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John Berger and History

Updated April 21, 2019
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John Berger and History essay

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In his first essay of Ways of Seeing, John Berger claims that all power, authority, and meaning that was once held by an original work of art has been lost through the mass reproduction of these works that has occurred in recent years. He writes of an entirely bogus religiosity (116-117) that surrounds these art objects and that the meaning of the original work no longer lies in what it uniquely says but in what it uniquely is (117). He claims that because of reproduction, the art of the past no longer exists as it once did (127).

Obviously, something created hundreds of years ago is not the same as it once was, but the distribution of art and music to the general public has had a positive effect on society rather than a negative one. Works of art have even more meaning than they had when first created through the interpretations offered them by generations of critics and artists. Fresh new sources have been given the ability to offer their insight and abilities into art, creating entire new genres of art, music, theatre, and the like. It has allowed for a truer search for knowledge than was ever possible before. And ultimately, the search to find the true meaning of art and of the ideas of the artists forms a true sense of religiosity, which gives passion and meaning to the lives of groups stretching far beyond the cultural elite.

An example that Berger uses to illustrate his points is that of a filmmaker who uses images in film. Berger states that Awhen a painting is put to use, its meaning is either modified or totally changed (120) and when a painting is reproduced by a film camera it inevitably becomes material for the film-maker’s argument (121). He concludes from this that only the original painting holds integrity while the image shown on film is an expression of the film-maker’s argument. However, this idea furthers the meaning of the painting by adding connotations to the one the artist intended. When an artist creates a painting, he or she hopes for this work to be critiqued and interpreted by others. These critiques and interpretations add to the full meaning of the work for everyone seeing it afterwards.

Thus, we undermine the true meaning of the work by saying it can only mean what the artist originally meant it to, because this is something we can never know. The viewer should determine the value and meaning of each painting. The paintings surround us in the same way as a language surrounds us. They have entered the mainstream of life over which they no longer, in themselves, have power (126-127). Images do possess power, however, and possibly even more so than in the past. Much of this power does exist in modern connotations placed on artworks, but the original work in itself still possesses power as well.

When Berger makes his arguments, he bases them on the idea that the actual painting hanging on a wall in a museum is the original conception of any work of art. Nevertheless, it seems that actually even these are copies or reproductions of the original ideas in the artist’s mind. When one thinks of the original work in this way, it really surrounds the works with a true sense of religiosity. This is because we know that the original can never be attained. Berger argues that the spiritual value of an object can only be explained in terms of magic or religion, and since in modern society neither of these is a living force, the art object, the work of art, is enveloped in an atmosphere of entirely bogus religiosity (117). The attempt to attain what the original idea was is one of religion, nonetheless, because it cannot ever be truly experienced–the idea is always on a higher lever than human understanding.

Thus, the spiritual value that exists within every work of art is a religious experience, and one that is truly religious. Berger seems to hold somewhat of an elitist view when it comes to art, and he clearly thinks that now that the masses have access to art and culture, that the obscure value of the works and the authority it held is now gone. Clearly, then, when he uses the word “history” throughout this essay, he establishes the effect the context of a painting has (i.e. how our perception is influenced). In using that word, he is referring to the social exploitation of the past: how the rich were painted, patronizing poor artists (i.e. Hals), and in this fashion demonstrating the monopoly the wealth and upper class had on the arts.

To support his argument, he writes that reproduction is used all the time to promote the illusion that nothing has changed except that the masses, thanks to reproduction, can now begin to appreciate art as the cultured minority once did. Understandably, the masses remain uninterested and skeptical (127). He claims that the masses don’t appreciate the art because it is not a part of their history. It seems that because of this, however, the art has not really lost any integrity anyway.

The only change is that now, anyone who wishes to access it is able to, but it still holds an esoteric quality that the cultural elite can enjoy. Berger shows that the majority of the population does not attend museums. Does not this give them power that the rich can still enjoy, while making it possible for the masses to experience as well if they want to? Reproduction has opened the lines of education of culture as well. Before reproduction, the rich were the only ones who owned art, attended the opera, and the like, but it is probable that these people only attended these functions to show off their wealth, without really knowing or caring about the subject. Now, while the rich can continue to be members of museums and theaters and drop their superficial knowledge to show how cultured they are, students can learn about the true meaning of the works and express the true religiosity toward it by attempting to realize what the artist had in mind when creating it. It is not just the rich children anymore who can become artists, musicians, actors, and the like.

The fact of the matter is that culture of this type has maintained its power and authority, so that it is still mainly a status symbol for the rich, but yet it allows the middle class to enjoy the meaning and power of the art as well. The way we “see” has many shades of illumination, and many ways of coloring the world. The sense residing at the top of our bodies is not always linked directly to the brain, but quite often threaded to the lower extremities. They also deal in depth with the broader aspect of social exploitation, through publicity. We are assaulted and seduced without any hope of protection, by so many great and familiar works, that we can not hope, to not see, just one that has not touched us in the past.

We remember that touch, and now Mr. Berger tells us why, we felt the way we did. The camera changed the world of art, and brought art to the world in general, where as Art was for the most part the property of the rich. Photography came at a time when socialistic change was sweeping the autocratic cobwebs from the world, and brought illumination to the common men and women. Later, as the levels of property increased, in our corner of the world, color photography blended into our life, through publicity and advertising.

In Berger’s view Art is a way to display possession, and in the rarer form, to present a question of existence. Other than the most exceptional works, the patrons use artists to catalogue their possessions, including their women. Glamour is a modern invention birthed by advertising. It revolves around the unattainable future of what we could have, and is empowered by envy.

Ultimately, Berger claims that the sublime quality of art has been transformed into simple information through reproduction, when in reality; this type of culture has always been about information. Through reproduction, we can strive for a truer sense of information, in reaching the true meaning of art rather than using the information for a sign of status. It is no longer a matter just of knowing of art and culture; it is a matter of knowing about it. The available levels of information have increased, and have allowed more people to experience a true sense of religiosity toward art, music, and other culture than was ever previously possible. Rather than ruining the integrity and credibility of culture by offering it to the masses, it remains a symbol of status and power for those who wish to use it as such, and has become a source for passion and knowledge for others.

It has also allowed new ideas and insight to these fields from non-traditional sources. Finally, instead of taking away from the meaning of original works of art, reproduction has added to it. Berger, John. Ways of Knowing. New York: Penguin Inc.


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John Berger and History. (2019, Apr 21). Retrieved from