In which way do we see art? What’s the allure of the original piece of art? Why is art difficult? The late John Berger asked himself these very questions in the 70’s. If we are able to find it out, we will also discover something about ourselves and the situation we are living in. This “we” and “situation” is his Western-European audience of the 70’s.
Anyway, he starts his journey of the search for this difference by stating that the act of seeing our place captures in relation to the world that surrounds us. Seeing and recognition come before words. It is also historically determined and is influenced by what we know. At its turn, what we know influences what we see. Our eyesight is active, constantly moving and constructs the present. He exemplifies this by mentioning that we can suppose that people saw fire differently during the in the Middle Ages because they believed in hell.
According to Berger, ‘An image is a sight which has been recreated or reproduced … which has been detached from the place and time in which it first made its appearance …’ In one way or another all images, including photographs, involve a way of seeing by the person who has created the image. Further, when we look at someone else’s image, our understanding of it depends on our way of seeing.
Images were created with the intention to show things that are not available in our own surroundings. Funnily enough, this showing seems to be on steroids nowadays; we are constantly sharing pictures of the stuff around us to share with people who are not in our midst.
However, whenever an image gets tagged as “art”, everyone loses their mind. People utter notions about art in terms of beauty, truth, geniality, civilization, status, taste, etc. Our way of seeing is influenced by these notions but they are not so cut-and-dried, they are actually taught and unnecessary.
Have you ever wondered why certain art texts are incomprehensible? Berger states that these instructed tendencies are part of a mystification process that makes it like it is only intended for a certain elite. So why do you have to go and make things so complicated? [Read this like Avril is chanting in your head] According to Berger, this happens because the privileged few struggle for a narrative in history that justifies the role of the ruling class. This justification does not achieve the level of success it once had and therefore is in need of mystification. He defines this mystification as a process of making something more complicated than necessary. However, this has severe consequences because it makes art clear as mud for the masses, and makes the possibility to use an image to interpret history slimmer.
So in case you forgot, this line of thought is a foundation in order to gain insight into the differences an artwork and a technical reproduction. Here we go, once the unique aspect of the part of the uniqueness of the place where it stood. Even though a painting was transportable, it was never visible in two places at the same time. When the camera made technical reproduction possible, the unique existence of the image was destroyed and the meaning changed. An image can come to you and it is then surrounded by your own environment. The new environment and the image lend their meaning to each other. At the same time, it is possible that an image can be seen in different places, all in a different context. If this seems ungraspable, imagine Jacques-Louis David’s “The Coronation of Napoleon” in your living room (if it would fit, it’s almost 10 meters (33 ft) wide by a little over 6 meters (20 ft) tall) and then you dare tell me if the living room influences the meaning of the work.
Due to the possibility of technical reproduction of a painting, the unique existence of the painting does not lie in the image itself. The image is no longer unique, but being the original is unique. Due to the new status of the original artwork, the process of mystification begins to occur. A few phenomena now get weightiness. The unique work is worth more money because of the scarcity of being unique. This is confirmed by the price value on the art market which is a reflection of the spiritual value. He shows an example of a sketch by Leonardo da Vinci that is in the possession of The National Gallery in London. Apparently, the sketch was only known to academics. After an American wanted to buy it for two and a half million pounds, it became so popular that it got its own room in the museum. This spiritual value can only be explained on the basis of terms such as magic or religion. However, neither of the two manifestations is in force in modern society. According to Berger, mystification is a false religiosity. The works of art from the past are represented as holy relics, the important aspect of which is that they are so old that they have endured all that time. Something is explained as an original when they can trace the lineage. This nonsensical religiosity, which ultimately depends on the market value, is what replaced what paintings lost when art became technically reproducible. If the image is no longer unique then the art object itself must be mysterious.
In the era of technical reproduction, the meaning of a painting is no longer contained in the work of art itself, as a result of which the meaning is always partially or completely adapted when it is used. An image is now borrowed to make a point that causes it to lose its original meaning. The meaning is partly determined by what is seen just before or just after. For Berger, it is important that the way in which art is approached today is not the only or the right way. Because of mystification, the art of the past does not belong to the masses. They could also create personal experiences with the art of the past, but this does not happen through mystification.
This essay is based on the first episode of BBC documentary Ways of Seeing and the first chapter of the book with the same name.
Jacques-Louis David, The Coronation of Napoleon, 1805-1807