Berger, on “The Art of Seeing”

Class ended last night before we could debrief regarding the film we watched: part I of the BBC documentary, The Art of Seeing. I wonder what some of your thoughts/takeaways might have been?

From a pedagogical perspective, my hope is that you could peer beyond the quaint 1970s patterned shirts, flared pants and shaggy hair styles and hear beneath the distracting pops, hisses and crackles of the crude video copy to truly “see”. What did I hope might have come into focus?

  • the idea of decomposing a larger tableaux, for one. Of being able to tell multiple (not necessarily consonant) stories by simply shifting the frame or isolating a particular aspect of content within any single “mediation”.
  • or how about recognizing that an image may speak to us in different ways if it is viewed in silence ; then, again, when viewed accompanied by varying sonorities (narration, a canned soundtrack, electronic compositions, a range of genres from opera to classical/chamber to jazz to pop).
  • how about the idea that the meaning of images (or moving visuals or other media products) can be influenced by the products that are sampled before or after our encounter with them; in short, that there is a “modifier effect” at work when media operate or when their content is processed as part of a larger, connected fabric.
  • consider also the idea that a medium (like a church or a museum) can contain content (like frescoesor, icons or relics), but those contents, themselves, can serve as media for transmitting other messages or abetting other human (social, communication, political, economic) acts. The same is surely true for a device, like the desktop or laptop or tablet or phone that you are currently reading this message on.
  • how about the notion (undoubtedly inspired by Benjamin and reprised in slightly different form by Sontag) that reproduction has stripped works of art of their particular (i.e. individual, unique) character, while investing them with a general (i.e. widely accessible, widely-disseminated) nature, thereby enabling greater consumption, more varied uses and, potentially, even more enormous cultural power?
  • what did you make of the argument (implicit though it was) that interpretation (in the form of the written “authoritative” word) was an impediment–even a block–on sense-making? Were you persuaded by the final segment where adolescents were asked to deconstruct the signs, to decipher denotation and work toward connotation (in ways that seemed to bespeak factors like gender)? Do you suppose, I might then ask, that factors like social class or race or geographical location or political ideology might also end up influencing how one encounters media (i.e. how they “see”, “hear”, “taste”, “smell”, “feel”)?

So, that is a partial list. A good (enough) place to start, I suppose. I am sure there are some points I’ve glossed over or neglected. And I would encourage you to add to the list, if you wish.

But after that, what other steps might you take? Well, perhaps you could critically assess Berger’s claims. For instance, forty years on, do they still hold value? Apply the ideas above to specific cases taken from the sense world surrounding you. How do Berger’s ideas fare? Widen the circle beyond painting . . . are these ideas applicable to other media? Could some of the ideas above be applied to other mediations–other media and their products? And, if so, which ones, in which ways, with what observed results?

You might give that a bit of a go as the week advances. I’d be interested to learn what you discover.

Perhaps we can take this up a bit at the beginning of next Tuesday’s class.

What happens in the Assignments section?

A major portion of the grade are four Mini-Projects. While it is not required, students may wish to share their work, for the edification of their peers. If so, this is the space where that should happen. And if you choose to share (GREAT!); it is hoped that your fellows-in-media-theorization will chime in with their observations, commentary, suggestions, evaluation, further recommendations (in the “Comments” section).

In addition, the syllabus mentions that, throughout the semester, there may be opportunities for extra credit. If so, it may be the case that certain of these assignments will be blog-based. And if they are, students will be asked to post their work product here. (And, in such cases, as with the Mini-Projects, fellow students are encouraged to offer their reactions in the “Comments” section).