‘We live within a spectacle of empty clothes and unworn masks’

I first came across John Berger’s work when I wrote an essay in which I included quotes from Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others. Understanding a Photograph seemed like the perfect book that could shed some light on the topic of looking at photographs – and understanding them. Parts from my essay can be read here: On Voyeurism and Flinching.

In Steps Towards a Small Theory of the Visible Berger explores and dissects the close links between art and the individual. The essays are short and revelatory. Below I selected a few paragraphs and sentences that I want to remember.

“Just as art history has concentrated upon a number of remarkable works and barely considered the largest part of the tradition, aesthetic theory has emphasized the disinterestedly spiritual experience to be gained from works of art and largely ignored their massive ideological function. We spiritualize art by calling it art.”

“No figurative works of art produced within a tradition appear unrealistic to those brought up within the tradition. And so we must ask a subtler question. What aspect of experience does the European style invoke? Or more exactly, what kind of experience do its means of representation represent? (Ask, too, the same question about Japanese art, or West African).”

“European means of representation refer to the experience of taking possession.”

“I am in front of a typical European nude. She is painted with extreme sensuous emphasis. Yet her sexuality is only superficially manifest in her actions or her own expression; in a comparable figure within other art traditions this would not be so. Why? Because for Europe ownership is primary. The painting’s sexuality is manifest not in what it shows but in the owner-spectator’s (mine in this case) right to see her naked. Her nakedness is not a function of her sexuality but of the sexuality of those who have access to the picture. In the majority of European nudes there is a close parallel with the passivity which is endemic to prostitution.”

“It has been said that the European painting is like a window open on to the world. Purely optically this may be the case. But is it not as much like a safe, let into the wall, in which the visible has been deposited?”

“To a unique degree European art was a visual art deriving from literature. Familiarity with these texts or at least with their personae was the prerogative of the privileged minority.”

“What distinguishes post-Renaissance European practice from that of any other culture is its transformation of everything which is acquired into a commodity; consequently, everything becomes exchangeable. Nothing is appropriated for its own sake. Every object and every value is transmutable into another – even into its opposite. In Capital, Marx quotes Christopher Columbus writing in 1503: ‘By means of gold one can even get souls into Paradise.’ Nothing exists in itself. This is the essential spiritual violence of European capitalism.”

“To the peasant, food represents work done and therefore repose. The fruit of labour is not only the ‘fruit’ but also the time taken from work time, spent in eating the food. Feasts apart, he accepts at table the sedative effect of eating. The appetite, satisfied, is quietened.

To the bourgeois the drama of eating, far from being reposeful, is a stimulus. The theatrical invitation of the scene often provokes family dramas at meal times. The scene of the typical oedipal drama is not, as logically it might be, the bedroom, but the dinner table. The dining-room is the place of assembly where the bourgeois family appears to itself in public guise, and where its conflicting interests and power struggles are pursued in a highly formalized manner.”

“If one examines each point of comparison, it becomes clear that the peasant way of eating is centred on the act of eating itself and on the food eaten: it is centripetal and physical. Whereas the bourgeois way of eating is centred on fantasy, ritual and spectacle: it is centrifugal and cultural. The first can complete itself in satisfaction; the second is never complete and gives rise to an appetite which, in essence, is insatiable.”

“Until recently, history, all the accounts people gave of their lives, all proverbs, fables, parables, confronted the same thing: the everlasting, fearsome, and occasionally beautiful, struggle of living with Necessity, which is the enigma of existence – that which followed from the Creation, and which subsequently has always continued to sharpen the human spirit.”

“Maybe it’s time to ask a naive question: what does all painting from the Palaeolithic period until our century have in common? Every painted image announces: I have seen this, or, when the making of the image was incorporated into a tribal ritual: We have seen this. The this refers to the sight represented. Non-figurative art is no exception. A late canvas by Rothko represents an illumination or a coloured glow which derived from the painter’s experience of the visible. When he was working, he judged his canvas according to something else that he saw.”

“When a painting is lifeless it is the result of the painter not having the nerve to get close enough for a collaboration to start. He stays at a copying distance.”

“To go in close means forgetting convention, reputation, reasoning, hierarchies and self. It also means risking incoherence, even madness.”

“The modern illusion concerning painting (which post-modernism has done nothing to correct) is that the artist is a creator. Rather he is a receiver. What seems like creation is the act of giving form to what he has received.”

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