An Exploration of John Berger’s The Look of Things

In this article I will explore John Berger’s The Look of Things, and identify the formal attributes that shape his argument. I will identify the context – historical, political, social, and personal – that attributed to the texts formation, with the purpose of understanding the aim of the text. In this article I will first explore the ideas, arguments that Berger is presenting. I will then open out the context behind the text. Within this I will highlight the difference between Berger’s aims and the aims of the Abstract-Expressionist movement. I will also pay close attention to the theories behind the text, paying close attention to Berger’s defence of realism.

John Berger argues strongly in The Look of Things that drawing is essential to the construction of the artist and art; not just through the physical act of drawing, but also through the spiritual, emotional journey. Berger explains that drawing is a discovery of oneself; he sees this as an essential act required if you are to call yourself an artist. Berger also argues that the constructive nature of drawing, one that doesn’t necessary lead to a painting, is essential for art so that it mirrors society realistically, and that this enables the spectator to gain an understanding of the artist. Berger is therefore arguing for a realism that reflects the individual through representation of common emotions, actions and objects, the antithesis of the then popular and individualistic American Abstract-Expressionist movement.

John Berger’s first statement in The Looks of Things is that ‘For the artist drawing is discovery’ [1955: 165] Here he outlines his position that through drawing, and we can suppose basic artistic technique, the artist begins a journey, which he feels essential in the process of art. Berger explains that the process of drawing ensures that the artist dissects the properties of the object he wishes to capture [1955]. This could be the physical attribute of the subject, the redness of an apple, or something deeper. So drawing is therefore like a doctor examining a patient, running several diagnostic checks before bringing judgement. If we suppose that the subject the artist is examining is the human form, then the artist, through the act of drawing, is forced to dissect the properties of ‘being human’.  Berger explains this position when he is describing the process of shaping the first outlines of a sketch. He believes that:

‘You find confirmation or denial in the object itself or in your memory of it. Each confirmation or denial brings you closer to the object, until finally you are, as it were, inside it’ [Berger: 1955:165]

And once inside your sketch of the human form you are forced through your selection of shades and lines into understanding the essence of humanity. Berger believes that this process is important as it forms ‘an autobiographical record of one’s discovery’ [1955:166] which is significant because the ‘drawing is essentially a private work’ [Berger: 1955:166] the antithesis of the finished canvas. So Berger is arguing that drawing is essentially a dialectical process. The drawing is the private discovery of the subject, and the act of painting the communication, or externalising of the discovery, which produces the presented work. This journey is essential to the artist as the process of discovery builds the frame of a finished piece, like the scaffolding prepares the building site for the construction of a house. Berger explains that a ‘spectator… in front of painting or statue tends to identify himself with the subject… in front of a drawing he identifies himself with the artist’ [1955:166] He is arguing that the process of drawing is important as it ensures the spectator can relate to the artist directly, the drawing and its autobiographical element ensures the spectator can look beyond the subject to see the motivations and emotions that the artist has felt along their journey.

This argument is a cornerstone in Berger’s defence of realism as an art form, but also a cornerstone in his attack against the contemporary Abstract-Expressionist movement. The Abstract-Expressionist movement was immensely popular in critical circles as it stood for individualistic freedom; the paintings were typically freed from structure and subject. The artist Jackson Pollock was famed for placing grand canvases on his studio floor and expressing his emotions and moods upon the canvas through splashes of paint.

Pollock explains ‘On the floor I am more at ease. I feel nearer, more a part of the painting, since this way I can walk around it… and literally be in the painting.’ [Cited in Harrison and Wood: 1947:571] This technique can be seen as the antithesis of the journey or discovery that Burger argues for. Pollock places himself literally in the painting, so that the painting becomes him. Berger’s method could be seen as the opposite; Berger argues for a slow evaluation of emotion and experience; built layer upon layer. Pollock prefers to paint first, and as he remarks ‘get acquainted’ [Cited in Harrison and Wood: 1947:571] later. Berger’s drawings are meticulous studies, constant restructurings of an image on paper. Pollock’s painting technique comes from the unconscious, a direct and unstructured attempt at portraying the emotion that is felt at the time of painting.

This unstructured, unconscious approach to painting is the exact style Berger is arguing against. He feels that Art is in the mirroring of society. Berger explains that no one line is unconnected in his drawing, in the same way that no one person is removed from his society or culture. This Humanist argument is a rallying call for a style of painting that reflects the society that the individual is born within. Berger explains that ‘A line, an area of tone, is not really important because it records what you have seen, but because of what it will lead you on to see’ [1995:165] here he reveals his understanding of a realism he wishes to communicate fitting within the Marxist-Humanist tradition. A realism that doesn’t just, as the Marxist critic Terry Eagleton explains, ‘photographically reproduce the surface… of society without penetrating to their significant essences’ [2002:28] but a realism that reflects the complex metaphysical side of human nature and human society.  This secondary vein could be easily disposed of by describing it as light rhetoric placed within a text written for the London left paper The New Statesman. But this would be too much of a reduction, and a reduction that doesn’t explain Berger’s position against the Abstract-Expressionist movement nor does this position adequately shed light upon the last few statements Berger makes in The Look of Things.

Berger’s last few thoughts are upon the nature of realism, directly the sketch he has just drawn. ‘I looked at my drawing to see what had been distorted’ [1955:170] here he seems to commenting upon the illusionary nature of any art. After he has checked over his work, touching shades, and lines he sees the ‘drawing and the actual man coincide’ [Berger: 1955:171] Berger is tutoring the reader in the way which they can create that realism he has called for, he is arguing for an art that goes beyond the look of things.

The Look of Things is a text that shows John Berger’s tutorial instinct, his argument is not aggressive, as it holds a constant vein of instruction. It is in essence a reminder of a skill that shouldn’t be lost, the skill of drawing. The Skill of drawing is argued strongly for in metaphysical terms. The regular use of metaphor ensures the reader maps out Berger’s discovery in their own mind. Experiencing his journey, learning the lessons he had learnt simultaneously. Regardless of this ambition, Berger in The Look of Things is quite reductive, even the most subject-free painting can still reflect contemporary culture and  its concerns perfectly – painting is not only a mirror; art is not just a mirror held beside the society that produces it. Art, all fine art, not only mirrors the society, but also defines the way we conceptualise it; the way we see the world. A painting of fragmented and distorted figures can not mirror our physical attributes, but it can mirror our Ego, our state of mind and conceptualise the way we understand those forces. Berger’s argument is formally sound – the process of drawing brings you closer to the subject, and the drawing brings the spectator closer to the artist. But a realist painting solely relies upon reflecting the world it is surrounded by, and although the paintings may induce a metaphysical experience from a spectator, it does not challenge the perceptions of the spectator and society in general. Berger’s reliance upon realism to reflect contemporary society fails to adequately challenge systems that control our perceptions, and in that way Berger’s plea for realism is flawed.

1. Currently we are struggling to locate an exact bibliographic reference for the paper this article is looking for however, John Berger’s paper can also be found in John Berger, The Look of Things, (London: Viking Press, 1972).

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