The original authority of oil paintings has been destroyed, in the main by modern means of reproduction. Yet the bourgeoisie has, so far successfully, striven to mystify and rarify the values of oil paintings; not least by using new techniques of reproduction themselves. But these same technical transformations can be made the basis for a programme of appropriating bourgeois art. Nor is this a matter of taking something back—it means transferring the cultural achievements of another class and another time to the proletariat of today. That is the keynote of John Berger’s Ways of Seeing, originally a television series of four programmes and now a short book: ‘The entire art of the past has now become a political issue.’ footnote1
However this stirring declaration of war is followed by what is little more than a spoiling action—some ground is cleared but by no means all. This book has four short chapters printed in heavy ‘caption’ type with illustrations running in with the prose, a boldness which is marred by the way the text has been left jagged and unjustified. There are also three chapters of pictures without words. The volume was made by a team of five, and its text is not copyright. It opens with a discussion of seeing and oil painting.
Oil painting is intrinsically ‘unique’. The convention of perspective addresses a single spectator, paintings are owned and commissioned by individuals or institutions, paintings are often special to a particular place, and always ‘a picture could never be seen in two places at the same time’. All this was before photography.
How has established art appreciation reacted to this ‘uniqueness’? When it comes to the circumstances of actual works, generalization is the order of the day, Berger argues. He contrasts a specialist’s analysis of Hals’ two paintings of the Regent with the circumstances of the pauperized artist himself. The riveting conflict of the paintings’ actuality is slid over by a pure aesthetic description of its ‘harmonious fusion’: what could be made immediate and evident is cloaked and mystified. But while the content of such paintings are made vacuous their records of ownership are scrutinized in the minutest detail to demonstrate their singular authenticity. Proven ‘originals’ are collected in well-guarded museums which; according to one survey, remind 79 per cent of manual workers either of a church or of church-like institutions. Meanwhile, much of the ‘originality’ collected within museums has fled on the back of the mechanical means of reproduction.
Great paintings, however, are doubly unique. Not only are they paintings, they are also great paintings—exceptions. ‘Art history has totally failed to come to terms with the problem of the relationship between the outstanding work and the average work of the European tradition’, writes Berger. To help redress this failure he examines the totality of the average. He shows that oil paintings in their hundreds-of-thousands were an art form intrinsically bound to private property: in their textures, subject matter and perspective. There is an entertaining dispute in the book between Berger and one of the critics of the original programmes. Are Mr and Mrs Andrews, in the Gainsborough picture of that name, demonstrating that they are landowners, or are they engaged in ‘philosophical enjoyment of unperverted nature’? The answer is obvious. Painting was not a window on the world, it was more like a safe in the wall; a confirmation of the joys of privately appropriating agrarian rent. For Berger, the masters who are acclaimed as the supreme representatives of this tradition are, in fact, those who have contested it.