Before my next post (which seeks to develop our research through other ideas in critical theory) I would like to make a clarification about the value of Ways of Seeing as the main theoretical framework for our study. Berger affirmed in Ways of Seeing that ‘we see these paintings as nobody saw them before’, he meant our specific material conditions of our time period allow us to experience (to “see” in the widest sense) art in a unique way, as these conditions are different to all historical periods before. Nowadays, art has the most democratic diffusion in history: mechanical reproduction, free galleries and museums, public education and, of course, the internet, create this condition. Before, probably only the elite could access paintings, and even when they were accessible to a wider public (for example, it was originally set in a public space) the fact that elite commissioned and paid for this art meant it was accompanied to a meaning imposed from these elites. In Ways of Seeing, Berger argues that we now have the conditions to break with historically imposed meanings from the elite, to stop with art mystification and start seeing art as humanity’s heritage and enjoyable and useful for every single individual, and society as a whole.
Furthermore, Berger encourages everyone to experience art through their own perspective and individual way of seeing. In this sense, he implies that experience of a work of art (or of art in general) is related to other experiences of life. This is why our historical material conditions are so important, but also our personal experiences and knowledge. As he points out, ‘the way we see things is affected by what we know or what we believe. In the Middle Ages when people believed in the physical existence of Hell, the sight of fire must have meant something very different of what it means today. Nevertheless their idea of Hell owed a lot to the sight of fire consuming and ashes remaining – as well as to their experience of the pain of burns’ (8). I can’t help to relate this sentence to my case-study. Indeed, the third panel of The Garden of Earthly Delights is a lively and disturbing representation of Hell. How different that representation could have been interpreted in a period were Hell was a physical possibility to now, when we often think of it as a philosophical idea rather than a place.
Experience of art according to Berger is so subjective that even ‘the meaning of a painting can be changed according to what you see beside it or what comes after it’. Again, in my case-study, interpretation of the main panel changes completely if you see it alone, or beside the Hell panel. In addition, if you use it as an illustration for a text about sex-positivity, it would have a very different meaning than if you use it as an illustration for a text about lust as sin.
Indeed, this can be related to Berger’s claim that ‘reproduction makes works of art ambiguous’, since this separation of the panels is only possible due to modern forms of reproduction of the images, since the triptych itself always presented three consecutive and inseparable panels. Nevertheless, the most interesting idea I take from this is that ‘we never look at just one thing; we are always looking at the relation between things and ourselves. Our vision is continually active’ (9), we are continually participating in art just by viewing and interpreting. And, certainly, this connects to our central argument that the perception of sexuality in art is inherently fragmented because it depend’s on the viewer subjective experience.
In my following post, I will expand on spectatorship and the role of authorial intent in our ways of seeing by looking at critical theories about the topic. Furthermore, I will deal with the perception of sexuality in my particular case-study by referring to critical scholarship as well, and always inside the theoretical framework of Ways of Seeing.