Last week I shared that I was reading "Ways of Seeing" by John Berger. Published in 1972, it is described on the back cover as being "one of the most stimulating and the most influential books on art in any language".
I'll admit right off the bat that I've had to read the first chapter three times. It'll take probably another three before my brain can wrap itself completely around what Berger is saying. It's fascinating stuff actually, but not if you're looking for easy answers. I mentioned that I read the first chapter three times, didn't I?
My thoughts on the first chapter... you are welcome to agree, disagree, or shake your head in wonder...
The first sentence in this book is: "Seeing comes before words. The child looks and recognizes before it can speak." As children what we know of the world comes through our vision, literally. Children accept the world as they see it. The sky is a blue umbrella. When Mom goes around the corner into the next room she no longer exists. (This is why playing peek-a-boo with a child is a universal exercise.) Seeing is pure acceptance of what is before us. The only context at this point is the shared experience of seeing others and their reactions to what we see.
Actually, I love this concept. As a painter, I paint what I see, or perhaps what I interpret I see. It is a simple, honest way of painting, I believe.
@2010 P Scarborough Daisies in a Blue Jar 7x5 Oil
With the development of language we begin to have subtleties and nuance that weren't there before. I share my history, you share yours, we blend them and create new meaning, far beyond what was observed by either of us. (There are stars beyond the ozone layer...Mom will be right back...the earth is round)
What this has to do with looking at, or appreciating art, is that the viewer brings - or doesn't bring - their history (of feelings, words, experiences) into the act of seeing the artwork, thereby giving it perhaps new meaning.
Would you feel differently about this little painting if it was titled "Memorial Day"?
The Art Critic/Historian adds mounds of additional rhetoric to the act of seeing, which has the potential to change how the art is "appreciated". We've all read paragraphs explaining the deeper meaning of a paint splotch as explained by an artist with a master's degree.
Now re-title this painting "Jilted Prom Queen".
There is the additional complication of where physically the image is experienced. Originally scribbled on a table napkin meant to record a fleeting thought, is it now seen behind bullet-proof glass in a museum? Surely that changes what we think of a piece of artwork. (Gosh, it must be good, it's behind bullet-proof glass!)
Finally, Berger introduces the idea of authority into the act of viewing art. Who decides what the art means? Who decides where it will be seen? (In a museum, on a t-shirt?) Who decides its value?
Headline reads: Unsigned Painting Found in Jackson Pollock's Attic!
Unknown Pollock? Worth Millions!!
My niece MHC summed it up neatly when she said: Berger is ... "challenging the dominant point of view, as in, make sure you're not viewing this nude or cornfield, or nude in cornfield, through the eyes of a rich old white guy".
Dang, I wish I'da thought of that.
And that's just chapter one. Reading Berger's book has made me more ... aware of what I'm seeing. More thoughtful about what I'm seeing.
How do you look at art?