I wish I’d found time to read this book during Understanding Western Art, particularly when researching the female nude (see 6-June-2014). Perhaps it’s just as well, given he works to debunk and demystify a portion of what I was trying to learn.
Berger’s book shows its age. First published in 1972 and based on a four part BBC television series the same year, some of the ideas being so earnestly pushed at us now seem commonplace, obvious (like Shakespeare, just stringing together everyday sayings???). I’ve now watched the first three episodes on youtube, and the styling is very dated.
That might seem petty, but I think it’s very much to the point. Berger looks at oil paintings from around 1500 to 1880 (he stops around Manet), and exposes the assumptions and attitudes behind them. In 2014 in Australia I look at the English book and film from 1972, and the assumptions and attitudes of the surrounding cultures are different. I can’t “innocently” read his book without my own life experiences crowding in.
I think it’s pretty standard now to have a cynical attitude to the images in advertising, to the aspirational life so close if only we buy product x, y or z. The money side of the art world is all too clear – as it happens a work by Manet sold for US$65 million this week (http://www.bbc.com/news/entertainment-arts-29930481). I struggled a bit with cynicism about the art machine in my post about Discobolus, with a comparison thrown in to Young British Artists (see 23-May-2014). It could be that my own cynicism is so embedded that I can’t even see it – my tutor warned me about showing too much about Minimalism in my final review. I not only didn’t intend it, I can’t even find the words that would trigger his remark. Returning to images in advertising, I suspect that very few people have an entirely effective shell of cynicism. The advertising keeps growing so I guess it keeps working (or they’ll try something “new” until it does work). So it doesn’t hurt to have a reminder.
Berger’s comments about the impact of reproductions on the impact of original oil paintings and their aura did not work at all for me. Yes, provenence is treated seriously and there is a lot of allure and mystery about the personal touch of the master. I think to an extent attitudes have moved in the past 40 years. An earlier post about Rembrandt at the National Gallery of Victoria is relevant (see 13-Sept-2013). A painting hung on the gallery walls for fifty years, a star attraction as a self-portrait, before the attribution was revised in 1984 to “Unknown”, and subsequently revised again to “studio of”. The theoretical monetary value changed, but the painting is still hanging upstairs, not in a basement. Reproductions, and especially all the material on the internet, have changed the role of museums and galleries (see The shift in the role of museums following the mass-reproduction of images of artworks by Gil Dekel). For all that for me the huge flaw in the argument is that the reproduction is never the same. It doesn’t provide the same experience – not because of some elusive aura but because no reproduction I’ve ever seen has come close the real object. Scale is missing, the reflection of light, shadows, depth of colour, detail, the ability to move around, fowards and backwards. I want to see the original because no reproduction actually physically reproduces it.
The depiction of women was one area where for me most of Berger’s comments still resonated. I don’t think women still see themselves as passive, surveying themselves continually, constantly aware of how they are seen. Well, I don’t accept the passive aspect, and as for awareness of presentation and how one is perceived, I would say it is just as much an issue for men. Our appearance is one way in which we express ourselves, show ourselves to others. As for the female nude in art history, yes, many of them were painted for the gaze and ownership of men. Assumptions and attitudes have changed. I am lucky because I too am now able to see beautiful paintings, and if I was asked and wanted to I could pose for a painting and it would be my choice, not some other’s demand.
Overall an interesting and stimulating read. It sounds like a joke, but the worst thing about the book was the reproductions – super low quality black and white.
Berger, J. (1972) Ways of Seeing London: British Broadcasting Corporation and Penguin Books
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Reading: John Berger Ways of Seeing