Karen J Leader
I admit to being unusually disarmed by the pairing of a film still of the young and brilliant John Berger (1926-2017) with a distinctly unflattering photo of the then president-elect of the United States, Donald J. Trump. A clickbaity move by Salon, the pairing draws us academic types in through our own mourning of the recently deceased Berger, the first “celebrity” death of the new year. Instantly recognizable from his iconic BBC series “Ways of Seeing,” the long-haired art historian with rock-star looks jumps out from beyond the grave, warning us of the mystifications inherent in the analysis of images, which occlude evidence of exploitation, oppression, objectification, or class struggle. The keen edge of every sentence, the razor blade he uses to “cut up” a Botticelli, these are fresh in our grieving minds, having re-watched the series or reread the book, to forestall the feeling of loss, despite his long life, well lived.
How do we see Mr. Trump through Berger’s eyes? The mugging, shrugging, unserious and shockingly incurious reality TV star billionaire exudes artifice. The presence of the American flag pin (was it made in China like most of his products?) clings to an expensive but ill-fitting suit. The fake tan and comb-over bespeak someone utterly lacking aesthetic discernment.
The colliding of the two works into one banner image accompanies art writer Noah Charney’s meditation on “Why art history might be the most important subject you could study today.” Charney, reflecting on Brexit, the near axing in the UK of the art history A-Level exam, and the American election of Donald Trump, turns to Berger as a provider of armor against fake news in visual form: “He is the most overt of art historians who taught us how to see differently. That is about as good an argument as I can think of for why art history is an important field of study, and a good antidote to the narrow-minded, horse-blinder mentality that plagues many politicians and American citizens, and perhaps even certain presidents who need not be mentioned.” Touting the interdisciplinarity of art history, and its relation to optics, psychology, and a multitude of other fields, Charney suggests that the visual acuity demanded of art history fosters an ability to “open one’s mind to alternative viewpoints.”
OK to be fair, the visual pairing of these two figures is completely, and utterly incongruous, to the point of absurdity. The two men share a photoshopped field, a pale blue background unifying their space, and jockey for positional hierarchy. Mr. Trump in the foreground shrugs, smirks and squints, his demeanor is evidence of the emptiness of his utterance. Mr. Berger wins. You can see it in his eyes.
The designer who crafted the above banner chose his Berger image carefully. The eyes are animated, the mouth shaped around a brilliant utterance. And of course, there is the caption, freezing the exact moment from “Ways of Seeing” that these words are spoken. Those who know the series or the book, recognize that Berger’s description of “their own highly personal and exceptional visions” is not a compliment to the artists, it is the language of mystification. It is verbiage as interpretively slippery as Mr. Trump’s use of “tremendous” or “terrific” or “beautiful” or “best;” empty rhetoric that masks ideological obfuscation. Mr. Trump describes a “beautiful” wall, which in reality is an ugly barrier to keep out brown people. He brags of an electoral victory that was huge. It was not.
My colleague Shaoni Bhattacharya has already launched the conversation here at AHHE about how we might utilize our research to borrow some of the successful tactics of the ascendant authoritarians: “Charismatic leaders, as some might say Trump is, know how to tap into the primeval human mind. An emotive message switches on brain pathways that are hard to reverse with straightforward facts later…Add to that the power of groups – being persuaded that you are a member of any type of group – can cloud individual judgment, however smart you are, and it’s hard to overturn emotionally-seeded opinions.” Emotional appeals seem unserious, and playing to the passions is the domain of the demagogue. And yet linguists and others have for years been saying to personalize the message, to tell stories. So Bhattacharya might be worth paying attention to, especially in the realm of the visual.
The censorship of images usually stems from the belief that they bypass the rational mind. In the nineteenth century caricatures, a newly caustic form of criticism in France, met particularly harsh restriction from the censor’s scissors. Seen to speak directly to the eyes and emotions, and thus incite violence, caricature, as a visual medium, threatened power. In our visually saturated 21st-century, with the world coming to us through our devices and our screens, in an almost inescapable barrage, what has the power to speak to our eyes, open them to alternative viewpoints, allow us to separate the fake or falsified from the witnessed, the testimonial? Art history can help hone and refine our discernment, but also trains us to recognize, beyond the what, exactly how images mean.
A poet, novelist, screenwriter and art critic, Mr. Berger’s vision was exceptional, his writing often highly personal. In an essay called “On Visibility” Berger wrote: “Not to say that behind appearances is the truth, the Platonic way. It is very possible that visibility is the truth and that what lies outside visibility are only the ‘traces’ of what has been or will become visible.” In the image above Berger is coming into visibility, staring us down and compelling us to look, to hold the gaze, to refuse to look away. Watch this space.
#ArtHistoryEngaged – you can follow the author on Twitter @proftinkerbell.
John Berger, “On Visibility” (1977-78) in The Sense of Sight: Writings by John Berger (New York: Pantheon Books, 1985), 219.
Shaoni Bhattacharya, “The Brexit/Trump Phenomenon: Why did they happen, and what are the ramification for arts and humanities higher education?” Arts and Humanities As Higher Education (December 7, 2016.) http://www.artsandhumanities.org/uncategorized/the-brexittrump-phenomenon-why-did-they-happen-and-what-are-the-ramifications-for-arts-and-humanities-higher-education/
Noah Charney, “The art of learning: Why art history might be the most important subject you could study today” Salon (January 15, 2017) http://www.salon.com/2017/01/15/the-art-of-learning-why-art-history-might-be-the-most-important-subject-you-could-study-today/
Karen J. Leader is Associate Professor of Art History, and Faculty Associate in the Center for Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies at Florida Atlantic University. Her activities on behalf of art history and the humanities can be found here. You can follow her on Instagram and Twitter @proftinkerbell.