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Berger Analysis

Original paintings are silent and still in a sense that information never is. Even a reproduction hung on the wall is not comparable in this respect for in the original the silence and stillness permeate the actual material, the paint, in which one follows the traces of the painter’s immediate gestures. This has the effect of closing the distance in time between the painting of a picture and one’s own act of looking at it. . . . What we make of that painted moment when it is before our eyes depends upon what we expect of art, and that in turn depends today upon how we have already experienced the meaning of paintings through reproductions.
– John Berger
Ways of Seeing

While Berger describes original paintings as silent in this passage, it is clear that these paintings begin to speak if one approaches them properly, if one learns to ask “the right questions of the past.”  Berger demonstrates one route of approach, for example, in his reading of the Hals paintings, where he asks questions about the people and objects and their relationship to the painter and the viewer.  What the paintings might be made to say, however, depends upon the viewer’s expectations, his or her sense of the questions that seem appropriate or possible.  Berger argues that, because of the way art is currently displayed, discussed, and reproduced, the viewer expects only to be mystified.

[Mystification is an important and complex concept in sociological theory. Mystification (through the mechanisms of culture, educational systems, advertising, parenting, government, economics, etc.,) conditions and shapes our lived experiences, expectations, and perceptions of the world. What we see and the questions we ask of the world are conditioned by larger forces that shape our emotions and intellect. According to Berger, when we view a work of art a regime, that is, the museums, the critical accounts of a work of art, art textbooks, photographic reproductions, and so on, rushes in to prevent us from becoming ‘active agents’. Rather than asking our own questions and determining what a work of art/image means from our unique perspective, we rely on the experts, critics and established narratives to tell us what a work means. Mystification concerns the ways in which cognitive understandings of “what exists” are formed out of our lived experiences, formed in such a way that they distort and mask the way the social world really works.]

For this exercise, imagine that you are working against the silence and mystification Berger describes.  Select a painting that seems silent and still, yet invites conversation.  The painting may be the one you use for assignment 1, or it may not.  Your job is to figure out what sorts of questions to ask, to interrogate the painting, to get it to speak, to engage with the past in some form of dialogue.  Write a short response (2 or 3 double-spaced pages) in which you record this process and what you have learned from it.  Somewhere in your essay, perhaps at the end, turn back to Berger’s chapter to talk about how this process has or hasn’t confirmed what you take to be Berger’s expectations.  Your response to this exercise can be integrated into 

Sample Solution

Al Gore turns to personal stories as he relates how his son’s accident changed his focus. When he was only six years old, Gore’s son was hit by a car. This experience led Gore to shift his political priorities to issues of public service. Throughout the book, Gore moves from the scientific to the personal, and back, as evinced by the next section. For about fifty pages, Gore talks about how rising temperatures affect weather patterns on the planet. He discusses heatwaves and how they’re connected to increased ocean temperatures, which then influence the frequency and severity of hurricanes. Specifically, he writes about the consequences of Hurricane Katrina, focusing on the loss of human life and livelihood, as well as losses to the national economy. He moves on to point out that increased temperatures also lead to more flooding, and surprisingly, to droughts. The latter is caused by what Gore refers to as relocated precipitation. Returning to personal anecdote, Gore discusses the dichotomy between city and farm life, and how his father instilled in him the importance of being the land’s caretaker. Then Gore focuses on the melting ice caps in the polar regions of the planet. Here, he covers both the receding and breaking ice shelves and the dangers of permafrost thaw. He includes anecdotes from his travels around the globe in an attempt to describe the effects of global climate change he has witnessed. Gore goes on to talk about how the polar bear population is negatively affected by the melting ice caps, as well as how that melting influences global weather patterns. He continues to discuss how these changes negatively impact whole ecosystems, allowing invasive species to take over. Through stories of his own camping trips in forests and national parks across the country, he proposes that the reason humans treat nature as trivial is because we’ve lost touch with it. We’re not in nature enough, so we’ve stopped granting it priority. Gore discusses other threats to species across the globe. He reviews everything from the direct threat of global warming (which affects the polar bear population), to how shifts in oceanic chemistry affect marine life, and the risk to humans, animals, and plants that new diseases can pose as they emerge in the shifting environment. Gore writes about how the rising sea levels resulting from polar ice melts affects species like the Emperor pengu
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