berger see

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.
—  John Berger - Ways of Seeing

A woman must continually watch herself. She is almost continually accompanied by her own image of herself. Whilst she is walking across a room or whilst she is weeping at the death of her father, she can scarcely avoid envisaging herself walking or weeping. From earliest childhood she has been taught and persuaded to survey herself continually. And so she comes to consider the surveyor and the surveyed within her as the two constituent yet always distinct elements of her identity as a woman. She has to survey everything she is and everything she does because how she appears to men, is of crucial importance for what is normally thought of as the success of her life. Her own sense of being in herself is supplanted by a sense of being appreciated as herself by another….

One might simplify this by saying: men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves. The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed female. Thus she turns herself into an object – and most particularly an object of vision: a sight.

—  John Berger, Ways of Seeing
To be born a woman has been to be born, within an allotted and confined space, into the keeping of men. The social presence of women has developed as a result of their ingenuity in living under such tutelage within such a limited space. But this has been at the cost of a woman’s self being split into two. A woman must continually watch herself. She is almost continually accompanied by her own image of herself. Whist she is walking across a room or whilst she is weeping at the death of her father, she can scarcely avoid envisaging herself walking or weeping. From earliest childhood she has been taught and persuaded to survey herself continually.
—  John Berger in Ways of Seeing

I’ve been re-reading a lot of John Berger since he died and it has really inspired me to draw for myself for the first time in a long time. I think it would be nice if, once I’ve finished my current projects, I could take some time off the internet and re-find myself in my drawings. Either way I am still grateful for days like this when I can just read and draw and have some time alone to check in with myself.

Original paintings are silent and still in a sense that information never is. Even a reproduction hung on a wall is not comparable in this respect for in the original the silence and stillness permeate the actual material, the paint, in which one follows the traces of the painter’s immediate gestures. This has the effect of closing the distance in time between the painting of the picture and one’s own act of looking at it. in this special sense all paintings are contemporary. Hence the immediacy of their testimony. Their historical moment is literally there before our eyes. Cézanne made a similar observation from the painter’s point of view. “A minute in the world’s life passes! To paint it in its reality, and forget everything for that! To become that minute, to be the sensitive plate.., give the image of what we see, forgetting everything that has appeared before our time…” What we make of that painted moment when it is before our eyes depends upon what we expect of art, and that in turn depends today upon how we have already experienced the meaning of paintings through reproductions.
—  John Berger, Ways of Seeing
Men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves. The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed is female. Thus she turns herself into an object of vision: a sight.
—  John Berger, Ways of Seeing (47)

(…)The issue is not between innocence and knowledge (or between the
natural and the cultural) but 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.)
The real question is: 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?
The visual arts have always existed within a certain preserve; originally this preserve was magical or sacred. But it was also physical : it was the place, the cave, the building, in which, or for which, the work was made. The experience of art, which at first was the experience of ritual, was set apart from the rest of life - precisely in order to be able to exercise power over it. Later the preserve of art became a social one. It entered the culture of the ruling class, whilst physically it was set apart and isolated in their palaces and houses. During all this history the authority of art was inseparable from the particular authority of the preserve.
What the modern means of reproduction have done is to destroy the authority of art and to remove it - or, rather, to remove its images which they reproduce - from any preserve. For the first time ever, images of art have become ephemeral, ubiquitous, insubstantial, available, valueless, free. They surround us in the same way as a language surrounds us. They have entered the mainstream of life over which they no longer, in themselves, have power.(…) 
The art of the past no longer exists as it once did. Its authority is lost. In its place there is a language of images. What matters now is who uses that language for what purpose. This touches upon questions of copyright for reproduction, the ownership of art presses and publishers, the total policy of public art galleries and museums. As usually presented, these are narrow professional matters. One of the aims of this essay has been to show that what is really at stake is much larger. A people or a class which is cut off from its own past is far less free to choose and to act as a people or class than one that has been able to situate itself in history. This is why - and this is the only reason why - the entire art of the past has now become a political issue.(…)

John Berger, “Ways of Seeing”, p. 32-33, Penguin

anonymous asked:

Hi Amy, I'm a high school student who wants to major in art history. I know that a large part of history in general is asking questions, however I'm unsure about how to ask better questions, would you give some suggestions and examples of higher level questions to ask about an art work? P.S. you blog is amazing and thank you for all the resources!

Wow, what a great question! Some of my college students don’t ask how they can ask better questions, so I was so excited when I saw that you are a high school student thinking ahead. Thank you! 

I assume you are taking art history at your high school. This is good - your class has already given you the framework you need to move from basic questioning to more in depth questioning. Who? What? Where? When? Why? How? You would think that with art history, the Five Ws + How? would be simple enough to answer. This is not always the case, however, and sometimes the simple questions of Who? or How? or Where? can take an art historian years to answer. A good example of this is attribution: who made a work of art? It sounds like an easy question, but as someone who has shed blood, sweat, and tears on attribution, I can tell you it isn’t. The same is true of iconography (’what’?). On the surface, subject matter shouldn’t be hard to identify or propose, but it can be.  All this to say that if you are worried that asking some of these questions is too basic, you shouldn’t be - you will undoubtedly keep asking them as an art history major, and the answers will not always be easy (or even possible) to find.

Asking (sometimes deceptively) basic questions is all well and good, but how can you ask more in-depth questions about works that are already the subject of lengthy discourse, like the Mona Lisa or the Sistine Chapel? This is, essentially, the writer’s question. To arrive at a probing question, you may want to: 

Practice slow looking. Slow looking is exactly what it sounds like - sitting in front of a work of art and taking time to really look at it. This will be hard to do during a class session, but you can do this after class (or beforehand, if you know the period or artist being covered). As part of the slow looking exercise, write down your initial response to the work, and note throughout your time looking how your initial response has evolved and why.

Question a work of art’s formal elements. Think about color, line, texture, light, shadow, space, perspective, volume… Why do you think the artist made the decisions s/he did? Here is a list of formal analysis questions to get you started. If you email me,  amy [at] caravaggista [dot] com, I can send you the “Questions Sheet” I give to my students.

Ask yourself what ascribes meaning to a work. In a similar vein, you can consider why a work of art is being discussed in class (in other words, why it has been deemed important). Is it the subject matter? The composition? The work’s cultural or historical context? The fame of the artist? The expense of materials used? All of the above, and more? Why or why not?

Look at a work of art using a particular methodology. Art historians use lots of different methods to analyze works of art. If you haven’t yet learned about art theory or methods, consider picking up a copy of Michael Hatt and Charlotte Klonk’s Art History: A critical introduction to its methods (Manchester University Press, 2006). The authors examine the origins of art history as a discipline and explain each major method in practice, from formalism to semiotics (and more!). Examining a work of art using a particular framework can yield surprising and inspiring results!

Read about a work of art you are having a hard time formulating questions for. Specifically, read art historical articles about the work and consider the author’s argument. Do you agree with their analysis? Why or why not? Is there an aspect of the work or its context that you think should be more fully addressed (or considered, in the first place)? What evidence does the author use to support their analysis? 

This is by no means an exhaustive list of ways to ask better questions, but I hope it helps get you started!  There are no bad questions; all questions help deepen your understanding and analysis. 

I’m going to include a break here. After the break, you’ll find recommended reading and resources.


Recommended Reading

Many of these resources are geared toward how to write about art, but I recommend them because the first step in writing is asking questions, and these authors’ discussions could be informative!

Barnet, Sylvan. A Short Guide to Writing about Art. Boston; Toronto: Little, Brown, and Company, 1985.

Berger, John. Ways of Seeing. New York: Viking Penguin, 1977. 

Hatt, Michael and Charlotte Klonk. Art History: A critical introduction to its methods. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2006. 

Huntsman, Penny. Thinking About Art: A thematic guide to art history. West Sussex: Wiley Blackwell, 2016.

Pop, Andrei. How to Do Things with Pictures: A Guide to Writing in Art History. Department of History of Art and Architecture, Harvard University, 2008. 

Taylor, Joshua C. Learning to Look: A Handbook for the Visual Arts. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957. 

(…)Original paintings are silent and still in a sense that information never is. Even a reproduction hung on a wall is not comparable in this respect for in the original the silence and stillness permeate the actual material, the paint, in which one follows the traces of the painter’s immediate gestures. This has the effect of closing the distance in time between the painting of the picture and one’s own act of looking at it. In this special sense all paintings are contemporary. Hence the immediacy of their testimony. Their historical moment is literally there before our eyes. Cezanne made a similar observation from the painter’s point of view. ‘A minute in the world’s life passes! To paint it in its reality, and forget everything for that! To become that minute, to be the plate… give the image of what we see, forgetting everything that has appeared before our time…“ What we make of that painted moment when it is before our eyes depends upon what we expect of art, and that in turn depends today upon how we have already experienced the meaning of paintings through reproductions.(…)

John Berger, "Ways of Seeing”, p. 31, Penguin