Annotation: About Looking

This is the second book I’ve read by John Berger this semester. The first, Ways of Seeing, was excellent, cogent, and topical, all without being too over-intellectual or stuffy. With that in mind, it seemed like an excellent idea to pick up another of his books, to continue to the authorial conversation. Unsure which to pick (he has several collections of essays), I selected somewhat randomly, and ended up with About Looking, which proved to be likewise cogently written, but not as consistently so, and certainly with a more academic vocabulary (this is not a good thing). There were a variety of excellent points and ideas brought up in the course of the book, but it really failed to make as significant an impact as his previous work.

I think that perhaps the reason the book doesn’t work as well for me is how it was collected. The essays are in no apparent order (neither subject nor date seem to have any influence), other than — and this may be my own perception — the longest essays are in the front, and the shorter, more cogent essays are in the back. He opens with a 28 page essay about how the perception of animals has changed in society, and the man-animal relationship has changed as well. He made some excellent points in it, in particular concerning the role of zoos in our urban society, as well as the social misperception of zoos. A zoo is a place to see what animals look like, not to see and be seen by animals. Of course, all his excellent points could have been said in half the space if he stopped beating around the bush for so much of the essay. It felt (and this sentiment extends to a lot of the essays) like he knew he had something he wanted to talk about, but wasn’t sure how to say it, and the essay is his process to get it out.

The rest of the book is a bit more directly topical, and the collection is loosely broken down into “Uses of Photography” and “Moments Lived”. The photography section I suppose is fairly clear, but what exactly does “Moments Lived” mean as a subject title? Apparently, it means “new takes on the motivations of artists,” if the actual content is any indication. I’ll get to it more in depth in a moment, but first, the photography section.

Technically speaking, these were four separate essays, written over the course of a decade (1968 to 1978), though not necessarily in chronological order. Subjectively speaking, it read like one long, rambling essay. As a photographer, I was a little taken aback by his somewhat antiquated views of photography. He talked at length about how they serve as a method to capture a moment in time, as a supplement (and sometimes replacement) to memory, unlike traditional painting. He is entitled to opinion, of course, but I am also allowed to completely disagree with compartmentalizing photography like that. The “capturing of memories” is a minor part of photography (though I will admit, it IS a pretty significant portion of the popular sentiment about photography). Photography can also be used as a very potent tool in creating abstract imagery, as well as creating a range of emotions that can be every bit as distinct and strong as a painting. As much as Berger was trying to tout the values of photography, I think in the end, he ended up doing it a disservice, which is unfortunate.

The majority of the book fell under the “Moments Lived” section, and was in my opinion the strongest writing in the book. in each essay, it was clear the author knew what he was talking about, and really brought some interesting insight into various works of art (mostly paintings, but some sculptural work as well). In particular, I really appreciated his juxtaposition of Francis Bacon and Walt Disney, with one taking a pessimistic conclusion and one taking an optimistic conclusion, both from the same underlying concept and intent. Also worth noting was a recurring topic between several essays on how birthplace influenced the art of several artists, both in subject matter as well as style. For instance, Courbet was born in the foothills of the Jura mountains in France. The most direct and obvious tie to this area is his predominant use of minimal horizon (very little sky is shown in the majority of his work), which directly relates to the towering mountains blotting out most of the horizon when he was growing up. Another example would be Fasanella’s cityscapes (in particular of Manhattan). They succeed in capturing the sentiment of finding privacy while simultaneously being on display that many other artists fail to capture, because quite simply, they’ve never truly lived in that fashion.

My favorite essay is the one he closed with, entitled “Field”. It had nothing to do with any artist, and most precisely captured the sentiment of the section title. The essay describes a simple, uncultivated field that sits amidst the trees near a set of train tracks that he has to pass on his way home from work. Occasionally, he has to wait for a train on the tracks, and when doing so, looks over and sees the meadow between the trees, a short distance away. He watches two birds playing, or butterflies doing what butterflies do, or a cat stalking some invisible prey, or any of a variety of simple things happening in the meadow, and feels as enriched and rewarded by it as he feels about any work of art.

The latter half of the essay completely misses the point, however, and relegates this sublime moment to a set of rules that must be applied for any sort of effect, which he partially uses as an excuse to not actually visit the field, lest the feeling be destroyed. After such a strong start, too. The first half of the essay struck a very strong chord with me, as it managed to at least partially describe a sentiment that I am constantly trying to explain. Walking around on the half-snow half-mud in Vermont in late March/early April, where the world is just starting to wake up again, and you can hear the trickle of a stream still partially obscured by ice in the distance. Wind playing with leaves on an empty street at dusk, where the lights are just starting to come on, but it’s still light out anyway, and there is a crisp, real taste to the air. Sitting in the grass in the shade of some trees, looking up through a gap in the branches and watching the clouds float by, while butterflies flutter nearby. Standing in the woods after a snowstorm, in that brief “warm” spell that sometimes follows snowstorms in New England, and listening to the snow drop off the overladen branches.

It’s experiences and sentiments like these that fill me with an enormous sense of personal peace and well-being, and I try to be receptive (not vigilant… that would defeat the point) to these moments whenever I can.

Despite its faults, I still feel this was a pretty good collection of essays, and I’m glad I read them. I would probably suggest this book to people who enjoy art essays (whether for school or personal enjoyment), but at the same time, I would probably also suggest AD Coleman’s Critical Focus as a counterpoint and companion to this book. Between the two authors, I think a really great creative sentiment can be painted.

Annotation: Ways of Seeing

Originally published in 1972 as a companion follow-up to his BBC television series, John Berger’s Ways of Seeing is a remarkable and interesting book from start to finish. Even the cover is nontraditional, ignoring the standard need for a cover separate from the rest of the book. Instead, they simply took an excerpt from the book, and used that as the cover. This establishes the sort of book this is from the very get-go: challenging the current deified, over-intellectualized view of art in modern society.

Standards are meant to be a groundwork, a starting point to grow from. They are not meant to be a constraint, a restriction as to the only “proper” methodology, but that is exactly what they have become. To fall back to an art medium I’m more familiar with, in photography one of the most commonly referenced “standards” or “laws” is the law of thirds, which is a guideline for composing your image. There are plenty of reasons to use this guideline, not the least of which is our natural predisposition to “sacred geometry” which a thirds-based image tends to satisfy. That said, photographers can end up trapped by this law, and become incapable of doing anything but this. They become chained to it, and often become incapable of appreciating any image that deviates from it. It is not until these deviations, these abnormalities become accepted by the artistic elite that they become accepted as a worthwhile technique. This has been my sentiment for quite some time, and I found Berger’s essays on this subject both cogent and topical. In particular, I found the statistics provided by Pierre Bourdieu and Alain Darbel on public perceptions of museums and art particularly interesting, as well as his discussion of the historical causes of this shift.

Interestingly, some art students argue that this shift never took place, and that this was always the nature of art. These are also the same art students that declare that “art is dead” so ardently, which I personally feel is the cliché battle cry of those who are afraid to contribute to it. Once again falling back to photography, I can pretty safely argue that this shift from art for art’s sake and as a commercial entity into the deified realm restricted only to the social elite is entirely within the realm of possibility, and with historical context as referenced by Berger, seems a virtual certainty. I have been witnessing the same progression in the field of photography for most of my life, and have discussed the topic with others who have been in the field for well over 40 years. With the advent of inexpensive scanners and printers, it is easier than ever before to accurately reproduce a photographic work, with or without the consent of the photographer. This has forced professional photographers to undergo a shift of their own: they must either shift into charging for their time and creativity rather than on a per-print basis, or face financial extinction through individuals purchasing a single print and duplicating it themselves. In order for this shift to work, however, there must also be a cultural shift in mindset to view hiring a photographer as a service, not as a product: you are purchasing the photographer’s creativity, not the print. This is, in my mind, incredibly similar to the cultural shift that painters underwent when lithographs and other methods to reproduce their art became available. The artists needed a way to justify their profession, and the social elite needed a way to continue to separate themselves from the masses, hence the shift to the importance of having an “original”, and to have the name of artist mean nearly as much (or more) as the painting itself.

I think I may have talked myself into a corner here, so allow me to clarify what I mean: the art community was forced into a paradigm shift in order to survive. This is pragmatic and understandable. While it is unfortunate, I do not consider this shift necessarily a bad thing. What I do consider bad is the way the social elite took this shift and bent it towards their own purposes — namely in further stratifying themselves from the rest of society.

As you can probably guess, the first essay in Ways of Seeing really struck a chord. I’ll let it rest for now, and instead move on to the rest of the book, which decidedly also merits discussion. His second essay, which was a montage of images gathered to form a visual essay was interesting. I found it directly relevant to one of his later essays on depictions of women in art, and I found both essays to be significantly less heavy-handed and accusatory than other essays and articles I’ve read about the topic. (While the objectification of women is a damnable thing, taking an accusatory, hateful tone about it is quite possibly even less effective or useful than simply doing nothing. Demanding reparations does nothing more than encourage resentment.) In particular, the use of female sexuality in commercial art is really rather directly pointed out, and the distinctions he makes between being naked, and being nude, and it explains my own personal choice to prefer the direct earnestness and honesty of an image of someone who is naked versus a picture of a nude. That is not to say that nudes don’t have their own place, and the objectification of the human form (male or female) can be used towards great effect as a method of artistic abstraction, much in the same way that a building can be made a thing of abstract shape and form through perspective, becoming something that is no longer a building (or in the case of nudes, a person). But as far as portraits, or human expression is concerned, I would far prefer to see someone naked because that is the most primitive, honest expression of themselves, than to see someone posed and nude because someone else wishes it.

I’m going to skip over the essay on the nature of art as a method of proving your possession of something else (a ship, a piece of land, a prize animal, a spouse or child, et cetera), because I feel like I’ve already addressed this in my discussion of the first essay, and go on directly to the essay on the use of art in advertising. This brought up some interesting points both in favor and against the ways art is used to sell things other than art, as well as how “corporate art” can still be considered art. Here’s my take on it, after reading his essay: of course it’s still art, and of course the social elite brand it as “selling out”. Use of art in advertising brings art to the masses, countering the whole push to keep art as a tool of social stratification. Whether it is through direct use, or through emulation of a classic piece of art, it allows the masses to have access to works that they might otherwise never see, and never appreciate or be enriched by. There was significantly more use of art in advertising and publicity in the 60s, 70s, and 80s, at which point there was a backlash, when the notion of use of art in advertising was a form of selling out and devalued the merit of the art really gained enough momentum to be noticeable. By the late 90s to now, there has been significantly less use (though it still does happen), and I can’t help but feel that this is part of the over-intellectual stratification, an attempt to retake art as solely the purview of the elite. Looking through the images included in the essay, while dated in composition, it is obvious just how much more direct influence prior art had on advertising compared to modern day.

Frankly, I blame the academic institution at large. While there are always exceptions, I find it remarkable and frightening how many schools of “art” I have seen that do nothing more than churn out more embittered, brainwashed pseudo-intellectuals that serve to do nothing more than maintain an entirely unnecessary stratification fostered by their professors (who themselves have been ensnared in this mindset). They obscure this stratification by hiding behind muddy definitions-through-lack-of-definitions of art, trapping their students in the circle of asking “what is art?” Well, here is a definition: art is a method of expression. That is my definition, and as far as I’m concerned, that’s all a definition it needs. That, of course, is not acceptable to those who wish to deify art, because that definition intrinsically makes it accessible to anyone who wishes to express themselves. It returns art to the masses.

Mind you, I am not making a distinction between “good” art and “bad” art. That is a largely subjective arena, and can really only objectively be discussed on the merits of particular techniques, and subjectively on whether you (the individual) like it or not. Really, whether art is good or bad does not matter to the larger definition of art itself — the artist either expresses themselves well, or they don’t. They either have good technique, or they don’t. (I am well aware that nothing is truly binary, which is why I generally place things in three categories, things I like, things I don’t like, and things that I may not like but respect. But for the sake of the discussion, I’m keeping it generalized.)

John Berger has certainly raised some very interesting subjects, in a coherent fashion that are still just as relevant today as it was when it was written 30 years ago. I would gladly recommend this to anyone interested in art (and in fact already have). Considering just how topical this book remains, it really serves to prove just how hard it is to break through the established mindset. I can only hope that at some point, it ceases to be topical, and instead becomes historical.

Berger, John. Ways of Seeing. New York: Penguin Publishing, 1973.