Ways of seeing-chapter 1. John Berger

As an introduction to this powerful piece the dominance of  vision in our lives is suggested by the fact that seeing comes before words- both in the infant, and as we make sense of the world through seeing and thinking (Berger, 1972: 7). Of course what we see informs what we think, but what we think changes the way we see too. We do not simply mechanically see, we choose what to see by moving our eyes (Berger, 1972: 8).  If we see we can also be seen, and this reciprocal nature is more fundamental than that of speaking/dialogue (Berger, 1972:9).

The author gives one idea for the definition of an image

An image is a sight which has been recreated or reproduced. It is an appearance, or a set of appearances, which has been detached from the place and time in which it first made its appearance….

(Berger, 1972:9-10)

Berger believes that photos are not a mechanical record we are aware that the image taker has selected the image from many different variations (Berger, 1972:10). This is less ambivalent than Walter Benjamin’s view, and accords to a greater extent with my own (see above). His choice of subjects reflects his way of seeing, as do the brushstrokes of a painter reflect his (Berger, 1972:10).  I find this analogy a little imprecise. Surely this compares apples and pears? Both artist and photographer choose subjects similarly, but whilst an artist uses an artist’s techniques – brushstrokes, choice of colours, and other technical processes, a photographer uses technical knowledge of exposure, colour filters, light levels etc.  to make the image real.

How we see a photo is dependent both on how the photographer sees and how we see (Berger, 1972:10)– but this is true of all art forms I think. Originally images were used to conjure up invisible entities- this use corresponding to the ritual which Benjamin describes (Benjamin, 1999:76). Images developed to include people and how they looked, and the consciousness that it was an image of how one person felt another looked. This was due to an increasing sense of individuality and of history.  Berger states that the image is the most direct communicator of history, compared to text for example, and that it is ‘therefore ‘more precise and richer than literature’ (Berger, 1972:10). It may be richer and more direct, but the philosopher Roland Barthes asserts that the image is less precise than text, in a complex article ‘Rhetoric of the image’ (Barthes, 1999: 33).

When we view images of the past we bring with us assumptions  and ideas which include beauty, form, status, and  genius  (Berger, 1972:11).   Berger  argues that these ideas are not really relevant to the world today and they  mystify the past. This makes artworks both more remote, and importantly it reduces the chance of  us learning from them (which he describes as  offering  ‘us fewer conclusions to complete in action’ )(Berger, 1972:11). To understand the past we need to place ourselves within it, and the past is mystified by a ‘priveliged minority’ in order to validate  a historical role for the ruling classes literature’ (Berger, 1972:11). This article is powerfully political and subversive and very refreshing because of it.

The author now criticises an unnamed art historian over his analysis of  two Frans Haals paintings- Regents of the old men’s alms house, and it’s sister painting  Regentesses of the old men’s alms house.  The analysis ‘transfers the emotion provoked by the object from the plane of lived experience, to that of disinterested ‘art appreciation’ (Berger, 1972:13). I think the critic deserves his relative anonymity here, as he  seems to describe the paintings using a fairly standard ‘artistic elements’ approach. Berger suggests that rather than dismiss our own thoughts about how the figures were painted- and the personalities and relationships which emerge, we must use this as the only evidence available. He also says that bringing in various historical facts and figures cannot change the reality of what we see (Berger, 1972:14). Mystification is not about the  vocabulary used, but about ignoring what is evident (Berger, 1972:15).

There now follows a rather rambling, sometimes repetitive   section where we are counselled how to avoid this type of mystification, taking the example of perspective. From Renaissance times perspective was a way of ordering things so that the viewer was at the centre of things (Berger, 1972:16). With the development of the  camera what was seen is dependent on the photographers position in time and space.  This meant that images did not have to look like all the old paintings (Berger, 1972:17). I think of the way the photograph may have influenced the Cubists- their altered perspective, their lack of traditional perspective, and their incorporation of several views in one image.  ‘The visible came to mean something different to them. This was immediately reflected in painting’ (Berger, 1972:18). These are well argued points but its not immediately clear how this discussion is an example of demystification. The author does not make clear how this lengthy example fulfils his criteria.

There then follows a restatement of Benjamin’s idea- that photography reproducing a painting destroys some aura (a place, a history) and gives the new image a different meaning, or many meanings (Berger, 1972:19). When a TV programme transmits the image of a painting, each viewer has  their own context, and their own meaning (Berger, 1972:19).

In the age of  mechanical reproduction, viewing an original now tells us first and foremost that it is an original, not what it’s message is. These days the value of an object is due to its rarity, not its message, and that this rarity has assumed a bogus religiosity and mystification in an era of religious scepticism. Before a work of art we feel that due to its authenticity, it is beautiful, and it is art. (Berger, 1972:21).  This suits the artisitic elites who run galleries and the arts. They are far more interested and concerned with research and scholarship that establishes authenticity, and much less bothered about the message! (Berger, 1972:22).

Berger’s next artistic example is Leanardo’s cartoon ‘The Virgin and Child with St Anne and St John the Baptist’. He suggests that it has become impressive due to its market value.  Berger argues that this ‘bogus religiosity’ takes the place of what was lost when paintings became reproducible, and claims that the art establishment makes  the original mysteriously authentic, which is undemocratic .  (Berger, 1972:23).

Art galleries are visited by fewer uneducated than educated people and people think of art as belonging to the world of the rich (Berger, 1972:24) due to connotation with market value I presume. The original meaning is lost and new meanings are created in the age of reproduction of images. These can be achieved by i. isolation of a single part (Berger, 1972:25),  ii. The splitting of a painting up into parts which are arranged in order to tell a story (such as a  filmmakers message) .  (Berger, 1972:26),  iii. Addition of text (Berger, 1972:27), and iv. The  addition of other images around it (Berger, 1972:29).

His next point is very powerful, and is perhaps the central statement of this text, that because of the ways we can change the meaning of art, anyone and everyone should be able to use art. But in the modern world art is still mostly used in a way that justifies the old view of art and its importance to hierarchical  structures like the Church, The aristocracy, and the powerful(Berger, 1972:29). This does beg the question of what examples can be imagined of more democratic uses of art, and can I think of any that are being used in the present day and world?

The author cites an example of a board used by a person to pin up personal memorabilia. These may include images, and all are usually strongly connected  to the person; ‘logically these boards should replace museums’.  (Berger, 1972:30). Originals do not become useless – they have an immediacy – in the paint, the brushwork, but it’s what we do with our experience which can be different now (Berger, 1972:31). Nor does he believe that old art must be easy to understand as if difficulties can simply be personalised away. We need to have a view of art which relates it ‘to every aspect of experience’, and applied  to our own life, not one which is dominated and led by artistic elites and antidemocratic thinking which the art establishment believes in (Berger, 1972:32). Berger describes how art has always been isolated, originally in places connected with magic, and later in churches, castles and Palaces, dominated by the elite. But reproduction has freed art from this elite culture! .  (Berger, 1972:32). He reiterates that the use of art still does not empower people- it still works for elites, but we can gain power by using art  in a more personal way, using it to understand ourselves, and history (Berger, 1972:32). In fact ‘The entire art of the past has now become a political issue’ (Berger, 1972:32).

This is a very Marxist view of art, and it’s is interesting to wonder whether art has become more democratic, personal, and applicable in the forty years since this article was written (both how we view and use old art, and what we view and use as new art). It  is also massively illuminating when I think about my reaction to modern art. Although I have increasingly broadened and democratised my opinion of modern and contemporary art, I still frequently work against an inner voice which says ‘A child could do that’, or ‘that does not take skill’. Berger’s view of art tells us that if we have this view, then we need to remember that art must be personally empowering, and political, and has no need to look like the art of the past. In fact it should not. It should be whatever is relevant to each of us in society and should include everyone.

BLOG questions

Do you find his case convincing?

Berger believes that art’s elite nature is a mystification of art. Mystification has to an extent always been part of art, through it’s rituals of magic and religion. We now live in a world where magic, and religion no longer dominate and where  technical  reproduction has the  potential for the democratisation of art. However, Berger believes that the elites still control art through their concentration on an approach to art which is dominated by a bogus aura; an obsession with rarity, value, research and scholarship. This ignores what’s most important-what art can mean to individual people, and how individuals can act on the conclusions they make from their experiences of art. In order to redress the balance he believes that we should look at what the art tells us, act on our conclusions, allow the art to affect how we live our lives. We should reduce our dependence on academic scholarship and the provenance of artworks. We should be open to new ways of personalising our experience of art. His Marxist view is that the powerful art elite (the superstructure) are maintaining this hierarchy, and I suspect that he would like a significant change made in the art establishment (new appointments and de-appointments).

Do you think that a work of art removed from its original site grows or diminishes in meaning?

On the one hand removing a work of art from its original site may diminish it’s aura. This reduces the aspect of ritual connected to the art, because it’s original site is lost. However, the history, age and authenticity of the art does not completely evaporate by the move, and the artwork can be re-energised by it’s repositioning. To be controversial, and play the devil’s advocate- when I visited Rome, I did not go to the Vatican to see Michelangelo’s painting on the ceiling of the Cistine chapel- I was told that the queues entailed hours of waiting. If the ceiling were removed and broken up, and distributed to sites all over the world, would this be a bad thing? Yes the painting has broken up, and some small loss of aura has occurred. But if the peoples of many countries had a small piece to  look at and learn from, the power of Michelangelo’s artistic message may  have been increased compared to it’s original setting.

Does familiarity breed contempt?

In the case of reproductions of rare masterpieces I don’t think so. It has to be a good thing for these reproduction images to be democratised; to be used in adverts, on postcards, in TV programmes, for comedy… and any other way which we can usefully engage with them in the context of our present time.

Any sense that we are treating the images with contempt, or any sense that we are not respecting their history because we are interacting differently with them should be quashed. I agree with Berger’s argument for the democratisation of artistic images. We no longer live life in reverence to magic and religion, and yet we are still allowing ourselves to be imprisoned by artistic elites who continue to alienate the masses by maintaining the bogus aura of a work’s history and uniqueness.

The overwhelmingly important aspect of our relationship with old ‘authentic’ art, is that we are touched and learn from it. Mechanical reproduction allows this art into new aspects of our lives, and if we remain open to it’s powers, we should be able to change our lives through it. We need to reduce our obsession with how things were for others- concentrating on how things are for us, when we approach a historical artefact. This is a wonderfully democratic idea, and strongly revolutionary.

Has Benjamin’s aura been removed by the postcard? See above!

References

Barthes, R (1999) ‘Rhetoric of the image’ In visual culture: a reader. Evans, J and Hall, S (eds.). London. SAGE Publications.      p. 33-41

Benjamin, W.(1999) ‘The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction’ in In visual culture: a reader. Evans, J and Hall, S (eds.). London. SAGE Publications.      p. 72-8

Berger, J (1972) ‘Chapter 1’ in Ways of Seeing. Great Britain, Penguin.   p.  7-34

The work of art in the age of mechanical production

Benjamin begins by suggesting that manual reproduction of art has always been possible and cites examples from roman times. Mechanical reproduction has progressed slowly, but in in leaps and bounds. The first way of mechanically producing art was the woodcut, developed before the printing of text. In the middle ages engraving and etching were developed, and lithography in the 19th Century. Benjamin cites lithography as being different from previous printing methods, and that it was more direct (Benjamin, 1999:72). Previous methods allowed large numbers of prints but lithography allowed an image to be changed more frequently – at the pace of text printing (Benjamin, 1999:73). Here Benjamin seems to use the term printing to mean printing text as opposed to a general description of the method. It is not entirely clear why lithography was so much easier to use; perhaps the tracing of the image on stone was simpler and more controllable than engraving (which requires some chemical dissolving), or woodcuts (which may be more difficult, making the image less refined?)

Lithography was soon overtaken by photography, which freed the hand from the major part of the reproduction method. Because it could be executed so quickly it was natural that it could change with and thereby accompany speech-  and foreshadowed the development of ‘talking’ films (Benjamin, 1999:73).

It is interesting to ponder the status of photography as ‘mechanical reproduction’. How do we distinguish manual and mechanical reproduction? It is not completely free of the hand- but neither is any reproduction method-so this will not suffice as a  criteria. Identical reproductions through photography are impossible, but they can be virtually identical- and this too applies to many other printing techniques. It seems that one needs to distinguish a photograph of an existing image from a photograph of a scene from ‘life’- a living scene. Whilst the reproduction of an existing image, such as a painting, from the direction and distance intended by the artist, seems very ‘mechanical’ and produces a virtually identical image (but see later for photography’s ability to revolutionise viewpoints and other aspects of seeing). However the capturing of a live image, such as a landscape or a portrait, seems to be a very different case. Here one is producing a very different image to that originally viewed through the camera- it is static, and is much less alive, and seems especially different from the original scene (for example it is viewed flat on a surface and can be touched directly). In this sense a photograph from life, if it is not less mechanical than a photograph of an existing flat (or static) image, seems at least a special case. Perhaps in this sense it is more akin to manual reproduction.

By 1900 technical reproduction had become so accurate that it could be used for all works of art. This had a great effect on how people viewed art, and also increased the value of reproduction as an artistic process in its own right (Benjamin, 1999:73).

Benjamin acknowledges that a perfect reproduction still lacks a uniqueness of time and place, amounting to a loss of a specific history (including any damage), and ownership (Benjamin, 1999:73). The idea of ownership, and provenance has become massively important to an art work’s monetary value.  I watched a TV programme recently in which ownership (for example by famous people) was described as one of the most important factors determining the astronomical figures famous art sells for. Specifically the fact that a Mark Rothko painting had been owned by the Rockefeller family contributed to its 50+ million dollar price at last auction.

Benjamin continues, stating that ‘The presence of the original is the prerequisite to the concept of authenticity’ (Benjamin, 1999:73). However, a distinction is drawn between manual and technical reproduction; a manual reproduction loses authority, but not so a technical reproduction, in the presence of the original. This is because when compared to a manual reproduction,  a technical reproduction  is less dependent on the original, and can increase the  public’s access to the work, admittedly via a copy.   Whilst the latter point is undeniable, I’m not sure I find the criteria of independence from the original either  useful or  consistent to distinguish the two reproductions. Benjamin now adds to the confusion, as he discusses that photography, being process reproduction (and therefore less dependent on the original) can bring out additional features or those hidden to the naked eye (Benjamin, 1999:74). The wording seems too imprecise.

The next paragraph seems a little repetitive, and unclearly stated at the very least.  Nevertheless, at this point Benjamin has established that when  original art is confronted with a mechanical reproduction ‘the quality of the its presence is always depreciated’, and that what is lost may be described as the aura .This process of reproduction both  ‘detaches the reproduced object from the domain of tradition’, and also reactivates each copy, completely  ‘shattering’ tradition (Benjamin, 1999:74).  In other words, in the age of mechanical reproduction we begin to think about art, previously dominated by originals and authenticity, in a very different and revolutionary way- which is to an extent mirrored in contemporary society and mass art forms- particularly film.

Benjamin believes that the masses are becoming more important in life (see also Alloway (2003), Hamilton (2003) and Karl Marx!). It is proposed that  the social bases for the loss of aura in contemporary life is due to the need of the masses to be closer to objects (both physically and humanly) and their need to overcome the uniqueness of realities. In other words Benjamin sees that the masses are adjusting their reality (both their thinking and perception) in a potentially limitless way (Benjamin, 1999:75).

The uniqueness of a work of art is uniquely connected with tradition, but the tradition can change.  For example the Greeks worshipped the statue of Venus as a deity, whilst in medaevil times it was seen as an idol (Benjamin, 1999:75).  Originally art was used for  ritual– initially magic, and subsequently religious. Benjamin states that ‘It is significant that the existence of the work of art with reference to its aura is never entirely separated from its ritual function’. The  example of Beauty is discussed. It’s origins were in sacred ritual, and though examples are not given one presumes this includes the beauty of religious subjects such as Mary, Jesus, the saints etc… Beauty continued as secularized ritual from Renaissance times, but Benjamin suggests that this idea reached a crisis point. With the development of the photograph, and social change we reached a crisis where the social function of art was questioned and devalued (Benjamin, 1999:76). This era to me, is probably Modernism, but does not name it. However, updating the idea of the ritual of beauty to the present day, Beauty is everywhere and has tremendous power over us, even if we think we know better. It is used in the entertainment industry to sell us films, and in advertising to sell us goods and services. It seems to be worshipped by the media.

However, in fine art Modernism did seem to rid art of its need for a story, or an illusion, for example in abstraction-but even abstract art can have a function- for example to shock.  Benjamin states that mechanical reproduction has removed the artwork from its dependence on ritual, and sees that ridding the artwork from ritual allows it to become political (Benjamin, 1999:76).

There are two polarities of art – Ritual and Exhibition. Ritual art included cave paintings and was not intended to be viewed -except by the spirits. Exhibition- the viewing of art images seems to be easier when ritual is removed. It’s easier to transfer a statue of a goddess to an exhibition if it’s removed from the temple it sits in ! (Benjamin, 1999:76). Reproduction of works of art changed its ability to be exhibited, how many could view it, and also the quality of the object. Film is cited as a good example-  where art is designed to be viewed, perhaps by more the better (think of Trashy commercial TV). It has no ritual function, and   its artistic value may be of secondary importance. (Benjamin, 1999:77).

The author now discusses Freudian theory in relation to our enriched perception through film. His book the Psychopathology of everyday life has enabled us to examine and analyse previously imperceptible things within our lives. Similarly film has enabled visual and acoustic perception to be analysed and understood more deeply, compared to a painting (to which it is more precise), or to a stage situation (because it can be ‘isolated more easily’.) (Benjamin, 1999:77).

Film allows us to use close-ups and reveal which can extend  ‘our comprenhension of the necessities which rule our lives’ (Benjamin, 1999:78).  It is empowering in this respect because it extends the scope of the areas we inhabit such as streets, offices, stations. He suggests that it can free us from the entrapment of the modern world (Benjamin, 1999:78), the type of world and its anxiety described by George Simmell (ref). Also the opportunity to observe via film is increased  revealing more than normal human vision can appreciate;  ‘the camera introduces us to unconscious optics as does psychanalysis to unconscious impulses…’ (Benjamin, 1999:78). As well as describing camera uses such as ‘slow mo’ and ‘close up’, these thoughts are pertinent to the use and development of different modalities of seeing, Computed tomography and Magnetic Resonance Imaging.

BLOG questions

How does he state his case for the removal of art’s elite nature?

Benjamin believes that there is always something more authentic about the original than a mechanical reproduction, but that a mechanical reproduction will  reactivate the image and make it more powerful and democratic. He distinguishes two polarities in art- ritual and exhibition. The former involved the rituals of magic and religion and was not reliant on vision by the masses. The latter involves the masses and depends upon art being seen by as many people as can see it.  We now live in a world where magic, and religion no longer dominate and technical reproduction has the potential  (there will be a small loss of aura) for a massive increase in  democratisation and political power. As the masses become more important in life the Exhibition element should be dominant to the ritual element (which is associated with elites- including artistic elites).

What do you make of his ideas of the ‘aura’ of the work?

I believe that Benjamin’s ideas about the aura are extremely useful and powerful. With it he explains our relationship with unique historical artefacts, based on how man previously lived his life in reverence to magic and religion, and which filled in the gaps of his knowledge, and made life easier to bear. Mechanical copies depreciate the aura of the original, but importantly, they are reactivated and re-energised in a way that makes them much more powerful and democratic, and of use to contemporary society. Films are a good example of this power, as they are so popular with ordinary people, are an important leisure activity, and can have a strong political message.

Does the improvement in the methods of reproduction, colour printing, digital imaging and television, strengthen or weaken is case?

I don’t really think so. His ideas about the aura are flexible enough to cope with the revolution in technological reproduction. He allows for a small reduction of aura when a work is reproduced- amounting to history and uniqueness. This is inevitable with art produced before mechanical reproduction was easy and widespread. In today’s world, where artist’s use techniques of reproduction much more widely- in order to disseminate their message to potentialy millions or billions of people, an artist may never produce one ‘original’ and the reliance on aura has been replaced by an increase in the artist’s political power and the democratisation of art. Benjamin believes that this is more important than the aura.

Does the failure of the soviet experiment alter the validity or otherwise of his case?

For the soviet experiment I will read ‘the Communist state’. This is a very complicated question. It’s answer depends upon how much of the failure depended on the ideals inherent in communism, and how much was dependent on it’s execution by weak and fallible people- ie. members of the human race. Communist states seem to fail due to man’s inability to avoid iniquity, hubris, war and destruction, not on an ideal of equality. Additionally they are often  supported by Western democracies, who affect the results. The soviet experiment may have failed due to the rise of a despotic leader Joseph Stalin, and how he treated his own people. As a model for politics, Benjamin’s aura is still valid, and would preclude any one powerful person (or a selected few) leading a state- this is not democratic.

References

Benjamin, W.(1999) ‘The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction’ in In visual culture: a reader. Evans, J and Hall, S (eds.). London. SAGE Publications.      p. 72-8

Berger, J (1972) ‘Chapter 1’ in Ways of Seeing. Great Britain, Penguin.   p.  7-34

 

The interaction of media

1.Richard Hamilton

hamilton

Fig. 1 Kent State (1970)

Richard Hamilton (1922-2011) was a British artist and art commentator. He was a co-founder of the Independent Group in 1956, a collection of people working in various media (including painting and architecture). The group was interested in technology and contemporary culture (Hamilton, 2003: 742), and Hamilton exhibited work which led directly to the term ‘Pop art’ in Britain. Hamilton saw pop art as a way of appropriating the subjects of popular culture and mass media, into the business of fine art, and was necessary if the artist was to avoid becoming redundant (Hamilton, 2003:743).

Other writers such as Lawrence Alloway had similar views.  Alloway fought against the idea of artistic elites, and championed the ideas and art of the masses. He believed that the industrial revolution had increased the importance of the masses (the working class?), and that rapid changes in popular culture and popular art forms were better descriptions of life than the more conservative and academic artistic elite.

He directly criticised Clement Greenberg over his use of the word Kitsch to describe ‘a mass art which was destined for ‘those who are insensible to the values of genuine culture.’ (Alloway. 2003: 715). He thought the ‘rejection of the mass produced arts is not, as critics think, a defence of culture but an attack on it’. (Alloway, 2003: 717).

Within this context of mass culture Hamilton produced art from photographs, paintings, and reproduction techniques such as printing and lithography. His ideas drew upon mass media such as newspapers, magazines, TV and advertisements. Fig. 1 shows a print (one of 5000) based on a photograph that Hamilton took whilst watching TV news. It depicts a shooting of a university student by the national guard, during an anti-war demonstration in the USA.  Hamilton thought it was a powerful image and developed it further (Tate online, n.d).

The artist described the many routes and processes through which the original information had passed in  order to arrive at the final prints. This involved a cine camera (at the scene), taking chaotic and shaky footage, satellite broadcast by the USA, UK TV  station broadcast, electrons in Hamilton’s TV screen/cathode ray tube exciting the pixcels into different amounts and colours of light (ref). Then, once the artist took the picture of the TV screen, it was transformed additionally through a long process of mechanical reproductions into the final prints.  This included the use of a process camera to transfer several different images into different patterns on 13 nylon grids. Each grid was used via the process of print screening, to transfer 15 layers of differently arranged and coloured transparent paint onto each final print paper (2 grids were used twice) (Tate online, n.d).

Fig 1. Shows an image which is both real and abstract to a degree. It is still recognisably a picture of a person who is lying prone, with others around them. The print is in a format which suggests the average TV screen, and the grid of the screen is detectable within the image- echos of the original circumstances when Hamilton first engaged with the scene.  However, the complexity of the information transmission process has caused a loss of some information and a consequent blurring and fuzziness. This has been augmented by the overlapping of different coloured transparencies which, at the edges, have given a feeling of movement-  almost reinstating the life of the original footage. Despite this ghostly appearance, the wounds are powerfully described using a very vivid red to suggest blood.  During the transformation this image has become less like a photograph, and much more artistic, more colourful, subtle, and painterly.

It is interesting to analyse this work in terms of both the artists feelings and those of the thinker Walter Benjamin. The original subject here was a violent act against a student protester. The authentic object from Benjamin’s point of view was probably the original footage on cine camera. This scene, viewed through the camera lens by the photographer alone may have contained characteristics of the immediate shock and chaos felt by all involved. This usefully corresponds to Benjamin’s aura of the original (Benjamin, 1999: 76).  Hamilton described the process of change starting at his camera,

In spite of the many transmogrifications, what’s left always has a kind of validity. So every change that I have made, so long as my hand didn’t come into it, and as long as I didn’t tamper with it in a physical way, had its own authenticity, too.                                                                                                                                                                                  (Tate online, n.d)

This is a classic restatement of Benjamin’s discussion that process reproduction (as opposed to manual reproduction) does not destroy authenticity completely (Benjamin, 1999: 73-4). Benjamin also states that the loss of aura involves both things becoming closer physically and humanly, and a loss of uniqueness of an object (Benjamin, 1999:75). This too is applicable to the violent scene which Hamilton saw on his TV screen that night. The loss of aura through transmission to another person, is also accompanied by a reactivation of something else- not tradition, something different (Benjamin, 1999: 74). Hamilton was shocked by the scene- but no doubt it did not make his heart race and his skin crawl, as it might have done to the camera operator ( perhaps the true presence of the aura here).However he was moved to highlight the political aspects via his artistic method. His process transformed the scene for a different audience, an artistic one – one perhaps more ostensibly ‘cultured’, powerful, and political than many TV consumers.

2.Gerhard Richter

ichter.jpg

Fig. 2 Grauwald (2008)

Gerhard Richter (b.1932) is an artist who has worked in a whole variety of different styles, but at times has seemed obsessed with both photographs and painting. He, and his thoughts on these disciplines seem a little enigmatic, sometimes inconsistent, and perhaps ‘melodramatic’.

In ‘Notes 1964-65’ he seems to turn the thinking of certain writers on it’s head. For example he believes in the precision of the photograph (Richter, 2003: 757), but in stark contrast to Brik, who believes in the supremacy of the photograph as a record, over the painterly and artistic progress (Brik, 2003: 473), Richter states that the photo is meaningless as a record of reality (Richter, 2003: 759).  And yet, Richter also sees that photos have taken on religious overtones, with people using pictures of family or friends in quasi- religious ways (Richter, 2003: 757). By acknowledging this he acknowledges that photos have a religious or ‘magic’ characteristic which Walter Benjamin believes to be a sign of authenticity (Benjamin, 2003: 76). This seems absurd if the subject is indeed meaningless.

Richter’s work almost universally uses photographs as a source material, but the emphasis is on the painting process and the materials he uses. He seems to be making a firm statement for the supremacy of the painting (the object) over the photograph (the subject). He uses the photograph simply to suggest artistic elements to him, all that interests him are ‘ the grey areas, the passages and the tonal sequences, the pictorial spaces, overlaps and interlockings.’ (Richter, 2003: 759). In fact it seems that if he had  the power simply to imagine such elements, he would simply paint abstracts from his imagination.

Fig 2 shows one of the artists ‘painted over photographs’. This seems to suggest  painting’s supremacy over the photo in several ways. Firstly paint is placed directly on top of the photo, a very physical and painterly sign of dominance. Secondly the photograph, of a wood, has been obscured by the paint till it is almost unrecognisable- as a photo. Furthermore, the grey paint is monochrome and hence less real compared to the colours of the source photo- which emphasises paint- over photography (and Brik’s faithful camera reproduction (Brik, 2003:471)).  Even the title Grauwald (Greywood) puts paint and the monochrome grey rather clumsily and surprisingly before the more familiar call to reality contained in the word Wald (wood).

3.Luciana Haill

This artist works between the borders of science and art. She is a research fellow at Sussex university and investigates the Neurophysiology of Lucid Dreaming, and her own personal sleep consciousness (Haill, 2016 a.). Her installation ‘Sleep cycles’ includes several different objects. Fig.3 and 4 show part of the artwork.

1

Fig. 3 Sleepcycles (2016) I.

2

Fig. 4 Sleepcycles (2016) ii.

Fig 3 shows a digital representation of the brainwaves (The EEG-electroencephalogram) recorded during a subject’s vivid dream, superimposed on a weighty book. The artist has said that the wave pattern indicated light REM sleep, close to waking. The waves shown include some corresponding to rapid eye movement, and a dream in which the subject recalled riding a unicorn along a beach (Haill, 2016 b.).

I find the artistic impression of fig. 3 to be rather weak however. It does not give me a palpable pleasurable feeling which I get when I like art or music, be it modern or traditional.  This is a strong litmus test for me, although within this test may lurk the problems of personal prejudice and/or laziness in my artistic response.  The juxtaposition of the old and new is certainly striking though.

I do think the new potential for art to be expressed using physical manifestations of our thoughts (both conscious and subconscious- previously little known to us), is massively powerful.  This artist is interested in exactly what scientists are interested in- with a different artistic slant. The revolution in psychology and psychiatry has involved both it’s beginnings in the subconscious and ‘the interpretation of dreams’ by Sigmund Freud, but latterly a drive to connect thoughts with physically identifiable entities- whether EEG waves or the status of anatomical areas of the brain.

The use of advanced imaging such as MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) is a modern modality of ‘seeing’- not with white light (as in human vision), nor using X-rays (as through X-ray pictures- which the artist Francis Bacon was interested in), but with quite different physical magnetic waves. It is a continuation of the scientist’s urge to visualise with increasing resolution and power, and the use of these modalities for recreation and learning in art is intriguing.   These possibilities of vision are extensions of the idea discussed by Benjamin, that the camera and it’s photograph introduced us to  ‘unconscious optics as does psychoanalysis to unconscious impulses….’ (Benjamin, 1999: 78).

Returning to the installation, Fig. 4 shows a second part and includes rolls of pianola paper, several antique-looking books, and a 14 million year old rock fragment in two hemispheres contained within a glass jar, which has an extinguished candle attached, and a trail of hardened melted wax. The rock sections look like a dissected brain to the novice. The candle, the rock, and perhaps also the pianola, are interesting objects from the perspective of physical manifestation of duration and a physical process which is nevertheless ‘nebulous’.   The wax trail illustrates the life of the burnt candle, the different rock areas perhaps the duration of the physical processes which formed them; even the pianola paper translates something physical (marks on the page) into a different form (sound and music). Perhaps these objects reference the idea of capturing the physical trail of a nebulous thought or dream?

Illustrations 

 Fig. 1 Hamilton, R.  Kent State (1970)  [screenprint on paper].  Online at: http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/hamilton-kent-state-p77043 [accessed 16th February 2017]

Fig. 2 Richter, G. Grauwald (2008)  [Lacquer on colour photograph].  Online at: https://www.gerhard-richter.com/en/art/overpainted-photographs/grauwald-79/12108-grauwald-16544/?&categoryid=79&p=1&sp=32 [accessed 16th February 2017]

Fig. 3 and 4.  Haill, L. Sleepcycles  (2016) [installation].  Online at: https://lucianahaill.wordpress.com/sleepcycles/ [accessed 16th February 2017]

 References

Alloway, L. (2003) . ‘The Arts and the Mass Media’ 1958   In  Harrison,C. and Wood,P. (eds). Art in Theory 1900-2000. Oxford. Blackwell Publications. p. 715-717

Benjamin, W.(1999) ‘The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction’ in In visual culture: a reader. Evans, J and Hall, S (eds.). London. SAGE Publications.      p. 72-8

Brik, O. (2003) . ‘Photography versus Painting’ 1926  In  Harrison,C. and Wood,P. (eds). Art in Theory 1900-2000. Oxford. Blackwell Publications. p. 470-473

Haill,  L (2016 a) ‘Sleepcycles’ online at: https://lucianahaill.wordpress.com/digital-artworks/ [accessed 16th February 2017]

Haill, L (2016 b) ‘Technology is not neutral’ online at: http://technologyisnotneutral.com/LucianaHaill [accessed 16th February 2017]

Hamilton, R. (2003) . ‘For the Finest Art, Try Pop’ 1961   In  Harrison,C. and Wood,P. (eds). Art in Theory 1900-2000. Oxford. Blackwell Publications. p. 742-743.

Richter , G. (2003) . ‘Notes 1964-1965’  In  Harrison,C. and Wood,P. (eds). Art in Theory 1900-2000. Oxford. Blackwell Publications. p. 757-760

Tate online, (no date). The Tate Gallery 1984-86: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions Including Supplement to Catalogue of Acquisitions 1982-84, online at : http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/hamilton-kent-state-p77043 [accessed 16th February 2017

 

 

Leisure Time and Consumerism- flâneur

Leisure Time and Consumerism- flâneur

The Modern World

By convention, aspects of the modern world may be split into 3 categories. Modernization consists of the technological and scientific advances which were occurring; Modernity was a more subjective cultural and social description of the experience of life under these changes; and Modernism was a way of seeking answers as to why the world had become the way it was (Harrison and Wood, 2003: 128). This small discussion around the idea of flâneur will involve all three categories.

Modern times

When do we consider modern times to begin? I like the following definition: modern times are ‘the circumstances and ideas of the present age’ (Free dictionary, 2003). This allows for a rolling idea of the modern, and is in no way inconsistent with the three definitions above, which are all relative. This discussion starts in the early 19th Century with the development of the Arcades of Paris , and finishes upon the death of the philosopher and thinker Walter Benjamin (1892-1940).

The Paris Arcades

These were developed in the 1820-30’s, and represented a technological and architectural advance in relation to the phenomenon of increasing leisure time and consumerism in 19th Century Paris. They were formed by widening the streets, converting buildings into shops, and installing glass and iron frameworks to cover the arcades and provide shelter and comfort for the shoppers. They were lit by gas lamps, heated, and provided cafes too. Although they were soon superceded by larger buildings and the development of the Department Store, these arcades were the beginnings of the comfortable shopping experience which we know today, developed for an increasing bourgeoisie and consumer society in 19th Century Paris (Woodward, 2007).

The philosopher Walter Benjamin famously used these arcades to investigate and grapple with ideas of modernity. His ‘Paris Arcades’ was a massive and complex project which was left unfinished at his death. The project nevertheless popularised these arcades and helped lead to their preservation in the 1970-80s (Woodward, 2007).

The Flâneur and his relationship to 19th C Paris

The flâneur was a popular concept in 19th Century Paris. The poet Charles Baudelaire described it well in his book ‘The Painter of Modern Life’. A flâneur was someone ‘dominated, if ever anyone was, by an insatiable passion, that of seeing and feeling’, and who was ‘to be away from home and yet to feel at home anywhere; to see the world, to be at the very centre of the world, and yet to be unseen of the world’. Most importantly, he was ‘looking for that indefinable something we may be allowed to call ‘modernity’ and sought to ‘extract from fashion the poetry that resides in its historical envelope, to distil the eternal from the transitory.’  (Baudelaire (no date) cited in Birkerts, 1982(1983))

Walter Benjamin’s flâneur

Baudelaire’s flâneur was specific to 19th C Paris. During Walter Benjamin’s later investigations on this subject he saw that the demise of the flâneur was correlated with the progress of Modern times. He appropriated the idea of flâneur in an expanded form, and it became a motif in his writings (Birkets, 1982 (1983)). As well as suiting his style of working which involved collecting and commenting on topics, the idea may also have allowed him to understand and legitimise himself, as his life had also included failure, lack of acceptance and a sense of social isolation (he had no wife and family for example) (Birkets, 1982 (1983)).

Benjamin’s flâneur was a collector of all types of phenomena and sensory details, not just fashion. The apparent idleness of the flâneur was contrary to the modern ideas of work and industry (Birkets, 1982 (1983)), but he believed that this idleness was necessary to perceive the truth. Interestingly, I recently had a conversation with a friend where I discussed that I had down-sized my full-time job in order to develop other working opportunities. He quoted the following

It’s necessary to be slightly underemployed if you are to do something significant.
James D. Watson (Co-discovered the      structure of DNA with Francis Crick) (izquotes, 2017)

Some of the ideas concerning modern society and ones relation to one’s own Modern life, which I will discuss later, were very much behind my sense of anxiety at the down-size, but my friend’s insightful comment gave me considerable optimism, and helped me through some uncertainty.

Benjamin believed that the truth has been scattered into pieces by modern life and that it could ultimately be pieced together by the flâneur (Birkets, 1982 (1983)). His biographer said that ‘he was concerned with the correlation between a street scene, a speculation on the stock exchange, a poem, a thought….’ (Hannah Arendt 1968, cited in Birkets, 1982 (1983)) .

Birkets describes Benjamin’s flâneur as a medium through which the external is captured and made sense of, in terms of both history and truth (Birkets, 1982 (1983). However he admits that Benjamin’s flâneur is not totally passive, and that there is an implied ability to discriminate which ‘pieces’ relate to one another and how they relate to the truth. This is perhaps a warning that Benjamin’s ultimate goal, that flâneur allowed one to give up intellectuality and simply feel the truth, was flawed Birkets, 1982 (1983) . Benjamin’s friend, the Marxist Theodor Adorno, criticised areas of the Arcades when he read it, telling Benjamin that the proposed correlation between the detail and the structure, using Marxist methods, was not rigorous and lacked causal explanations Birkets, 1982 (1983). Birket suggests that this was because Benjamin was too ‘atuned to the singular sensory details……’ Birkets, 1982 (1983).

Focussing on the modern once more, Benjamin thought that experiencing modern life was akin to experiencing and surviving a series of ‘shocks’ and that the price may be ‘the disintegration of aura in the experience of shock (Benjamin (no date) cited in Birkets, 1982 (1983). ‘Aura’ was central to Benjamin’s thought- it is found when we perceive the world in a way in which the world can perceive us too, and it guarantees an authentic experience. To get an aura of the past, involuntary memory was crucial. This memory, unlike voluntary, was independent of habit and personal projection Birkets, 1982 (1983) – it seems to be more visceral and less contrived.

Flâneur and the mental life

Benjamin was not alone with his ideas about the shock of modern life, and its stifling of the aura and of ultimate truth. The sociologist and philosopher George Simmel (1858-1918) believed that the problem with modern life was that the metropolis changes so frequently. The sights, sounds, stimuli, and the feelings we have as a reaction to them make it hard for us as individuals to maintain our identity (Simmel, 2003:132). This concept seems to mirror Benjamin’s ‘shock of the modern’. Simmel extolled that modern man becomes a subject of the modern world in so many ways (just think of our working lives both now and then, where he has punctuality, exactness, expectation, and discipline thrust upon him). This sense of being a subject reduces the life which one feels in oneself, which Simmel counters is a more instinctive and sometimes irrational process (Simmel, 2003:133).

Simmel proposes that modern man develops a protective reaction to the overstimulation, which he calls Blasé, which both prevents proper discrimination in an observer, and also causes us to depersonalise within our relations with our ever increasing numbers of neighbours and contacts. This depersonalisation is also clearly seen within the anonymity of the mechanisms of economic trade (Simmel, 2003:132). Simmel described the result of ‘the preponderance of what one may call the ‘objective spirit’ over the ‘subjective’ spirit’ in modern culture -that modern man has a ferocious ‘urge for the most individual personal existence’(Simmel, 2003:135). Both Simmel and Benjamin seem to agree that modern life has short-circuited our emotional systems such that we can no longer see the truth within ourselves or in our history- and that a change is needed.

Modern times and Modern art

In the latter part of the 19th and the start of the 20th Century, the art world was changing in a drastic manner, so drastically that it was almost turning in on itself. At this time Hermann Bahr (1863-1934) discussed Expressionist art, using the term broadly as a turning away from Impressionism (Bahr, 2003:117). This art included the Cubists (such as Picasso and Braques), the Futurists (founded by Marinetti), and the Blue Reiter (including Kandinsky and Marc).

This revolution in art (Modernist art?) was described by Bahr in very similar terms to those of Benjamin’s updated flâneur and Simmel’s urge for something more individual. He believed that modern man was in battle with machines and modernity, and that ‘man cries out for his soul’ (Bahr, 2003:119). Not just that- but that ‘Art too joins in…. she cries to the spirit’ (Bahr, 2003:119). This was Expressionism. He proposed that real art was not the Impressionist’s seeing and recording of a natural sensation (an illusion of nature), but precisely the opposite. To the Expressionists, art was the recording of anything that nature did not admit- and that yes they too painted what they ‘saw’– but they did not see as the Impressionists did (Bahr, 2003:117).

How art changed in response to the Modern world (and ideas behind the flâneur)

So in the last part of the 19th Century and the beginnings of the 20th Century we have a sea-change in how artists see and paint the world around them. This might be condensed by saying that this was the beginning of Modern art as we know it today.

In the latter part of the 1800’s Van Gogh painted quickly, and outdoors, and produced canvasses which were completely dominated by his own feelings, and his mental state, which was frequently either manic or depressed. He never sold a painting in his lifetime. In the early 20th Century the German Expressionists were represented by both Die Brücke, and the Blue Reiter groups. Die Brücke responded to the modern world and established art, with a programme which hailed that ‘Everyone who reproduces that which drives him to creation with directness and authenticity belongs to us’ (Kirchner, 2003: 65). These painters were interested in expressing themselves rather than concentrating on the subject. They were completely against the classical art establishment, and had an interest in primitive art, religious art, woodcuts, and (like Van Gogh) art from the Eastern world. The second branch of German expressionism Der Blaue Reiter group included Wassily Kandinsky and Franz Marc. Marc was interested in the spiritual and mystical character of the natural world- in response to the modern, the technical and the urban (Harrison and Wood, 2003: 93).

In contrast to the more idealist response to Modernity, extolled by Benjamin, Simmel, Bahr, and importantly, Henri Bergson, the Futurist movement was excited and full of admiration for the Modern world. They based Futurism on a manifesto containing a weird and wonderful story about a group of friends who are involved in a car crash, but are changed irrevocably by the experience, and come to worship all things Modern- cars, factories, speed, machines (Harrison and Wood, 2003: 128-9). These Modern ideas were revered by the group who painted pictures of cars, trains, (and the occasional dog), and suggested their characteristics in paint (such as speed and rotation).

Bibliography

Arendt, H (1968), ‘Illuminations’ in Walter Benjamin, Flâneur: A Flanerie [online] at URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/20155922 (accessed on Feb 7th 2017)

Bahr, H (2003) ‘from Expressionism 1916’ in Harrison, C. and Wood, P. (ed.). Art in Theory 1900-2000. Oxford. Blackwell Publications. p. 116-121

Baudelaire, C (no date) ‘The Painter of Modern Life’ In Walter Benjamin, Flâneur: A Flanerie [online] at URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/20155922 (accessed on Feb 7th 2017)

Benjamin, W (no date) ‘On some motifs in Baudelaire’ in Walter Benjamin, Flâneur: A Flanerie [online] at : http://www.jstor.org/stable/20155922 (accessed on Feb 7th 2017)

Birkerts, S. (1982 (1983)) Walter Benjamin, Flâneur: A Flanerie [online] at  http://www.jstor.org/stable/20155922 (accessed on Feb 7th 2017)

Free dictionary, 2003 Modern times (defn) [online] at “http://www.thefreedictionary.com/modern+times”>modern times</a> (accessed on Feb 7th 2017)

Harrison, C. and Wood, P. (1993). ‘The Idea of the Modern World-Introduction’ In Harrison, C. and Wood, P. (ed.s). Art in Theory 1900-2000. Oxford. Blackwell Publications. p. 127-131

Harrison, C. and Wood, P. (2003) Introduction to ‘The ‘’Savages’’ of Germany’ and ‘Two Pictures’ in Harrison, C. and Wood, P. (ed.). Art in Theory 1900-2000. Oxford. Blackwell Publications. p. 93-95

Izquotes (2017) ‘It’s necessary to be slightly underemployed…’ [online] At http://izquotes.com/quote/194028 (accessed on Feb 7th 2017)

Kirchner, E (2003) ‘Programme of the Brucke 1906’ in Harrison, C. and Wood, P. (ed.). Art in Theory 1900-2000. Oxford. Blackwell Publications. p. 65-66

Simmel, G (2003) ‘The Metropolis and Mental Life’ 1902-3 in Harrison, C. and Wood, P. (ed.). Art in Theory 1900-2000. Oxford. Blackwell Publications. p. 132-136

Woodward, R. (2007) Making a Pilgrimage to Cathedrals of Commerce. [Online] at htp://www.nytimes.com/2007/03/11/travel/11culture.html#story-continues-1 (accessed on Feb 7th 2017)