12th of October - John Berger - notes and synopsis

From XPUB & Lens-Based wiki

John Berger - Ways of seeing

Seeing comes before words, and words can never quite describe it. Sometime the knowledge and explanation does not fit the sight. Like a sunset we see, we know why and how it happens, but seeing the sunset can not be described that way.

The way we see things is affected by what we know and believe. Like fire in the old days had a different meaning in the middle ages and now. The believe of a physical hell had common experience of pain of burns and ashes.

When in Love the sight of the beloved has no words. only making love can temporarily accommodate.

Seeing comes before words and is not a question of chemically reacting to stimuli. We only see what we look at which is an act of choice. Touch is a limited form of sight. Looking, which is never just at one thing, is always in a relation to ourselves.


Images were at first made to conjure appearance of something that was absent. It then became evident that the image could outlast what it represented. It showed how things or somebody looked at a certain point - and thus the way other people saw it at that time - later how the specific vision of the image maker was a part of the record. There was an increasing consciousness of individuality and awareness of history. It is hard to date but in Europe this consciousness has existed since the beginning of Renaissance.

Images best represents a testimony of the world which surrounded people at other times - no writing or other documents can do the same as the image. Images are more precise and richer than literature. The more imaginative the work the more profoundly it allows us to share the artists experience of the visible.

When an image is represented as a work of art, the way we look at it is filled with learnt assumptions: Beauty Truth Genius Form Status Taste.etc.

The world we live in is more than an objective fact - it includes consciousness. History always constitute of the relationship between the present and the past. Art being remote / inaccessible means we are denied from history belonging to us. Like seeing a landscape, we automatically see ourselves in it, if we saw an art of the past we would place ourselves in history. The art of the past is being mystified, by only the elite few that can see it.

He gives an example of a typical mystification. A two volume study that was "recently" published about the artist Frans Hals, which is the authorotive work to this date on the painter. He criticises him highly for writing all sorts of assumptions as facts. He lavishly describes two paintings of the Governors and the Governesses of Harlem. 1664, these people commissioned him to paint portraits of them, otherwise he would have froze to death that winter. Berger says that all we need to know is the paintings themselves: the evidence of a group of men and a group of women as seen by another man, the painter. He says the critic makes all sorts of assumptions of drunkedness, lame faces, fashions and all sorts. PAGE 15 He is saying that he pollutes (mystifies ) the way we see the image.

Mystification has little to do with the vocabulary used. Mystification is the process of explaining away what might otherwise be evident * direct quote

To avoid mystification

If we can see the present clearly enough, we shall ask the right question of the past. direct quote

We perceive the past as never before.

He talkes about perspective, how when that started in the early Renaissance. How it centers everything on the eye of the beholder. They called it reality. The visible world is arranged for the spectator as the universe was once thought to be arranged for God. According to the convention of perspective there is no visual reciprocity. * direct quote. The problem with perspective in only had one viewing angle and the contradiction gradually became apparent after the invention of the camera.

The camera

The invention of camera (particularly film) demonstrated that there was no centre. It changed the way men saw and was immediately reflected in painting. For the impressionists, the visible disappeared from the paintings. The cubists started painting from multiple views.

The invention also changed the way we saw paintings that were painted long before the camera was invented. The paintings used to be painted for designated buildings, and often depicted the life inside those building. Sometimes the paintings were transportable, but could only be seen in one place at a time. Now paintings can be reproduced, and shown in many places at a time, but the experience of it will always be different. For example if shown on TV all over the world, in each living room it will be experienced differently ( because of the surroundings and people you see it with). One might argue that all reproductions more or less distort , and therefore the original painting is still in a sense unique.

Berger talks about that the uniqueness of the painting becomes only what it is, not what it says. You can see what it says on all the reproductions, but you can go to the National Gallery to see the original. For example the Virgin of the Rocks, by Leonardo da Vinci... here is when you google it: Virgin on the rocks.png

The value of the painting no longer lies in what it uniquely says, but in what it uniquely is. It is defined by it's rarity. It's market price is said to be a reflection of its spiritual value. Spiritual value of an object can only be explained in terms of religion or magic. Today which could be considered bogus religiosity.

The National Gallery concentrates on trying to prove the authenticity of Virgin on The Rocks, with 14 pages of written text by scholars about who commissioned it, legal squabbles, who owned it, their families and dates. Nothing about the meaning of the image. The aim trying to prove beyond shadow of a doubt that this is an original and to prove that the almost identical painting in the Louvre is a replica.

The bogus religiosity and the market value has substituted what the camera took away from them.

If the image is no longer unique and exclusive, the art object, the thing, must be made mysteriously so.

He talkes about how a very low percentage goes to Museums or galleries. And that the Manual workers consider museums reminds them mostly of churches.

When an image is reproduced it means it can be used for many different purposes. F.ex. cropping out a face of a bigger picture making a portrait. Also with a film camera, the director can narrate a painting in his own understanding. But if the spectator himself is looking a the painting he can do it in his own time, looking at different aspects of the painting and draw his own conclusion. Then the painting maintains it's own authoroty.

Also pictures often are reproduced with words around them, which can have a huge effect of how we see the image, basically change the image ( Van Gogh's last painting before killing himself). Also images that come before or straight after can change the image.

Berger talkes about that reproductions are still used to bolster the illusion that nothing has changed; makes inequality seem noble and hierarchies seem thrilling.