"Ways of Seeing,” by David Berger, 1972
This classic on art was written by Berger, a Marxist who died in 2016. It is inspired by Walter Benjamin and a bit by Levi-Strauss. The book came out of a video series on BBC. It combines text with black and white pictures of older paintings between the Renaissance and up to Impressionism, with some chapters made up of only pictures. As Berger points out, the eye came before the word.
As you might expect when a Marxist looks at art, the impression is far different than the standard formalist criticism of a bourgeois art critic. Berger’s essay hits on things you might have thought during your last gallery visit or non-visit, but ones which you never clearly formulated as legitimate ideas.
For instance, Berger looks at a picture by Frans Hals, an aged, penniless and almost homeless painter, doing portraits of the ruling burghers of Haarlem, Holland. The rich people portrayed are somewhat ugly, drunk or creepy. However, the bourgeois art critic only discusses the ‘play of light and shadow,’ not the possible class hostility the painter might have felt. Berger looks at the plethora of paintings of things – still lifes or land holdings for instance – which actually parade the ownership of these things. In the past, the elite had walls covered with oil paintings, by this method attempting to absorb the things in the images into their literal woodwork.
Berger discusses the invention of the camera and art reproductions, and how they change and subvert the nature of oil-painted originals. Timelessness disappeared because of them. Berger looks at advertising (which he somehow calls ‘publicity’) and illustrates how it tries to borrow from classic art to give itself some inherent quality, which it absolutely lacks. Berger has a chart which shows that the majority of people think present art museums most closely resemble churches, and second, libraries - which should explain why they are sometimes depopulated. Berger has another that shows the more education you have, except in Holland, the more you visit art museums - showing the class nature of art museums. He slyly describes how the words in the explanation next to a painting change the painting. Berger feels that the lowly landscape painters actually led the way in technical improvements in oil painting.
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Pornography or the ‘pin-up’ - the woman as beautiful object - definitely originated from oil painting. Berger describes two kinds of oil paintings of nakedness. The first being the most common: the nude – the object woman, where male desire becomes fantasy. The second is more rare, the naked - the real woman, where the woman remains herself. Countless nudes dot the museums of Europe and the U.S., with virtually no comment.
Here are some of the more leftist quotes from Berger:
- Art critics I: “A privileged minority is retrospectively inventing a history to justify the role of the ruling classes.”
- Museums I: “The work of art is enveloped in an atmosphere of entirely bogus religiosity.”
- The art market: “The market price is said to be a reflection of its spiritual value.”
- Sophisticated culture experts and painting catalogues: “They are declared art when their line of descent can be certified.”
- The promotion of old art: “…makes art seem noble and hierarchies seem thrilling.”
- Art critics II: “Clerks of the nostalgia of a ruling class in decline.”
- Old art: “The art of the past no longer exists as it once did, its authority is lost.” This thought might occur to you upon seeing your 200th Italian Madonna and child.
- Oil painting I: “Oil painting did to appearances what capitalism did to social relations… It reduced everything to the equality of objects.”
- Museums II: “Visitors to art museums are often overwhelmed by the number of works on display…such a reaction is altogether reasonable.” Berger points out that everything is jumbled together on purpose.
- Portraits: “…equality must be made inconceivable.” The formality of a portrait creates a distance based on class.
- Gold leaf in paint or on frames: Exactly.
- Classic paintings: “…a certain moral value was ascribed to the study of the classics.”
- “Genre” pictures: Berger points out that the 'low-lifes' in most of these hack pictures always look happy.
- Marxists: “We are accused of being obsessed by property. The truth is the other way around. It is the society and culture in question which is so obsessed.”
- Advertising I: It functioned during the cold war as the ‘visible sign of the ‘Free’ World.”
- Oil painting II: “Oil painting, before it was anything else, was a celebration of private property.”
- Advertising II: “Glamour cannot exist without personal social envy being a common and widespread emotion.”
- Advertising III: “The working self envies the consuming self.”
- Advertising IV: A paraphrase: The hope to acquire becomes the lone satisfaction under the culture of capitalism.
If you realize the present art world is pricey, constipated and barely living, you might like this book.
Other books or commentaries on art reviewed below: “9.5 Thesis on Art,” “All Art is Propaganda,” “Art is Dead,” “Desert of Forbidden Art,” “Women in Soviet Art.”
February 17, 2017