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