The Great Emancipators

REVIEWED: Ways of Seeing by John Berger, Penguin, 1972, 176 pp, and

Glittering Images by Camille Paglia, Pantheon, 2012, 202 pp

 

Ways of Seeing by John BergerIn 1972, John Berger published Ways of Seeing, first as a television series for the BBC, and then in book form. The impact of Berger’s revisionist art criticism was immediate and disruptive. Commenting last year on the fortieth anniversary of its publication, film critic Sukhdev Sandhu explains: “Controversial at the time—its focus on the tacit ideologies of Old Masters led one critic to liken it to ‘Mao's Little Red Book for a generation of art students’—it's now regarded not only as a landmark work of British arts broadcasting, but as a key moment in the democratization of art education.”  

Berger’s influence continues today with subsequent generations of art lovers and critics. In YouTube comments about the television series, users leave comments such as “you have made me think about something i sort of took for granted” (library of corn); “damn this is so cool!!! I'm starting to think differently about things” (malasa kaloshi); or simply: “Mind blown!” (Whip0Alchemy).

Ways of Seeing, the book, is comprised of seven numbered essays, three of which contain no text, only images. Berger questions norms in the Western artistic tradition by suggesting underlying ideologies and subconscious desires drive not just art making, but also art appreciation. Berger’s startling commentary on the objectification of women from the Renaissance through modern day advertising made way for critical feminist critiques of art and consumerism.

Camille Paglia, the sometimes-controversial, feminist social critic, left Yale the year Berger’s book made its splash in the UK. In 1973, when Ways of Seeing was published in the U.S., Paglia was teaching at Bennington College where, after having gone to great lengths to get Susan Sontag to speak on campus, she quickly became disenchanted with Sontag for having strayed from her contrarian writings. Like Berger, Paglia soon became a force of provocative commentary. It was in her iconoclastic survey Sexual Personae: Art & Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson (Vintage, 1991) that Paglia claimed, “Turning people into sex objects is one of the specialties of our species. It will never disappear, since it is intertwined with the art impulse and may be identical to it.”

Paglia’s forays into art criticism have been less welcome than Berger’s. When Sexual Personae debuted, rather than shattering worldviews, critics and academics were indignant. She had, they frothed, misread not just Dickinson, but also then-trendy theories on gender and objectification. Paglia ran against or blatantly ignored the popular ideas of Derrida, Lacan, and other post-structuralist thinkers. Despite the unflattering reception from her peers, Paglia’s work remains an analytical touchstone for emerging critical artists and essayists.

Glittering Images by Camille PagliaForty years after Ways of Seeing shook up art studies, Paglia’s Glittering Images, a collection of essays on Western art from ancient Egypt to Star Wars, provides an ideal platform from which to look back at Berger’s work and question whether his influence has endured and whether Paglia, as she once claimed of Sontag, has strayed from contrarian thinking.

 

Oil Painting and the Transition to Consumerism

In common, both Berger and Paglia rail against the normative hierarchies and elitism of art appreciation and criticism. The issue at hand, Berger claims, is “between a total approach to art which attempts to relate it to every aspect of experience and the esoteric approach of a few specialized experts who are the clerks of the nostalgia of a ruling class in decline. (In decline, not before the proletariat, but before the new power of the corporation and the state.)” More precisely: “To whom does the meaning of the art of the past properly belong?” Berger asks. “To those who can apply it to their own lives, or to a cultural hierarchy of relic specialists?”

“We must relearn how to see,” Paglia announces in the introduction to Glittering Images. (Is this a deliberate play on the title of Berger’s seminal work? The man is not mentioned.) Because of historical roots in Puritanism and practicality, “much of the [American] general public has fitfully regarded the fine arts as elitist or alien,” she professes. Moreover, attacks by prominent conservative philistines threaten the livelihood of artists and the existence of museums. As a result, artists ignore the general public (especially non-coastal Americans), preferring to address and one-up each other in an incestuous conversation. Meanwhile, museums resort to Hollywood-style marketing schemes to draw massive crowds to blockbuster shows. Thus, Glittering Images is “an attempt to reach a general audience for whom art is not a daily presence.”

At stake for both critics is the very soul of a people, both collective (at the society or country levels) and individual. In an age of visual inundation, how can art be understood and appreciated apart from the demands of marketing and economic consumption?

To save us from the onslaught of consumerist desires and artistic mediocrity brought on by the gushing fountains of mass media and production, and now also the World Wide Web, Berger and Paglia use distinct strategies. Berger’s approach is to undermine traditional ways of seeing art—that is, contemplating an image for beauty, truth, genius, form, status, etc. He aims to consider art in a new light that—through metaphoric plays on shadows and angles—deepens our analysis of art by obscuring it, and thus casting doubt or skepticism into a traditional reading. Berger’s chief concern is with European paintings from 1500-1900, after which Impressionism, Cubism, and the photograph surpassed the traditional oil on canvas medium in high art. His analysis is rounded out with a look at contemporary (early 1970s) photography and advertising. The way art was conceived and consumed hundreds of years ago is not so different from today’s world of marketing and advertising, he asserts, and so we must be skeptical.

Mr. and Mrs. Andrews (1748-49) by GainsboroughMr. and Mrs. Andrews (1748-49) by Gainsborough

Berger uses images—lots of images—to make his case. Admittedly, since the pictures in the book are small (sometimes tiny) and in black and white, the television version of Ways of Seeing is a more pleasurable viewing experience. Colorful images, however, are not necessary to prove his hypothesis. Berger’s focus is on form, composition, and subject matter. His main point is to show how oil painting once allowed elites to showcase property—be it material (food, clothing, land) or sexual (namely nude, supine women). Today, the exposition of having has turned into an avenue of desiring, which feeds cyclical consumerist behavior and corrupts our views of art and objects in art (or advertising).

In the 17th century, a landed aristocrat’s portrait would include possessions, such as fine clothes (silks, furs), worldly objects (including other paintings, furniture), a cornucopia of food, his mansion, and sweeping landscapes (which the subject owned). The peasantry, whom were exploited for such capital gains, and any urban or environmental degradation that went along in the process, are decidedly absent from the average oil painting. The painting was a reflection of ownership, nothing more. In Ways of Seeing, Berger’s commentary is terse and poignant:

Oil painting did to appearances what capital did to social relations. It reduced everything to the equality of objects. Everything became exchangeable because everything became a commodity. All reality was mechanically measured by its materiality.

Today, Berger claims, instead of images of what we already own (and can thus show off), advertising presents a world of desires, of things not yet owned. These objects, which can be material (perfume), sexual (a handsome man), or abstract (a rich lifestyle), fuel consumerist ideologies and social practices. And because corporations demand that their products always be desired and consumed, there can never be an achievement of ownership. What was once a portrait of ownership is now a medium for broadcasting what is always to be desired or obtained next. Advertising, says Berger, is “situated in a future continually deferred, excludes the present and so eliminates all becoming, all development.”

Fashion model Daisy LoweFashion model Daisy Lowe advertising a Sony Ericsson mobile phone

Just as oil paintings purposefully hid the poor on whose backs such material wealth was gained, advertising today—which uses many of the same artistic conceits as oil painting—ignores the people that capitalism and free markets exploit for profit. The advertisement featuring a super model and a smart phone bears no resemblance to the life of the average, struggling woman who toils daily at an assembly line in China, working for low wages and living a substandard life, so as to make a product whose desirability is fueled by the advertising of want.

The interminable present of meaningless working hours is “balanced” by a dreamt future in which imaginary activity replaces the passivity of the moment. In his or her day-dreams the passive worker becomes the active consumer. The working self envies the consuming self.

The dangerous outcome is the substitution of consumerist desires for democratic aspirations.

 

Art for the Masses

Democracy and economics do not figure into the essays in Glittering Images. Instead, Paglia presents 29 breviaries on representative works from the Western canon, ranging from images from the tomb of Queen Nefertari to the hellish final battle scene in George Lucas’s Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith. Her selections are both household names (Picasso, Warhol) and not-so-much (Germain Boffrand, Renée Cox). The point is to introduce representative works to a general audience, so as to entice regular folks into the realm of art appreciation. Unlike Berger’s fixation on the two-dimensional image (paintings and magazine ads), Paglia’s survey includes sculpture and site-specific and video art, in addition to two-dimensional painting, drawing, and photography.

Paglia’s selections make up a delectable buffet for the layman. A typical entry, which lengthens as the book progresses, provides historical background and artistic context surrounding the creation of the art before the piece is disassembled and critiqued. While most of Paglia’s choices are admirable, the appetite of the novice art lover could be easily satiated with any number of substitutes, say Kandinsky’s abstraction for Mondrian’s minimalism, the masterpiece mosaic work from the Madrasa Imamiin Isfahan for that of the Saint John Chrysostom in the Hagia Sophia, or the performative antics of Chris Burden for the site-specific work of Eleanor Antin.

The distribution of works over the breadth of Western civilization is somewhat problematic. Of the 29 featured works, 13 were created after 1900, with eight from 1900 (Monet) to 1949 (Pollock) alone. With a mere three entries (Tamara de Lempicka, Cox, and Antin), women are severely underrepresented, to say nothing of other minorities.

Edouard Manet’s “At the Café” (1879)Edouard Manet’s “At the Café” (1879)Sometimes it is unclear why Paglia chooses a specific work. Van Dyck’s “Lord John Stuart and his Brother, Lord Bernard Stuart” (1638) seems to be selected so Paglia can discuss fashion trends of the 17th century, in which case an actual costume should have been substituted. The inclusion of Jacques-Louis David’s “The Death of Marat” (1792), a beautiful rendition of a tragic event, allows Paglia to tell a great story about the revolutionary’s assassination; what David’s painting represents as a change from the status quo or an apogee of a particular style, however, is missing.

When she does explain her rationale for including a work of art, Paglia excels. With Edouard Manet’s “At the Café” (1879), heavy brushstrokes, working class subjects, and severe cropping (prefiguring photography) set him apart. Picasso’s “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” (1907) conflates two perspectives, a revolutionary move that subverted the Renaissance ideal of perspective and a fixed point of view. And Mondrian’s breakthroughs, as with “Composition with Red, Blue, and Yellow” (1930), took the “revolutionary step of discarding the frame … Thanks to Mondrian’s innovation, every department store today sells narrow black frames and frameless plastic blocks for mounting art and photographs.” Such entries are revealing and should appeal to an audience trying to figure out why, for example, Jackson Pollock’s messy drip paintings are so important to art history.

 

The Feminine Mystique

When it comes to “seeing,” are the authors on the same page? A one-to-one comparison between Berger and Paglia for their critique of a particular artwork is not possible, as none of the works in Glittering Images are covered in Ways of Seeing. A couple of discussions do serve as proxies for comparison, though. The Biblical character Mary Magdalene, for example, is given treatment by both essayists. The approaches they choose serve each of their agendas selectively, and so reveal the separate avenues art critics can take on a given subject.

Berger, in his chapter about oil painting’s depiction of “things,” shows three paintings of Mary Magdalene by Ambrosius Brenson, Van Der Werff, and Baudry. “The point of her story,” Berger reminds us, “is that she so loved Christ that she repented on her past and came to accept the mortality of flesh and the immortality of the soul.” The way she is painted in the three examples, however, betrays the essence of the story, as if the transformation has never occurred. “She is painted,” he asserts, “as being, before she is anything else, a takeable and desirable woman. She is still the compliant object of the painting-method’s seduction.”

For her part, Paglia features the shockingly ragged and gaunt sculpture of Mary Magdalene by Donatello. In contrast to Berger’s choices, this wooden Mary, which stands over six feet tall, is far from “takeable and desirable.” “Nothing here appeals to or seduces the eye,” she comments. “On the contrary, we sense a despairing recoil from the physical.” Paglia’s description of Donatello’s last known statue drips with the visceral and repulsive: ghoulish, agonized, dementia, shock, stench of mortality, squalor, and so on. Yet, instead of claiming that Donatello remained true to the story of Mary’s repentance, Paglia reads into the sculpture a manifestation of the ageing artist’s remorse for past sexual adventures or a portrait of his grieving mother. Or, she finally asks, “Was Donatello saying, through Mary, that he too had looked back and seen his own Sodom burn?”

Berger obviously chose the three paintings of Mary Magdalene over Donatello’s statue to prove his point about the objectification of women in art. Did Paglia choose the subject of Mary and settle on Donatello’s rendition? Or is the masterwork the best piece to share with an average audience regardless of the subject?

Given Berger’s contributions to feminist critique and Paglia’s own critical feminist background, it is most interesting to compare their opinions on art that features a nude female subject. Consider, for example, Berger’s examination of the use of mirrors in oil painting:

The mirror was often used as a symbol of the vanity of woman. The moralizing, however, was mostly hypocritical.

You painted a naked woman because you enjoyed looking at her, you put a mirror in her hand and you called the painting Vanity, thus morally condemning the woman whose nakedness you had depicted for your own pleasure.

The real function of the mirror was otherwise. It was to make the woman connive in treating herself as, first and foremost, a sight.

It so happens that Paglia chooses Titian’s “Venus with a Mirror” (ca. 1555), an intimate portrait of the goddess of love. Surprisingly, Paglia does not run with the theme of the female subject as an object of lust or desire. In Titian’s work, a nude cupid (his back to the viewer) holds up a mirror for Venus to admire herself, yet she is positioned in a way that is unnatural and awkward, having to look over her left shoulder back at the mirror. The composition ensures that the “goddess’s alluring expanse of soft, glossy flesh”—including an exposed breast—remains the focus for a voyeuristic crowd.
Venus with a Mirror (c. 1555) by TitianVenus with a Mirror (c. 1555) by Titian

Despite circling feminist critiques of the female nude and the mirror object in oil painting, Paglia does not offer that the mirror is merely an excuse for putting the woman on display for a lustful audience:

The hushed spectacle of a woman gazing into her mirror has exerted a powerful fascination on male artists. Is she a puppet of vanity or a sorceress in eerie dialogue with her double? Most feminists reject the mirror as woman’s oppressor, the internalized eye of judgmental society. But Titian’s mirror, handsomely framed like a painting, centers and aligns Venus with her two sons, as if they too are her reflection, her extruded essence. They support her sexual ecosystem: the cupid’s raised crown echoes the crescent of fur above Venus’s pubis, and a dangling bow on the other cupid’s chiffon sash looks mischievously like a scrotum and uncut penis.

Paglia also points out the rich fabrics and deep tones of the exposed boudoir, and the jewelry and gold adorning the goddess. Venus’s contortions, however, do not strike the critic as a 16th century pornographic conceit.

Abandoning the Marketplace

To democratize art appreciation is to also humanize the marketplace. Advertising, which Berger claims is today’s equivalent of the once dominant oil painting, is capitalism’s fuel. Consumerism has replaced democracy. Thus, to stymie the effects of advertising is to starve capitalism of its energy. The best way to liberate ourselves from such manufactured desires, says Paglia, is to contemplate art at length.

A single piece of art must be extensively studied, gazed at, meditated on, dwelled over, pondered. In doing so, we remove ourselves from the visual onslaught of the marketplace. To lose oneself in the slow revolution around an ancient Greek sculpture of Hercules, in the intense colors and patterns of a Klimt, or in the almost-decadent immersion in James Cameron’s 3-D wonder Avatar, is to purposefully ignore mass media’s incessant demands to consume material goods.

In contemplation, we lose the desire to consume because we are busy getting lost in art, in beauty, in truth, in ourselves, and in each other. The future always deferred becomes the ever living present. We cease to live in the market and begin to live in the moment.

Shaun Randol founded The Mantle in 2009. Today he is the Editor-in-Chief and Publisher. You can email him at shaun [at] themantle.net. Shaun is the co-editor of Gambit: Newer African Writing.