Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1029
Throughout Ways of Seeing Berger challenges received assumptions about the meaning of artworks and such attendant notions as beauty, truth, and genius. He argues that photographic techniques for reproducing images have altered the way in which the art of the past is seen. Images of artworks are caught up in the much larger flow of reproduced images which are basic to the cultural life of fully developed capitalist societies. A young woman wearing a T-shirt with an image of Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa is one of a number of examples in Ways of Seeing. Berger suggests that such duplication of images severs art from its past, thereby destroying the authority works of art once had.
He provides another example of such cultural mystification in his critique of Seymour Slive’s analysis of Frans Hals’s last two paintings, of the regents and regentesses of the Alms House in the seventeenth century Dutch city of Haarlem. When the art historian emphasizes Hals’s personal vision as one which reveals an unchanging human condition, Berger calls this mystification. In contrast to Slive, he thinks that Hals was the first artist to depict the social relations, expressions, and characters created by capitalism. The art historian’s language thus severs the paintings from their historical situation. In Berger’s opinion, this is a high-cultural instance of the inability of contemporary people to “see” the art of the past and thus to situate themselves in history. This in turn raises a critical question: “To whom does the meaning of the art of the past properly belong? To those who can apply it to their own lives, or to a cultural hierarchy of relic specialists?”
In answering his questions Berger formulates his view of the class function of oil painting. His argument here has two parts. In chapters 3 and 5, Berger relates the development of oil painting to the rise of the bourgeoisie since the fifteenth century. The ways in which oil-painting techniques could be employed to depict the belongings of bourgeois property owners bear constant witness to oil paint’s “original propensity to procure the tangible for the immediate pleasure of the owner.” According to art critic Peter Fuller, this argument, that from the Renaissance to the nineteenth century there was a special relationship between art and property, has not been refuted and is “established beyond question.”
There is a second part to Berger’s argument, however, one which appears most clearly in the first chapter of the book. There he claims that new techniques for reproducing images have reduced painting’s dominance of the visual arts in the twentieth century. At the same time that painting is mystified, its impact has narrowed to the areas of high culture overseen by academic specialists or has been trivialized in the realms of advertising. Painting is no longer the art form of the bourgeoisie: Rather, it exists in a kind of cultural limbo, not yet accessible in its historical particularity to other classes, no longer reflective of the interests of bourgeois property owners, constantly trivialized in the banalities of publicity.
According to Berger, then, understanding any cultural development must be based upon an analysis of its social foundations. For art critics and historians committed to other critical traditions, such as formal analysis, such a perspective is at best irrelevant, at worst distorting. Berger clearly wanted no part of such traditions of criticism in Ways of Seeing. In elaborating a basis for his own theory of art, he dramatically downplayed the focus upon masterpieces central to the ways of seeing he opposed. As he acknowledged in a 1978 essay, “The Work of Art,” however, the form of the argument in Ways of Seeing left an “immense theoretical weakness” in the book: He had failed to make clear the relationship between a work of genius and the entire tradition of oil painting.
The consequence of this weakness is important. Ways of Seeing argues that oil painting is preeminently the art form of the bourgeoisie. It also argues that twentieth century methods of reproducing images have severed these paintings from their original social base as well as rendering understanding of their real meanings virtually impossible. How then can one explain the continued power of the great masterpieces of that tradition? Divorced from their social source and mystified by new techniques of image reproduction, they ought to be well-nigh inaccessible, according to the argument in Ways of Seeing. Yet they are not, as the many stimulating essays on great masterpieces by Berger himself testify.
A possible way out of this theoretical impasse would be to assume that since capitalist society still flourishes, masterpieces produced within that society ought to remain accessible. Yet Berger argues that in fully developed capitalist society ways of seeing are so profoundly transformed as to render art of the past, even of an earlier capitalist past, inaccessible. It is important to note that in making this argument Berger uses the evidence of paintings themselves (as in his discussion of Hals) to oppose academic interpretations. In relying on the authority of paintings themselves to refute his opponents, however, he employs reproductions of them— something that he is simultaneously asserting has destroyed their authority. Later, in 1978, he invokes the idea of creativeness as something for which any adequate theory of art must account; such notions as creativity were precisely the ones which he refused in Ways of Seeing.
Clearly, there is an unresolved contradiction in Berger’s critical practice as a whole and in Ways of Seeing in particular. While this weakness makes the argument of Ways of Seeing less secure than its straightforward, often-assertive prose might initially seem to be, it by no means negates the book’s effectiveness as an important intervention in the cultural criticism of the 1970’s. Ways of Seeing teaches by example as well as by theoretical arguments. It is a fertile source of ideas toward a materialist theory of art and a radical critique of bourgeois culture. It is as well, in its innovative format, accessible style, and open invitation to engage in critical practice, a suggestive model for an alternative use of a new language of images in the twentieth century.
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