less relevant and this was reflected in painting e.g. the Cubists. Berger goes on to state that reproduction of a work of art both multiples and fragments the meaning of the original, by for example, isolating a section of the original; and, as the viewer becomes increasing familiar with reproduction it reaches a point where the original becomes the ‘original of the reproduction we have already seen’.
Berger goes onto look at the place arts plays in wider society. Art was originally talked about in terms of its spiritual value and then later it became impressive in terms of its market value. This ‘bogus religiosity’ is a consequence of what was lost when reproduction began. Berger goes on to look at the social and political consequences of this as he states that reproductions helped to boaster the view that nothing has changed and inequalities seem noble and hierarchies thrilling. Indeed, National Heritage explores the authority of art to glorify the present social system and its priorities. Of course, in the modern world it is advertising, TV, movies, etc that takes on this role – the language of images rather than art. What really matters according to Berger is who uses that language and for what purpose.
This did make me think about my own art. Whilst I am at the early stages in my degree pathway and am mainly making images to demonstrate my technique, already in my still-life unit I choose images in relation to the environment and climate change to demonstrate my ‘political’ viewpoint on the subject. When attending exhibitions I do read the accompanying text – should I avoid this voice of the curator and just look at the art works and form my own reaction, or just by being aware of the influence the text can have, is this enough?
The third chapter looks at the Nude in art. Berger proposes that the male presence (real or pretend) is based on a promise of power (which can be large or small dependant on the subject) exercised on others. The female presence however is based on her attitude to self and defines what can/cannot be done to her. In European paintings of the nude the principal protagonist is the never painted – he is the viewer and presumed to be male. The object of the viewer (and painter) is the owner therefore of the female depicted.
This makes me more aware that when making my art I have to consider the viewer and how I depict the subject matter. In this current unit (Unit 4) I attend life classes with predominately female nude models. Am I continuing the ‘tradition’ of placing the female in a position of servitude whilst I as the painter am the owner and in a position of power? How can I make my drawings depict the nude so that the power is shared equally or transferred back to the model? Perhaps one way to shift the power balance and break the tradition is to draw the nude model as gender neutral? Something for me to consider further.
Berger then goes onto examine why we buy or possess a painting and states that we buy the look of the thing it represents. He links this particularly to the rise in oil painting where the medium is able to ‘render the tangibility, the texture, the lustre, the solidity of what it depicts’. It is able to create the illusion of reality. Painting are brought to depict what money could buy and the position (real or perceived) of the owner in the world. This is best illustrated by the still-life genre which in its golden age was used to display and confirm to others the wealth of the owner.
In the final part of the book Berger looks at the language of images and in particular, publicity. He proposes that publicity is used to persuade us to change our lives by showing the transformation a particular product can effect. It creates an illusion of glamour for those who cannot afford not to be glamorous; in effect publicity creates a felling of envy for a way of life that in theory can be obtained by all but in reality is only open to a few. He asserts that the model in a publicity colour photograph has replaced the goddess in the oil painting tradition. However, in the oil painting tradition the image was of what the owner already possessed, whereas, the publicity photograph is of what we aspire to have (if we had the money) – Consumerism. He goes on to state that publicity is not only about imagination but is also a philosophical system – news ‘publicity’ is about what happens out there, publicity is about what is meant to happen to us.
Whilst I can see the validity of the arguments Berger presents in the book, one thing that did keep coming back into my mind was that he seemed to have chosen to validate his arguments by only really considering the oil painting tradition and almost ignoring artists whose work challenged this tradition – Duchamp, Rauschenberg, etc. Despite this many of his arguments are as valid now as when this book was written – mass consumerism, the male/female social hierarchy, etc.
Berger, J. (2008). Ways of seeing. London: British Broadcasting Corporation and Penguin Books.