No Room in Frame: John Berger's Ways of Seeing and its Relevance in the Modern Age
Individual satisfaction of the modern age has more or less become the fulfilment of both naturally derived and artificially manufactured desires. Complicated by the development of societal norms and motivated by the inclusion of wealth and achievement in the arbitrary measurement of one’s value, humanity continually struggles to find meaning in this in-between period from birth to death we call life. From early cave paintings depicting humanity at its most naked, to the works of the 19th century Impressionists emphasizing the moving dynamism in life, fascination with capturing the verisimilitude and essence of the world have influenced the peculiar way that humanity sees both into and beyond itself. Each new art movement reflects upon the its own respective cultural shift towards or away a particular emphasis on a quality of life and although often criticized for its controversy or obscurity, art remains a definitive part of the human experience, its multiplicities revealing the innumerable experiences that humankind has and will face.
Before the invention of photography or videography, there were very few methods in which ideas and experiences of life could be recorded or captured. The inability to express seeing something that transcends the power of language revealed to be problematic time and time again as humanity developed intensities of emotion too profound to simply call “joy” or “sorrow”. In the introduction of Ways of Seeing, John Berger writes that “it is seeing which establishes our place in the surrounding world; we explain that world with words, but words can never undo the fact that we are surrounded by it” (pg.1) and in many ways, seeing acts to both enhance and obscure knowledge and understanding. While it can be easy to recognize the likeness of portraiture, landscape, or still-life, there is no absolute meaning to any of the names given to an object, place, or thing. The relativity of what we call what we see is largely influenced by our own personal experiences or observations and further supported by the cultivation of a commonly agreed definition.
Developed from this unopposed agreement is the assumption that language and reality share an organic relationship and that the names of things arise from the innate nature of the thing itself. However, the relationship between a thing and what we call a thing is an artificial and totally arbitrary imposition that continues to reinforce itself through the way humanity thinks and talks about images. Indeed, the way humanity associates language and imagery manifests itself in a static form which, although can be unique to individual knowledge, can never quite change in the gravity of how we understand things. Unlike language, however, “vision is continually active, continually moving, continually holding things in a circle around itself, constituting what is present to us as we are” (pg. 9). Rather than a passive acceptance of an intuitive meaning of language, vision and more specifically, image, demand interpretation and even a certain defiance against the authority of language itself. Especially demonstrated in Surrealist movement of the 1920’s, artists chose to explore the boundaries of reality and dreams in attempt to escape limits posed by linguistic encapsulation.
In René Margritte’s The Treachery of Images (1928-1929), Margritte paints a representation of a pipe and adds a caption in cursive stating “ceci n'est pas une pipe”, or “this is not a pipe”. Confronting the disagreement between caption and image can be obvious and perhaps even instinctual. In a culture of art that demands thoughtful inquisition and reflection but also arbitrarily values the verisimilitude of the work in question, a simplified work that enriches the shape or colour beyond realistic replication or an obvious contradiction between caption and subject is oftentimes dismissed for its lack of classicism or sentimental value. Magritte forces the viewer to confront the dependence upon imagery and language when he both paints a representation of a pipe but also urges the viewer to not consider the image as a pipe.
The medium of The Treachery of Images also betrays the viewer’s intuition. Using oil paint on canvas, Magritte further perpetuates the contradiction between reality and representation. In Ways of Seeing, Berger writes that “what distinguishes oil painting from any other form of painting is its special ability to render the tangibility, the texture, the lustre, the solidity of what it depicts. It defines the real as that which you can put your hands on.” (pg. 88) Unlike other artistic movements of European art, Surrealism uses the manipulation of form, shape, and colour to melt reality into different dimensions of what can be real and what can be realized. Berger argues that oil painting takes on a liveliness of its own when used to represent something because of it’s tactile quality of portraying a richness and depth to the image. Magritte uses oil painting to bring the fictional, simplified representation of a pipe into reality. In doing so, Magritte forces us to confront the reality that the representation of the pipe is not truly the object of the pipe. By forcing viewers to examine the confrontation between intrinsic and imposed meaning, Magritte expresses that any other form in the physical reality would be rendered useless when attempting to understand what the object actually is because of the treachery and contradictory reliability of images and their visual dependency on language.
Continuing to examine the oil paint as a medium, Berger examines various oil painting works and their specific ability to act as an illusion of value, giving a scene substance “yet, behind the substantiality, empty, facilitates the ‘wearing’ of it.” (pg. 102) The familiarity and realistic depth that is created in a work of substantiality, like oil paint, encourages recognition in the emotion behind it. However, when purposefully constructed and contextualized by an artist who has used his or her own bias to develop the image, viewers are aware of the artificial quality of the art and therefore, its disingenuously manufactured nature.
Contrived physicality is further emphasized by the imposition of oil painting onto mythological or supernatural scenes. In The Persistence of Memory (1931) by Salvador Dalì, the experience of visualization that relies on individual experience for contextualization becomes a manipulation of the valuation and quantification of transcendental visual experiences. Creating a meticulous reproduction of one of his dreams, Dalì confuses and discredits the boundaries of reality, ultimately fulfilling his own fantasy and desire to recreate an unique and entirely individual experience. According to Berger, there is little difference between the fulfilment of fantasy for the artist and the fulfillment of viewership for the audience. The value of art is ordained by an almost holy sanction of viewership, developed by an unconscious agreement between viewer and object that derives itself from the feelings and emotions that the work reveals as it becomes “not so much a framed window open on to the world as a safe let into a the wall, a sea in which the visible has been deposited.” (pg. 88)
Full immersion into the world of the visible, however, is impossible. Distance between the viewer and the object is necessary for art to remain an artifice of holy potential rather than just another object but by separating art from it’s audience, art loses grasp on the reality of itself. It is this artificial, curated valuation of art that reinforces the distancing effect of art itself. Berger explains the artificiality as “deep within its own terms of seeing, because the subject has to be seen simultaneously from close-to and from afar.” (pg. 97) Not only is the viewer distanced from the physical boundaries imposed by museums or lenses or frames but the viewer is also distanced by the spirituality of art itself. This culture in which art establishes itself and contextualizes its own meaning through the expectations and assumptions of others is what Berger deems the bogus religiosity of art. Berger writes the “if the image is no longer unique and exclusive, the art object, the thing, must be made mysteriously so.” (pg.23)
Confrontation between image and representation is further aggravated by the reproduction of art within photography and film. In John Hughes’ 1986 film “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”, the three main characters of the film go into a museum and look at severalpaintings. Surrounded by individual pieces of art that have their own meanings and significances, the three characters stand bewildered, confused and unsure of what exactly to feel. Panning into their stares, blank in contemplation, the camera allows the audience to experience the same emptiness that the characters seem to feel while exposed to the unanchored interpretation of a void of art. Hughes’ choice in showing the characters in relation to the works of art themselves in quick cuts makes the audience aware of the reproducibility of the images while simultaneously not allowing the audience to see the paintings without obstruction, not allowing the sight of the entire image. In this way, the audience experiences a type of voyeurism that is derived from art that Berger argues has become “ephemeral, ubiquitous, insubstantial, available, valueless, free.” (pg. 32) The intrinsic value of a work of art that has been reproduced and repurposed to set a different contextual meaning for something greater is lost.
Without considering art as a singular experience, the appraisal of art “surrounds us in the same way as a language surrounds us… [Entering] the mainstream of life over which they no longer, in themselves, have power.” (pg.32) Without holding art to a certain esteem or significance, it becomes lost like language in translation. Berger knows that the individual viewer “lives in the contradiction between what he is and what he would like to be” (pg. 148) and by stressing the cultural importance of self-reflection, emphasizes the need for an artificial religiosity of art. Ultimately, self-reflection is the recognizability of meaning within a work of art through introspection. Rather than appraising a work of art for its monetary significance or its originality, viewers should be captivated in the beholding of that which is represented. While art creates representations that have proved to be valuable and important to the understanding of human endeavour in both life and death, at some point of another, to experience something first hand and to truly understand it, you just had to be there.
Berger, John. Ways of Seeing. London: British Broadcasting Corporation and Penguin, 2008. Print.
Images Used In Order of Presentation:
Magritte, René. The False Image. 1928. Oil paint. Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY.
Magritte, René. The Treachery of Images. 1928-1929. Oil paint. Los Angeles County Museum of Art . Los Angeles, CA.
Dalì, Salvador. The Persistence of Memory. 1931. Oil paint. Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY.
Ferris Bueller's Day Off. Dir. John Hughes. Paramount Pictures, 1986. Film
*Republished from an ArtsOne 2016 paper that really didn't get a great grade but I thought it was, by far, one of my better papers.