Berger is most concerned with the way we confront images in ways and places that are very different from their original homes and explores how this affects their meaning. He instances advertising as well as our collecting habits and, in his television programme at least, investigates how the unsophisticated (children’s) eye interprets an unknown, to them at least, image.
- Do you find his case convincing?
- Do you think that a work of art removed from its original site grows or diminishes in meaning?
- Does familiarity breed contempt?
- Has Benjamin’s aura been removed by the ‘postcard”?
I am so enamoured by Berger’s words that I think it will be hard for me to remain objective. When I first started reading Ways of Seeing I took on board what Berger said, and found some of it extremely interesting, such as how reproduction has changed the status of great art. He explained things which I have been learning about, like how images speak to us, extremely eloquently, I thought, and in particular liked how he questioned the art experts’ habit of making art removed and difficult to understand – unless of course you were schooled in the opaque language used by experts (If you were so schooled you were more than likely to be male, upper-middle class and white especially in the 70s and before that). He refers to “mystification” which explains “away what otherwise might be evident”. Mystification is at best an irksome habit, one that I think is probably more and more considered out of date nowadays, which is good because at worst it maintains class structures, makes people think they aren’t clever enough and prevents them from feeling able to experience culture.
However, the chapter on images of women (Episode 2 of the TV series) summed up my thoughts about women’s position in western society so succinctly, that now I think I could read anything written by Berger and agree without questioning it one jot – so, I’m aware I need to maintain at least a modicum of critical distance. “Referring to the relationship between male “spectator-owners” and “persons treated as objects – usually women”, Berger tells us that this ‘unequal relationship is so deeply embedded in our culture that it still structures the consciousness of many women”. And men I would add. Sometimes men with the loudest rhetoric in defence of feminism can’t help themselves when it comes to making sure their washing is done, cufflinks packed for business trips and attitude towards who should devote most time to caring for the children.
Women are unconsciously complicit in maintaining and upholding these roles not least because the cultural embedding is centuries old, and despite society “coming to consciousness”, observed through several waves of feminism, the structures are nevertheless proving difficult to dismantle and replace. (My experience with divorce lawyers really emphasised for me, the way in which we fall into roles that feel fixed and impossible to avoid or have much influence over. I felt as if men who were part of a monolithic prehistoric system were patting me on the head in order to placate and silence me: “There, there, don’t you worry your pretty little head about it – we’ll take care of it”. The more I tried to express myself the madder I seemed and began to feel.)
Living With the Dominator is a book by, now deceased, ex-parole officer, Pat Craven, who developed a programme to help victims of domestic violence (physical and emotional) as well a re-educate the perpetrators of abuse. She had a high success rate with both victims and abusers. The book looks systematically at several archetypical dominant types chapter by chapter. At the end of each chapter she asks where in society the attitudes that feed abusive behaviour come from. Often images in the media are mentioned; such as how teenage girls’ magazines communicate messages that lead to self-objectification for young women. In the chapter about a type she refers to as King of the Castle she says, “The media reinforces these beliefs by using women to advertise cleaning products…. Women are depicted doing housework in most films or plays or soap operas. Women’s magazines are dedicated to showing us how to clean and cook.” Or when discussing The Headworker, a term to describe a man who thinks of women as so stupid and ineffective, nothing more than a piece of meat to be treated as such, teenage magazines are described as being “entirely devoted to the subject of how to be an attractive piece of meat”.
I don’t mention this book to show off. I mention it because when I read it I recognised the archetypes Craven describes. They were the extremes, outlined in relief, and I am sure people might read about them and think – that’s nothing to do with me. But the truth is that many men and women absorb the attitudes described in the book without realising or questioning it; and in actual fact people engage in a range of behaviours that are categorised within the various archetypes. The extremes Craven describes are at the end of the spectrum. We can all recognise ourselves in these pages and I don’t know a single person who is free from those attitudes entirely – it isn’t possible to be so because its part of our culture. I know strong accomplished women who are earn more than their husbands but feel nervous about buying cutlery or curtains, women in relatively healthy marriages to decent, committed men (as far as one can see) who are frustrated that their own careers and social lives come second, and I lived in a constant state of dread, afraid of treading on egg shells when I was married to a man who simply wouldn’t class as himself as one of those archetypes. And he’d be right. He’s not a cartoon. But society through its images, moving and still, reinforces those relationships between men and women. Berger and Craven (although for different reasons) explore how those attitudes, which we all internalise and inhabit, are transmitted.
The points raised by Berger are vitally important because countless images of nudes for instance are responsible for an ingrained and deep unhappiness in society, especially for women who live as Berger describes, “first and foremost, a sight”. But also for men, who find themselves ‘acting out’ in ways that are unhelpful at best or else deeply destructive and alienating. And I am not exaggerating when I say this dynamic is life-threatening too, as indicated in the statistics pertaining to domestic abuse*, as just one example. I won’t go into it further here because this is meant to be a set of notes for a project, and I’ve already said a far more than I probably should have done. But it is certainly something that still needs so much more deconstructing and pulling apart.
“For the first time ever, images of art have become ephemeral, ubiquitous, insubstantial, available, valueless, free.”
It is amazing to think this was said so many years before the Internet took over our lives. I wonder if Berger could have predicted just how much this sentence might resonate in 2016. I think there are many things that feed into the devaluation of images, digital reproduction being one of them, and not least the secularisation of Western society. But there seems to be two opposing things going on. Whilst modern reproduction methods make it possible to disseminate an image all over the world digitally in seconds, to be seen on millions of screens simultaneously, the value of some art seems to be increasing exponentially. The Wiki list of the most expensive paintings is populated mostly by modern (by that I mean 1800s and later) work but there are Titians and a Da Vinci, along with a Rubens and Rembrandt as well. The prices are extraordinary, $300million dollars being the highest on the list for a Gauguin, sold at the beginning of last year. If it were just paintings, that might make sense in relation to Berger and Benjamin’s essays. But photographic art is selling in millions too.
As Berger points out, in the case of paintings from the Renaissance period, the works’ fiscal value has replaced its original religious status. Instead there is now a ‘bogus religiosity’, which is ‘ultimately dependent on its market value’.
And so the meaning of the painting is altered for these reasons. Whether or not it grows or diminishes in meaning is difficult for me to answer. But I will try. (And do you mean the meaning within the scene? Or the meaning of the object itself, carrying as it does a whole set of transactions along with it?) Even if you were to simply look, like the children in Berger’s TV series did, at a scene depicted, the meaning has to be altered by context. A scene depicting the Virgin Mary will have meant different things to a group of medieaval children who would probably have truly believed that the devil could come to you in the shape of a rat at any point, for instance, compared to a group of children growing up in a London suburb today, who are sophisticated and have a very different relationship with religion. (They also don’t drink beer for breakfast!) I think the question about meaning is tricky.
If I were to consider the St. Francis of Assisi painting I looked at when I was 9 in art class being removed from Assisi where I saw it in the ‘flesh’ over Christmas, I would feel saddened by its fate. That would affect its meaning for me. If I were to imagine having no knowledge of its history, and looking at it away from the church, just on a slab of ancient wall, not knowing anything about religion at all, totally disconnected from culture it may seem impressive, or interesting, or simply a nice picture of an old man chatting (or would I simply assume feeding) some birds. But it’s impossible for me to think about it without also considering its age, its religious connection, the fact that it is still can be seen in such an old building on the original site in Assisi – within a complex of buildings that are filled to the brim with ancient art, buildings still used daily by nuns, monks and church-goers in a country where Catholicism is very much alive; the fact that Assisi is a bit of a tourist trap; all those things contribute to its intrinsic meaning and seem impossible to separate out. For me anyway.
Perhaps if I were better or more experienced at deconstructing a painted scene I would think differently. As it is when I look at it and try to relinquish all the facts that surround its existence…. Nope I can’t do that…. Its age, as I look at it on the computer screen, is the first thing that leaps out at me and makes me go, “Wow! It’s so old!” And that seems to me to be part of its meaning now – in the context of today. I wonder if I would be less potentially saddened by the thought of a painting that isn’t a fresco being ripped out of a building; if it were an oil painting in a frame. So I think I may have chosen a bad example. Now, I consider a painting in a frame in a museum, and it would seem its meaning is potentially exalted by bogus religiosity. Unless it’s the sort of painting that loses its grandeur away from its original setting – I’m sure there must be some that do. The more I try to answer this the less I am able. When paintings do have a high market value, Berger’s mystification surrounds it, especially in the hushed tones of a national museum, and that impacts on its meaning.
Berger says art, due to the ease with which it is reproduced, has lost its authority. (So has religion for that matter, as have adults in relation to children and even the state in relation to citizens, especially here in the West.) And we are asked if familiarity breeds contempt. If I think of society now I have to say I am quite amazed by how little respect there is for anything or anyone. Society seems contemptuous of itself. And people unduly hard and calculating. Lives seem not to matter at all. Maybe that is just my perception post-bad experience. Or maybe it was ever thus.
Berger ends his essay with “A people or class which is cut off from its own past is far less free to choose and to act as a people or class than one that has been able to situate itself in history. That is why – and this is the only reason why – the entire art of the past has now become a political issue.”
Frank Ferudi in Wasted: Why Educating isn’t Educating talks about this same issue but from a different perspective. It boils down to the same thing though. He quotes Cicero, saying he, “understood far more about the relationship between education and personal development than our current curriculum engineers when he stated that, ‘not to know what has been transacted in former times is to continue always as a child’”.
And that I think is where this lack of authority stems from – although there are undoubtedly many positive aspects to come out of the shifts which have occurred. However, a disconnect with our past – be it via art or school education seems unhelpful.
Reproduction is a result of technological advances. A lack of authority for art may be linked to that but I think (for now at any rate) it is only one element within a bigger picture where seismic shifts have been occurring in the way we relate as a society. Notions and acceptance of ‘Authority’ have altered. One result being we all take much longer to grow up suddenly –within the last 50/60 years. It is a manifestation of something more fundamental at the very core of how we exist rather than just relating to art and its changing status – that is a result of the core changes rather than the reason. Technological advances seem to be happening at a faster and faster rate – or is that just me? And the faster they occur, the more tenuous the connection with where we came from seems to be.
However, we are human beings and incredibly clever and resourceful, as everyone knows. So I think we are very good at adapting and, socially, evolve quickly. Despite what I have said so far, I’m not sure how useful it is to make a moral judgement about those changes, even though I find some aspects of life today weird and difficult to come to terms with. Aura and the transmitting of it through art is perhaps one area where I think we have evolved quite dramatically in a short space of time.
Benjamin states that the aura of an old painting cannot be transmitted in a mechanically produced (or reproduced) image. The example he gives is of a mountain and a tree branch – nature. The Chicago School of Media Theory website uses the Sistine Chapel as an example to demonstrate what Benjamin means. The magnificence and presence of the ceiling in the Sistine Chapel simply cannot be communicated in a text- book or art guide. It’s not only about image reproduction; its about history and sense of authenticity so that any form of reproduction (not just image) risks seeming fake, shallow, lacking in depth. The article from the site continues; “A replica of an entire Dutch village has been built in the south of Japan but it is thoroughly without aura: it lacks the tradition of the former, the history of the former, it is ersatz and in this sense inauthentic.”
The essay on the Chicago site helpfully explains that Benjamin didn’t see the demise of aura as necessarily bad, but in the Marxist tradition it enables art to be democratized, made less mystical perhaps by allowing everyone to see details from the Sistine Chapel on postcards, and subsequently, “Aura is an aesthetic experience; but above all, for Benjamin, the liquidation of aura is a kind of political emancipation.” I suppose this is similar to Brecht aiming to dispense with virtuosic, cathartic performance styles in favour of episodic scenes and alienation or ‘verfrumdungseffekt’
However, I question the idea that aura disappears altogether through mechanical reproduction, for lots of reasons but will stick with image reproduction here; although I see very clearly how it would seem so in the 30s and beyond when comparing the grandiosity of a the Sistine Chapel to a photographic postcard of it.
Warhol questioned Benjamin’s thoughts on aura, saying artists will find any means available to communicate. As Warhol suggested, I think we have found ways to overcome mechanical reproduction’s limitations. The Internet and smart phones in particular have changed things entirely in recent years. We more or less transfer a good proportion of ourselves into our smart phones and I thought so the minute I first got one and saw all these apps, representing many of my interests and practical needs all collected on the screen.
There is a clear example of aura, as described by Benjamin, being transmitted in work described by a fellow OCA student, Holly Woodward, recently; work I personally feel somewhat ambivalent about, but nevertheless, it certainly transmits a level of aura that I think contradicts Benjamin’s thesis that mechanical reproduction is unable to conjure it up. Amelia Ulman’s Instagram project Excellences and Perfections, primarily viewed on a smart phone, was a conceived, constructed and planned set of images that made it look like she had “succumbed to the narcissism of social media”. Only, she hadn’t; it was a trick and she had fooled all her followers as well as potential art dealers, gallery owners and the rest of the art world where she had already begun to make a name for herself as an artist worth considering. She had been playing a role like any actor might. Except for the fact that actors tend to play their roles within the confines of a set of conventions, where the audience are given the choice to choose to actively ‘suspend their beliefs’ for the duration of the performance. Despite the fact that the subjects explored by Ulman, i.e. our relationship with female vanity, objectification, the power of the internet, are all absolutely up my street in terms of interest, I have a great deal of difficulty accepting her methods. But as Sook in his article says, she is the “toast of the art world”. (I do hate modern journalistic rhetoric – we are bombarded with superlatives and it all becomes meaningless!) Anyway, I think there is a great deal of the artist’s aura, or in Benjamin’s terms, the aura of the work emanating from this series of images. Whether it will be long lasting in the same way as the godlike, Catholic sponsored, bricks and mortar Sistine Chapel is the question…
I go back to Berger’s prescient statement “For the first time ever, images of art have become ephemeral, ubiquitous, insubstantial, available, valueless, free.” It still has aura but the aura may well be summed up in these words and I wonder where that takes us.
(c)Image SJField 2015 Photograph of a child looking at a photographic work of art, After Birth by Rineke Dijkstra 1994, at the Tate Modern.
*Shortly after publishing this I read an article about domestic abuse and a new programme to tackle it. It seemed `extremely apposite so am including the link here.
 Page 16, Ways of Seeing, John Berger, BBC Books 1972
 69% Kindle edition, Living with the Dominator, Pat Craven, Freedom Publishing, 2010
 44% Kindle edition, Living with the Dominator, Pat Craven, Freedom Publishing 2010
 Page 51, Ways of Seeing, John Berger, BBC Books, 1972
 Page 32, Ways of Seeing, John Berger, BBC Books, 1972
 Page 22, Ways of Seeing, John Berger, BBC Books 1972
 Page 22, Ways of Seeing, John Berger, BBC Books 1972
 Wasted, Frank Ferudi, Continuum, 2009
 Edited out
 Page 176, Wasted, Frank Ferudi, Continuum, 2009
 In the Ego Trick by Julian Baggini, he suggests that he, “actually remember(s) things by virtue of this information being in the iPhone, it is part of my memory. So the extended mind-thesis basically suggests that the iPhone isn’t just a tool for my cognition, it’s part of my cognition.” 78%, Kindle Edition, The Ego Trick, Julian Baggini, Granta Books, 2011
 As above