Tuesday, February 09, 2021

To look is an act of choice

So much profundity:

"To look is an act of choice." "To touch something is to situate oneself in relation to it."

"Fear of the present leads to mystification of the past." (This one needs unpacking.)

"The uniqueness of the original now lies in its being the original of a reproduction."

John Berger in Ways of Seeing aims to demystify and democratize art. In essay #1, he shows that technology (reproduction) has made art free, but the masses fail to recognize this because the prevailing elite imbue original art with a bogus religiosity. 

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 modem 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.

Yet very few people are aware of what has happened because the means of reproduction are used nearly all the time to promote the illusion that nothing has changed except that the masses, thanks to reproductions, can now begin to appreciate art as the cultured minority once did. Understandably, the masses remain uninterested and sceptical.

(Half a century later, is this still true? Has the world changed? Are we more artistically literate? Has social media made us all artists? Or have I become one of the cultured minority and lost touch with the masses? Art is everywhere, art is free — glorious and free.)

Stay tuned for Berger's mansplanation of the male gaze, and his demonstration of it in his Booker Prize-winning fictional account of the erotic adventures of G., published the same year (1972).

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