Friday, February 16, 2007

How Not to Read a Rembrandt

The British Marxist art critic John Berger is not much read now, at least in America, but he was a very important figure in the Nineteen Seventies and Nineteen Eighties. Ways of Seeing, published in 1972 as the companion to a BBC television series, is by far the most famous and influential of his many books. It was a major text in disseminating the idea of seeing as a social practice: as he writes in the book, “all images are man-made” (9). The book played an important role in popularizing the notions of seeing as a mode of reading and of the social world as a text to be interpreted. It was a major impetus in the development of what has come to be known as cultural studies.

Berger has been very important to my thinking about visual art and visuality. But his reflectionist view of art, in which elements of the artwork are equated to elements of the world and specifically of the artist's life, has always bothered me. Among several other more useful things (including surveying the history of the oil painting as a medium intimately associated with property and possession and analyzing the female nude as a specifically voyeuristic instance of that mode of ownership he sees the oil painting as embodying and enacting), Berger takes biographical information about the artist, or rather, biographical conceptions about the artist and the meaning of his life, as constitutive of a given painting’s meaning. Berger’s brief comparison of two Rembrandt self-portraits, the first as a young and prosperous man, the second as an old and presumably much poorer man, exemplify this reductive approach. Berger takes a version of the shape of the artist’s life, supported by specific biographical data (Rembrandt had just married Saskia when he painted the first self-portrait; six years later she would be dead), as the meaning of the painting. The basis of this elision of the painting, its meaning, and its creator’s biography is a representationalist view of the painting, deriving from a representationalist view of knowledge. For Berger, the painting means only insofar as it resembles in a two-dimensional format some aspect of human life or the phenomenal world (which in turn resembles some world of meaning) which it, by means of and directly as such resemblance, represents. This view presumes a direct correspondence between the painting and that which it represents: the painting is a mimesis of something in the world rather than an object in that world.

For Berger, a painting’s meaning is constituted by what it says about something else; the painting is always a reference to some other thing. It is this implicit premise that allows Berger to enlist the artist’s biography as a source of meaning, however much he discusses oil painting as a medium. For him, the meaning of a painting is the meaning of its subject matter. The subject matter of the two Rembrandt self-portraits is the painter; thus, their meaning is the meaning of his life.

Berger confuses the subject matter of a painting with its content, as many people confuse the reference of a poem with its sense. He conflates the referent with the signified, as if the relationship between the two were intrinsic and not conventional. The visual image, even more than words (simultaneously the most abstract and the most concrete of entities), exists as an object as well as a representation of an object. Berger reduces form to nothing more than a vehicle for meaning, though the painted image is by its material constitution more a form than a content. The content a painting embodies is equated with the subject matter to which it refers; form, structure, style, technique, are all merely the means by which this is presented to view. The painting is a mirror of the phenomenal world. This conviction underlies Berger’s often-evident but never, to my knowledge, thematized hostility to artistic abstraction. Abstraction makes explicit that paintings are made out of paint, whatever shapes that paint may mime. For Berger, if a painting contains no image that can be interpreted as some item of the physical world, and preferably of the human world, then it can have no content and thus no meaning.

Berger’s assumption of a natural, self-evident relation between a painted image and its meaning is shown in such statements as “if one approaches [Rembrandt’s painting of himself and his first wife] without sentimentality, one sees that its happiness is both formal and unfelt.” Art historian E.H. Gombrich has exploded at some length this myth of the “innocent eye” which simply sees things as they are. In the later self-portrait “[Rembrandt] is an old man. All has gone except a sense of the question of existence, of existence as a question.” Would Berger say the same thing if Rembrandt had been smiling? If the painting were revealed not to be a self-portrait at all? If it were proven to have been painted in Rembrandt’s youth? Existence, after all, would still be a question. In these passages, the idealism of Berger’s view of paintings (as distinct from the materialism of the painting as an aesthetic object) is clear. What, exactly, is this universal “existence” which is shown in the later self-portrait as a question? Berger’s readings derive from certain always already-given ideas of the meaning of prosperity and good fortune and their relation to real happiness, of old age and poverty as the states in which some universal “one” engages “the question of existence.” What they do not derive from is any particularly close attention to the painting as such, rather than as a stand-in for something else. In this case, the something else in whose stead the painting stands (or hangs on a museum wall) is Rembrandt’s life and its exemplification of a certain idea of the meaning of life. While Berger calls the painter in Rembrandt “both more and less than the old man” portrayed in this painting, in practice he conflates painter and subject.

Art historian Nicos Hadjinicolaou, author of Art History and Class Struggle (1978), perhaps a more rigorous Marxist, would object to Berger’s emphasis on the painter as unique individual as the source of a painting’s meaning, but only because his interest is in the painter as agent of a particular class ideology. Hadjinicolaou makes a useful distinction between painting seen as an ideological form (including just what we consider to be a painting and why) and painting seen as a vehicle of ideologies (which is reductionist): a distinction that produces the valuable concept of “visual ideology.” But this useful idea slips from that of the ideology of the visual to that of the ideology in the visual, an altogether cruder conception. The painting is the expression of visual ideology, which is in turn the expression of general social ideology. Thus Hadjinicolaou would fault Berger for discussing the two Rembrandt self-portraits in individualist terms, rather than in terms of ideologies and class positions. But their potential disagreements are quibbles within a fundamental agreement about the nature of the artwork and the nature of knowledge.

For Hadjinicolaou, not just paintings but people represent and refer to reality, and are significant only referentially. Berger, who is at heart a humanist, though a critical one, remains far more committed to the significance (in both senses) of the individual. For him, human individuals are the reality to which paintings refer. Hadjinicolaou takes the initial representational premises further than Berger does, so that not human beings but their social context are the final meaning, the transcendental signified, in Derrida’s phrase. Both are agreed in allowing art no independent reality of its own.

The analogies with the worlds both of contemporary American literary criticism and of contemporary American poetry are clear. In both, literature is seen as a social symptom. For Ted Kooser, a poem is a symptom of the person who wrote it, to the point that he professes to be disappointed in a first-person poem that is not a factual representation of the poet’s life. For Ron Silliman, a poem is a symptom of the poet’s position within the map he has drawn of the poetry world, and its significance in all senses of the word can be read off where he places its author on that map. In neither case is the poem much more than a stand-in for something else, something both more interesting and more important than mere literature. But just as a painting is not just a representation or reflection of the world but a new object in the world, so is a poem a new object or, perhaps more accurately, a new event or occasion in the world, an addition to the world.


Andrew Shields said...

To invert what you said about Berger: you see a painting as an object in the world rather than a mimesis of something in the world. Or rather, perhaps you would put it slightly differently: a painting is as much an object in the world as it is a mimesis of something in the world.

I completely agree. It was a Kandinsky exhibition in Paris in 1985 that taught me this lesson. (In fact, it was that exhibition that really taught me what paintings, whether abstract or representational or some combination of the two, could do.)

At the end of your comments on Berger, you turn your attention to poetry. Am I correct in concluding that you are claiming the following? "A poem is as much an object in the world as it is a mimesis of something in the world."

I am very sympathetic to this idea; in fact, I think I wholly agree with it. The only problem is that I am not sure how a poem is "an object in the world," while it is completely clear to me how a painting is "an object in the world."

Given that a poem is not actually an object in the same way that a painting is, do you have any suggestions as to how a poem can be understood as "an object in the world"?

Mark Granier said...

I think you're being a little reductive yourself Reginald.

Firstly, Berger is hardly merely a "Marxist art critic". He has published books of poetry, a very interesting book on Picasso ('Success And Failure of Picasso'), which pays particular attention to the self-mocking late etchings/self-portraits. He has also published an excellent biographical portrait of a country doctor ('A Fortunate Man') with beautiful black and white photographs by Jean Mohr; he and Berger have embarked on many fruitful collaborations. There are also at least three collections of short stories ('Pig Earth' is one I read and enjoyed immensely). Then there are various books, meditations on art, politics and photography, which are not easy to categorise. 'Another Way of Telling' would be an example; among other things, it contains an extraordinary photographic essay (Jean Mohr again); a day in the life of an old peasant woman: no words, just photographs.

Secondly, I am not at all sure Berger can be dismissed as someone who is "not much read now." Many of his books are still being brought out in new editions (including I think Ways of Seeing). I see from a few seconds googling that his most recent book is 'Here is Where We Meet' (Bloomsbury, 2006).

Thirdly, I have the distinct impression that you are approaching Berger's book (which no doubt contains some preconceptions and perhaps reductive analyses) with preconceptions of your own. You have only quoted a couple of sentences from Berger. Perhaps what you say is true, but I would like to see more quotes, particularly about Rembrandt; I am not at all sure that Berger was as simplistic as you seem to be suggesting.

When I read 'Ways of Seeing' (around 30 years ago). I was probably too young and ignorant to pick up on the Marxist ideology, but I don't recall Berger being as reductive as you say. His book made me think more intensely about paintings, which was all to the good at the time (I would have been going to Art College around then).

At his best, Berger is passionate, eloquent and often aphoristic, as, for example, in the following: “The past grows gradually around one, like a placenta for dying.” Or, on photography: “What makes photography a strange invention is that its primary raw materials are light and time.”

You are right to characterise Berger as a humanist. I am sure that he had (and perhaps still has) his faults. He was always highly political (when awarded the Booker for his novel 'G' he gave half the money to the Black Panthers). I agree wholly with your stance against the reductive simplicities of Silliman and Kooser, their attempts to corner a poem into what they think it is or should be. But I think there is much more to Berger than Marxist Humanism. If he is still hostile to abstract art, he is missing a large part of the picture. But he seems to have a keen awareness of literature's potential:
“One can say of language that it is potentially the only human home, the only dwelling place that cannot be hostile to man.”

Reginald Shepherd said...

Thanks for your incisive comments, which I have modified my post in response to. I would say that a poem is perhaps not so much an object as an event or an occasion. Obviously the poem on the page has the reality of an object, but no printed or written example of the poem is _the_ poem in the way that one can distinguish between the original of a painting or sculpture and a copy. As Susanne Langer writes, music presents us with virtual objects (the score, for example) whose shadows alone (the performance) are real. The same can be said for poetry. The poem must be realized in the same way that a musical score must be realized. The piece itself is not the score but the performance. Such a performance, for a poem, occurs whenever it is read. It might be said to exist in a latent state until then, like Sleeping Beauty or Snow White awaiting the reader's kiss to awaken it. But the analogy holds in that this performance is not a copy or reflection of another event, but is itself an event.

Take good care, and thanks for reading.

all best,

Andrew Shields said...

"so is a poem a new object or, perhaps more accurately, a new event or occasion in the world, an addition to the world."

I was thinking of a poem as a new experience in the world, but "event" and "occasion" are better words. Thanks for the clarification.

Reginald Shepherd said...

Dear Mark,

Thanks for your comment (and I hope that you got the email message that I sent you a while ago).

I have read almost everything that John Berger has written, except the novels, and I'm well aware of the range of his work. (About Looking is probably my favorite of his books.) In this context, however, I am writing of him as a Marxist art critic, which is neither reductive nor inaccurate. I don't think that he would argue with that description. He is also many other things, but that's not relevant to the current discussion.

I don't know the situation in Britain, but in America, though he was quite popular several years ago, Berger is not much read now. This is not a dismissal; it's a statement of fact. I don't equate popularity with worth, and I don't know why one would think that I would, especially given that much of my blog has been dedicated to highlighting the work of writers I consider underread.

I think that Berger should be read more. He was very influential on my own thought for many years. But this post points out some problems with his view of art, which I do find to be based on a somewhat reductive reflectionism. The hostility or indifference to abstract art is there in much of his work. I chose to discuss Ways of Seeing because it's his most popular and influential book.

I don't discuss all of Ways of Seeing (and specifically point out some of the other, more useful and interesting things that the book does), but I don't misrepresent his discussion of the two Rembrandt paintings, which is rather short and which I reread to make sure that I was presenting it accurately. Please feel free to go back to the text and see for yourself.

Thanks again for your reading and your comments.

all best,


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