Final Reflection

Today we had our last meeting before the final rehearsal and presentation tomorrow. Since our last meeting with Rosa, we finalised our shared Google Docs and had daily communication about updates/feedback/changes. We decided to meet over the weekend because we wanted to check out the room and also time ourselves to make sure we were meeting the 20 minutes time limit. We also did some final remarks on each other’s parts and worked on perfecting a coherent narrative. Tomorrow we will practice for a last time with our visuals. 

After being almost done, I realised that this project has given me the chance to improve on several skills. First, team work. I was very reticent about working with a group of people that I didn’t know and probably would have very different interests and personalities. However, even though this was true (we all have different interests), we managed to find a topic that we all found fascinating and motivated us to work. I found, at some times, we all wanted to take the project through a specific path that connected with us personally, but our meetings with Rosa helped us to find a common ground for our ideas. I basically learned that being flexible to feedback and other perspective can be surprisingly helpful and productive! Nevertheless, I found that there can be a dichotomy between students between those who are concerned with “deep learning” (studying for personal knowledge and development) and those who preoccupy about “surface learning” (concerned with progression through the course to get a good final certification). I would definitely consider myself a member of the deep learners, but I realised that I need to learn from the other methodology because, after all, formal academic education does care about the knowledge you acquire… but they appreciate a student following set procedures and deadlines and following the progression of the course step-by-step. This is extremely hard for me because I work in peaks of energy and can read and write for 12 hours in a day, but I find it hard to work just 1 hour in a day for 12 weeks. However, the project made me realise that I should work on this in order to be able to meet procedures if needed.

Secondly, regarding interdisciplinary research: I have been very interested about critical theory (which deals with philosophical, political, social, etc. issues) and its effects on history, and this project allowed me to explore it in quite depth. Furthermore, I learned to be more nuanced and critical about assumptions and it showed me that working consistently, over time, on a project and being flexible about the paths it takes can open up opportunities that are even more interesting that the first one I conceived. When I read my first entry on the blog, I can see my progress from that one-dimensional case-study filled with assumptions, too straight-forward and basic, and not interdisciplinary enough. I really feel that the final result is nuanced, critical, and interdisciplinary. I think the presentation does justice to Ways of Seeing… and that is a big thing to say!

Finally, even though the blog was a bit glitchy at times and it created some confusion, I think it’s a great idea to have a place to post your findings and where you have useful information about your research and progress so you can go back to it – and get feedback. I think I will take this idea to create a blog for myself and write summaries of the readings I do and write updates about the projects I am working on to organise it all in the same place.

In conclusion, the project was quite useful to improve some skills and learn things about myself identifying things to improve further. It also was surprisingly productive to work with a group of people I didn’t know, and I learned how to be interdisciplinarily nuanced.


I also wanted to leave a final thought about perception in my particular case-study of The Garden of Earthly Delights.

Since I have been dealing with this paintings for weeks (I believe months even), I was curious to find the perception that my friends got of it. So, I posted a poll on Instagram asking them first, if they saw sexuality (95% said yes) and, secondly, if they got positive or negative vibes. These were the results (32 participants) :

It was extremely divided almost by half and half by the people that got positive vibes and the people that saw it negatively. Interesting!!

OUTLINE IDEA FOR THE PRESENTATION

  1. The fragmentary nature of perception: perception of sexuality in artistic representation is inherently fragmented due to the subjective reception of spectators
    1. Why sexuality
    2. Ways of seeing
    3. Why these objects (across time and space)
  2. Possible perceptions in their time
    1. How sexuality was lived in each of the periods
      1. Can we really perceive like them?
      2. Critique os sexuality as a modern construction
    2. Monopolisation of art by the elite
      1. Imposition of “meaning”
  3. Possible perceptions now
    1. Mystification and commodity fetishism create passive audiences that don’t really engage with the material.
    2. Search for authorial intent?
      1. Doesn’t make sense to look for authorial intent or a “true” meaning when so little is known of the author or the work.
      2. “Death of the author is birth of the audience” – important to break with mystification and authority’s imposition of meaning.
    3. Opportunities thanks to current material conditions
      1. Public galleries + mechanical reproduction + the internet
      2. Usefulness of the democratic praxis
        1. Active spectatorship as antidote for alienation
  4. Fragmentation is constructive for the ways of seeing.
  • I have combined Ways of Seeing with ideas from other critical theorists to give it more dimensions.
  • I think we can explain our case-studies simultaneously in each point, so we can cover all the mains points of Ways of Seeing for each of the objects and show that the ideas are somewhat universal because they can be extrapolated to other examples of art through time and space.
  • This might be too long for 20 minutes.

Ways of Seeing Sexuality in The Garden of Earthly Delights (Final thoughts)

Introduction: Why sexuality?

Sexuality was and is experienced by all human beings in all times and spaces, but civilisations and cultures have viewed it in very different way throughout times and the artistic representation of those cultures show this. For example, ancient Greeks used sexuality as a central topic of their religion and their art; later, sexuality was taboo for medieval Europeans due to the expansion of Judeo-Christian values (and this was, again, expressed in their art); meanwhile, Japanese art of the Edo period portrayed a vision of sexuality that was erotic and harmonious.

Our project explores this and, therefore, makes two main assumptions: first, that sexuality is common for all human beings and, second, that perceptions of sexuality and its representation in time is fluid and changes throughout time and space. This is an analysis based on historical materialism, or the idea that the material (structural) reality of a certain period conditions its culture, how people create and perceive. However, a couple of questions arises from this straightforward material analysis, which are: if a work of art is particular to a time period, why does it connect with people beyond its era? What is the value of the work of art beyond its example of material culture of a time period? This is where our project comes in. Parting from Ways of Seeing as a theoretical framework, we expand on the idea that sexuality in art was perceived differently through time and space, and connect it with the value it has for nowadays. In this sense, we explain that perception is subjective to the spectator as well as to the historical period, and that the practice of interacting actively with art from the past can be means for individual and social liberation.

Critiques on the notion of Sexuality

According to our friend Foucault, sexuality as a cohesive action separated from other social relations is a modern notion brought to us by the European elite. According to him, ‘all this garrulous attention which has us in a stew over sexuality, is it not motivated by one basic concern: to ensure population, to reproduce labor capacity, to perpetuate the form of social relations: in short, to constitute a sexuality that is economically useful and politically conservative?’ (Foucault, 37). He argues that the creation is specifically European because the European tradition of views of sex from Christianity is very different to the ones of antiquity or other parts of the globe, such as Asia. The cultures outside Christianity commonly ‘endowed themselves with an ars erotica. In the erotic art, truth is drawn from pleasure itself, understood as a practice and accumulated as experience; pleasure is not considered in relation to an absolute law of the permitted and the forbidden, nor by reference to a criterion of utility, but first and foremost in relation to itself; it is experienced as pleasure, evaluated in terms of its intensity, its specific quality, its duration, its reverberations in the body and the soul‘ (60).  As we can see, sexuality for these cultures is nothing separate from their bodies and souls or social relations, but part of them and their everyday life. It had representation, because it was something people did (like eating) but it didn’t have a moral value accompanying them (if you think about it, there is not a concept such as sexuality for eating – and every human does it with different tastes and for different reasons). 

In Europe, since the Middle Ages, sexuality was interpreted by the act of confession and the ‘receptor valued how much sin you had made’ (67). In other words, sex becomes sexuality because it is valued under the label of “sin” and compare to virtues. For Foucault, this is problematic because it’s obviously an imposition from the elite (authority) to control the common people. He explains that ‘the cycle of prohibition: thou shalt not go near, thou shalt not touch, thou shalt not consume, thou shalt not experience pleasure, thou shalt not speak, thou shalt not show thyself; ultimately thou shalt not exist, except in darkness and secrecy. To deal with sex, power employs nothing more than a law of prohibition. Its objective: that sex renounce itself. Its instrument: the threat of a punishment that is nothing other than the suppression of sex. Renounce yourself or suffer the penalty of being suppressed; do not appear if you do not want to disappear. Your existence will be maintained only at the cost of your nullification. Power constrains sex only through a taboo that plays on the alternative between two nonexistences’ (84).  Indeed, ‘power is essentially what dictates its law to sex. Which means first of all that sex is placed by power in a binary system: licit and illicit, permitted and forbidden.[..] The pure form of power resides in the function of the legislator; and its mode of action with regard to sex is of a juridicodiscursive character’ (83). After all, ‘in Western societies since the Middle Ages, the exercise of power has always been formulated in terms of law’ (87). So, maybe, to analyse something in terms of sexuality is to already be an accomplice of a discourse of power directed from the elite to the common people. 

Sexuality in The Garden of Earthly Delights

We know little of the author of the painting, Hieronymus Bosch, and the painting itself. What we know is that the author was successful and painted for the Brussels elite (aristocrats), who were the representatives of the orthodox culture of that moment (Vergara, web). We also know that the triptych was painting in the last decade of the 15th century to be part of the personal collection of the Prince of Orange-Nassau, and decorated his palace in Brussels. This is incredibly uncommon, because triptychs had been objects reserved for churches, more specifically altars. This can probably tell us about the first steps of a secularisation process art was going through in that specific time, a time when medieval tradition and new Renaissance ideas coexisted in the higher classes of Northern European cultures. The fact that it was the aristocracy and not the church automatically gave more room for creativity and allowed Bosch to explore themes outside the sacred scripture (even though the triptych undoubtedly is based on the Bible).

The left of the triptych, the presentation of Eve, has strong religious significance but it’s accompanied with dream-like symbolism and representations of non-canonical Gospels (the Parables of Jesus). Indeed, this drifts away from the Catholic orthodoxy that had dominated the higher sphere for centuries until that time. We must remember the last decades of the 15th century and first decades of the 16th century were the times when Martin Luther and Protestantism gained momentum.  The panel, presents nudes as they are typically represented in European oil painting: static and passive. Yet, it is quite strange to find representations of this particular scene, and we have very few examples of it in Art History (Vergara, web).

Moving on to the second panel, we find the vivid representation of sexuality in a fantastic environment. ‘From 1200s, hybrid monsters and strange creatures peer out from bestiaries and the margins of illuminated manuscripts, influencing thereafter fantasy art’ (Art Book, 136), but it was still uncommon to find this kind of representation in a triptych; ‘utterly unconventional, it deviates substantially from the mainstream Netherlandish art of the time’ (Art Book, 136). It is a confusing scene that breaks with established order or composition hierarchy, and there is no specific focus. Art historians have found this panel extremely hard to interpret in regards to the authorial intent, as we know little of the author and the meaning is not explicitly detailed. In fact, Bosch didn’t even sign the work, but there is little doubt that it could be someone’s else.

In terms of sexuality as theme of the panel, ‘medievalist have argued that there was no term like “sexualitas” that corresponds to the modern one, no unified field of discourse. Medieval people, the argument goes, had sex, but they did not have sexuality, which is not just a series of sex acts but a category of human experience, a discourse about the body and what we do with it, a way of constructing meaning around behaviour. [Nevertheless] medieval people certainly had discourses of the flesh and of desire’ (Karras, 279). According to Katherine Harvey, ‘while Christian ideals indeed influenced medieval attitudes to sex, they were rather more complex than contemporary prejudices suggest. Christian beliefs interacted with medieval medical theories to help shape some surprising and sophisticated ideas about sex, and a wide variety of different sexual practices (Harvey, web). Furthermore, medieval approaches to sexuality were characterised by variety’ (Karras, 281), especially because the time period lasts for centuries and it covers all of Europe, so many cultures coexist under the term.

What is the role of sin then? ‘Much has been made of the medieval tendency to interpret disease as a product of sexual sin. Too much. In fact, the medieval tendency to see disease as sexual sin was not solely based on moral judgments – there were also strong medical elements. According to medieval understandings of the body, based on the system of the four humours (blood, phlegm, black bile and yellow bile), these men’s behaviour presented problems. The humours system derived from the idea that health was based on an equilibrium of the humours, and illness the product of imbalance. Humours were balanced, and good health maintained, through the expulsion of various bodily fluids, including semen. Regular sexual intercourse was thus part of a healthy life for most men, but moderation was key.’ (Harvey, web). More importantly, however, ‘the relationship between the behavioural expectations enunciated by the norms that society imposed to govern human activities and the recalcitrant realities of human conduct’ is evident. After all, no matter if sex is consider sinful, people won’t stop having urges because of it.  

Nevertheless, ‘in the study of sexuality, historians have to be even more careful than in other areas not to project their own attitudes onto the period of study. Sexuality is something about which many people in the modern world care deeply. […] In particular we must beware of the modern notion that sex is ideally an act of mutual pleasure involving two active partners, a two-way street’ (Karras, 280). It can be strange for us to see an image of sexuality with multiple bodies, and we can extrapolate our own feeling of strangeness into the painting to attribute a “true meaning”. However, as we argue, true meanings don’t necessarily exist in art, so interpretation is more important. 

‘The earliest surviving response to The Garden of Earthly Delights dates from 1517, when Antonio de Beatis – secretary to the Cardinal of Aragon – encountered it in the palace of the Nassau Counts in Belgium. This palace was a political hub of the Netherlands, and regularly hosted high profile diplomatic events. The painting was enthusiastically received by its distinguished audience’ (Art Book, 137). A bit more history about the property of the panel also tells us that it belonged to the aristocracy until 1939, when it was moved from the palace of El Escorial in Madrid (where it was for centuries since it was confiscated by the Spanish aristocracy in 1591) to the current location of El Museo de El Prado (Maroto, web). This means that, for centuries, this work of art was physically monopolised by the elite, so the wider audience did not actually engage with it and perceive it in any way. However, those privileged enough to have seen the work probably parted from the ideas of sex mentioned above. 

So, sexuality in the first panel is representative of the European nude: passive and static. Sexuality in the second panel challenges this notion and presents a multitude of bodies having pleasure (note that Eden in Hebrew means pleasure). What about the last panel of Hell? Could there be any sexuality represented in it? Well, according to historian Vern L. Bullough, masochism was a common sexual practice in the Middle Ages. ‘Quite obviously there are many elements in medieval society which emphasize both the importance of suffering and the need to give punishment. […] Although asceticism is not, in and of itself, necessarily masochistic, there is a line between the physical and mental training necessary to achieve greater self-control and sado-masochistic pleasure, between self-denial and self-punishment, but it is not always clear what that line is. Some of the early Christian ascetics seem to have crossed that line and, if one is to believe the descriptions of Palladius, that line was crossed often’. 

Does authorial intent matter in the interpretation of the work?

Evidently, knowing about the context of a work of art nowadays influences how we interpret it. However, we have to bear in mind that the people who engaged with the work in its period were probably not worried about the authorial intent, as at that time the author was really not relevant (one of the reasons why they didn’t sign their pieces), at least not as relevant was the person that commissioned the painting. 

In addition, it is difficult to assume a specific meaning or authorial intent in a painting of that period, as the knowledge of it is entirely fragmented because we don’t have records and we don’t live in their historical context – so we can’t perceive as they did. Even art historians are not clear about which artistic current corresponds to Bosch’s paintings. For example, Dr Alexandra Harris argues that ‘Bosch’s pale figures belong to the international gothic‘ (Harris, web) while Encyclopedia Britannica attributes Bosch’s work to the Late Gothic Flemish movement because ‘it shows individual decisions by the painter to portray the extreme and bizarre’, and other historians argue that he is currently a Northern Renaissance painter. Susie Nash problematises the pontentially conflicting terminology of (“Norther Renaissance”, “Late Gothic”, “International Gothic”) which is often employed to ‘describe fourteenth-, fifteenth- and sixteenth-century art and architecture in the north.’ These terms suggest artificial fissures that disrupt continuities and can be easily interpreted as conflicting – while they are not. So, even by assuming that Bosch’s belongs to one of this categories, we can imply a meaning to his work which is not really true nor relevant for our particular way of seeing. It can actually be a distraction.  

Furthermore, the monopolisation of art by the authorities have led people to believe that they should know everything about the context of a painting in order to engage with it. And even though knowing the context is necessary for historians that are studying the material culture of a time and place, it is really not necessary for a general public. In fact, even for historians knowledge and attributions of meaning can change through time depending on the research. For example, many art historians argue that Bosch was clearly portraying the actual world in the second panel, because they assume that it is what happened in the Bible after the creation of the original sin, and makes sense with the subsequent panel of Hell. However, other historians that have studied versions of the Bible have found that there is a sequence in the Bible after the creation of Adam and Eve which imagines the world as if the original sin was never conceived. Basically, it describes a lost paradise in which humanity could have enjoyed pleasures for eternity if Adam and Eve had not become sinful. Vergara (web) believes that this is the possible authorial intent of Bosch, since he was obviously an artist with creative freedom that didn’t depend directly on the church. Obviously, what you know about the Bible can severely affect your interpretation of the work, if you are looking for a real intention.

Another example of how knowledge about an art work changes, and so does authorial intent change with it is the fact that in 1951, German art historian Wilhelm Fraenger published a book titled The Millenium of Hieronymus Bosch, which was widely influential for Bosch students in the following decades. The book tried to prove that ‘Bosch’s symbols probably came from the secret, proverbial, heretical language of certain fifteenth century millennial sects, who heretically believed that, if evil could be overcome, it was possible to build a heaven on Earth’ (Berger, 36). This helped to see the triptych as an inherently positive message because, after all, it was the authorial intent. Nevertheless, Fraenger’s work is nowadays very much contested, especially because it is now known that Bosch was in fact part of a secret Christian organisation called The Brotherhood of Our Lady, which was actually very much orthodox. All the archives and information accumulated by the organisation became public in 2004 and historians currently have access to it. And so, the “real” meaning of the painting is now believed to be more moralising that utopic, due to Bosch’s religious orthodoxy. 

This last weekend, I had a conversation with a friend about the painting and asked her what was her way of seeing it, without caring about authorial intent. She told me that for her the painting was definitely a moral cautionary tale for people to avoid sin. Of course, she (as me) had taken a higher level of Art History in our last year of high school, and we had studied Bosch in detail. She knew (as I did) that the interpretation of the moralising tale was the one that had a wider acceptance by art historians. She also knew that in Bosch’s artistic production, the theme of sin came up over and over, somewhat obsessively.

The Haywain Triptych is another of Bosch’s paintings found in El Prado museum. It is an explicit tale of the consequences of greed, one of the seven cardinal sins. The metaphor of avarice and accumulation of hay appears in the Bible, so there is really not many interpretations about this triptych.

The Table of the Seven Deadly Sins is also a work found in El Prado attributed to Bosch (also not signed). As the title tells, it shows seven scenes that represent each of the capital sins.

Bosch’s representation of The Last Judgement (presented in this triptych as subsequent to the acquisition of the original sin) , is undoubtedly apocalyptic and it follows the description of Luke’s and Matthew’s books of the New Testament which explains that the people corrupted by sin will suffer the consequences of their acts. This representation of suffering is very similar to the panel of Hell in The Garden of Earthly delights, so it can be extrapolated that they both share the same meaning.

So, of course my friend could not separate her knowledge to her way of seeing, but she also was very much affected by the mystification and search of a “true” meaning imposed by the author.

However, I think that the value of the work is both what it can tell us about the past but, more important, how we can use it in the present. For example, in his essay of Bosch, Berger uses The Garden of Earthly delights as a metaphor for greed under the capitalist system. In the panel of Hell, he sees the consequences of this greed: suffering, elimination of the landless and homeless, totalitarianism…

Usefulness of the work now

This brings us my last question of this post: what is the usefulness of looking at sexuality in The Garden of Earthly Delights nowadays?

Our bodies it what connect us to the rest of the tangible world. Our bodies can, therefore, be the key to the ultimate utopia: a world in which everything is pleasurable. However, we still have material conditions that make this enjoyment impossible, we don’t have freedom in many ways to enjoy our bodies. Like Berger implied in his Bosch essay, the horrors of the modern world can create the opposite, our bodies can become a battleground of torture and suffering. For example, being killed by hunger or lack of refuge or wars or for protesting for better conditions, being raped or abused for our personal conditions, or even suffering for having to work every day for 9 hours and living under stress.

This is why I like to see The Garden of the Earthly Delights as a dialectical conversation between pure connection with our bodies in a completely innocent way – where not even nakedness is seen as something out of the ordinary (represented by the left panel), and a situation were our bodies are literally instrument for torturing us (represented in the right panel). In the centre, the synthesis of this conversation: a world were individuals are part of a community where everyone has the enough material conditions to enjoy their bodies in their own pleasurable way, and where sexuality is lived as part of an everyday search for enjoyment.

Of course, this is just a way of seeing.

 

Sources: 

The Art Book, published by DK with multiple authors, 2017.

The Bible. <https://bible.org/download/netbible/ondemand/bybook/gen.pdf>.

Berger, John. ‘Hieronymous Bosch’ (1999) in Portraits, Verso, 2017.

Bullough, Vern L. ‘Sex in History: A Redux’ in J. Murray and K. Eisenbichler, (eds.) Desire and Discipline: Sex and Sexuality in the Premodern West. University of Toronto Press, 1996.

Encyclopaedia Britannica. Western Painting, <https://www.britannica.com/art/Western-painting/Western-Dark-Ages-and-medieval-Christendom#ref582559>.

Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality, Volume I an Introduction, Random House, 1978.

Harris, Alexandra. Bosch and Bruegel review – more gripping than a thriller (2017) <https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/feb/01/bosch-bruegel-joseph-leo-koerner>.

Harvey, Katherine. The Salacious Middle Ages (2014) <https://aeon.co/essays/getting-down-and-medieval-the-sex-lives-of-the-middle-ages>.

Karras, Ruth Mazo. ‘Sexuality in the Middle Ages’ in P. Linehan and J.L. Nelson (eds.) The Medieval World. London Routledge, pp. 279-293, 2001.

Nash, Susie. Northern Renaissance Art. Oxford History of Art, Oxford University Press, 2008.

Silva Maroto, Pilar. Ficha de El Jardín de las Delicias. <https://www.museodelprado.es/recurso/jardin-de-las-delicias-el-el-bosco/578702d4-4420-4e97-8518-8363a1fc2c9e

Vergara, Alejandro.  Otros ojos para ver el prado: El jardín de las delicias (Multimedia), <https://www.museodelprado.es/coleccion/obra-de-arte/triptico-del-jardin-de-las-delicias/02388242-6d6a-4e9e-a992-e1311eab3609?searchMeta=jardin%20de%20las%20delicias>.

Ways of Seeing Art – through Critical Theory

In the following post I will use other sources of Critical Theory (from Marx to Ranciere, among others) to construct more dimensions into our project, and it will be useful for our three case-studies. Specifically, to follow our thesis that perception of sexuality in artistic representation is inherently fragmented due to the subjective reception of spectatorsI deal with the ideas of spectatorship, authorial intent, commodity fetishism, and democratic praxis. My peers can continue from this research to develop their own case-studies, although I recommend expanding this reading list. 

SPECTATORSHIP

In his 1967 well-known treatise The Society of the Spectacle, Guy Debord introduced the critical theory of Spectacle, in which people living in modern consumer societies had an automatically passive approach to life. Completely alienated from our work production and turned into machines to watch and consume, ‘the more [we] contemplate, the less [we] live’ (Debord, 23). As mentioned in my previous post, Berger’s Ways of Seeing was a way to break with this passive engagement, this passive interpretation of viewing, specifically in art. In other works, Ways of Seeing is a method to avoid The Society of the Spectacle (much as Debord’s movement of the Situationist International, which were in favour of active approaches to every day living).

In The Emancipated Spectator (2008), Jacques Ranciere comes back to this idea in a direct and goal-oriented way. His book seeks to be a final call for the emancipation of the spectator, to the awakening of a passive audience. He calls it emancipation, because it’s an active movement towards freedom, specifically ‘intellectual’ freedom. Ranciere points out that a passive spectatorship automatically generates a dichotomy of knowledge: the ones that create and are active are the ones that know about the work of art; and the ones that are passive are the ones that don’t know, and so they are alienated. But he emphasises that viewing can also be active, if we ‘if we interpret, compare, link what we see to other things we have seen, experienced, dreamed in other places. There are distant spectators and active interpreters (Ranciere, 13). If the audience is active, that dichotomy of knowledge mentioned before radically changes because ‘a work is not transmission of the artist’s knowledge or inspiration to the spectator. It is a third thing whose meaning is not owned by no one. […]’ (Ranciere, 15) and, therefore, interpreting spectators can apply their own knowledge into the work, just as Berger implies in Ways of Seeing. In other words, the separation between viewer and art work needs to be trascended because the idea of interpretation is more important for active engagement than authorial intent (we will go back to this idea in the next section).

However, perception, as we argue, is inherently fragmented because it depends on subjective reception from each spectator. So, interpretations depend on the individual. Phenomenology is a branch of philosophy which deals with this idea of personal perception. Famous thinkers of this current are Husserl, Heidegger, Sartre, Merleau-Ponty and others. ‘Literally, phenomenology is the study of “phenomena”: appearances of things, or things as they appear in our experience, or the ways we experience things, thus the meanings things have in our experience.’ (Stanford Education, web). Therefore, Ways of Seeing could be interpreted under this scope, as Berger undoubtedly shares this idea that art interpretation depends on the way we experience it. This is also related to the concept of qualia, defined to be individual instances of subjective, conscious experience. The term qualia derives from the Latin meaning “of what sort” or “of what kind” in a specific instance like “what it is like to taste a specific apple, this particular apple now”. 

Furthermore, psychology has also explored the subjectivity in perception. The subjective character of experience is a term in psychology and the philosophy of mind denoting that all subjective phenomena are associated with a single point of view (the individual). The term was coined by Thomas Nagel in his paper “What Is it Like to Be a Bat?” Subjective character of experience implies that the perception of all things, concepts, and “truths” in the universe differs between individuals: we all live in different worlds, each of which may have things in common, because of our unique perspectives on our worlds. The only thing to which one can hold oneself is something one has experienced or perceived. The paper basically explains that bats have their own way of perceiving and therefore their own way of experience that humans would have a hard time comprehending, and this is obviously due to their physical characteristics and their environments. ‘Our own experience provides the basic material for our imagination, whose range is therefore limited’ (Nagel, 439) so even though we might have all the information about a certain thing (for example, how bats perceive) we can’t experience what they do. Same even if we have all the information about something past, we can’t experience it again and so our perception of their material culture is necessarily different than theirs. 

There is also scientific research that supports this inherent fragmentation of perception depending on experience. In Cultural Effects on Visual Perception, Masuda summarises the scientific empirical work done in the recent decades that shows that culture and human psychological processes are considered to mutually influence one another. He argues that ‘mainstream psychology has generally assumed that psychological processes are universal and that the main role of psychology is to investigate these universal aspects of human beings. Visual perception, attention, and even visual illusion have, therefore, been understood mainly in terms of the underlying optical mechanisms and characteristics of visual information hardwired in the human brain and shared by human beings in general’ (1); however, this is proven wrong by the inter-cultural work cited by Masuda. For example, he explains the experiments on visual perception given to people of different cultures and they responded differently (despite of race and gender).  

As mentioned in my previous post, this is one of the main theses (if not the main) of Ways of Seeing, and my case-study is a clear example of this, especially the main panel. Depending on how we see it, we can interpret even opposite meanings. I will develop this further in a final post about my particular case-study.

AUTHORIAL INTENT

While thinking about the project and the argument that perception of art is inherently fragmented because it depends on the subjective interpretation of the viewer, an obvious question was, what is the role of authorial intent then? To what extent is meaning decided upon a piece of art? If only the perception of the spectator matters and it’s value for the present, worrying about the context of the piece necessarily generates a negative mystification?

A theory that is in favour of disregarding the authorial intent when engaging with a work of art is the famous Death of the Author, first developed by Roland Barthes is his 1967 essay of that title. The essay focused on literary analysis and criticism, and he famously argued that the ‘text belongs to its audience, not the author’. Traditionally, criticism focused (in all the arts) in authorial intent until the critical theory of the 1960s, of which Barthes’ is representative. From Barthes on, however, critical theorists shifts the focus to the work in itself, and especially the relationship between the piece and the audience – not, as it was before, the author and the audience. According to Barthes, focusing on the author has no value because the ‘the author is a modern figure, produced no doubt by our society insofar as, at the end of the middle ages, with English empiricism, French rationalism and the personal faith of the Reformation, it discovered the prestige of the individual, or, to put it more nobly, of the “human person” […] the image of literature to be found in contemporary culture is tyrannically centered on the author, his person, his history, his tastes, his passions’ (Barthes, 2). In other words, the author was a construction and imposed by the elite to set a fixed meaning to their works of art.

As he summarises, ‘once the Author is gone, the claim to “decipher” a text becomes quite useless. To give an Author to a text is to impose upon that text a stop clause, to furnish it with a final signification, to close the writing’ (Barthes, 5). In pages 28 and 29 of Ways of Seeing, Berger specifically explains how the elite has monopolised art and its meanings until the era of mechanical reproduction and concludes that ‘art, with its unique undiminished authority, justifies most other forms of authority, that art makes inequality seem noble and hierarchies seem thrilling’ (29); therefore, allowing authority to control art is dangerous not only because it causes passive spectators, but also because it creates a complacent and controlled society.  Barthes also thinks that the author has been treated as a God, and the meaning it gave to his/her work was treated as final and fixed because it was surrounded of an aura of secrecy and the only active relation the audience could have with the work is to unpack this secret (even though it was implicit that they would never been able, because it was a divine creation). This is also what Berger calls “mystification” in Ways of Seeing. Furthermore, as Berger (and Debord and Ranciere), Barthes believes that a free audience that engages actively with the works of art is the audience necessary to create a better society and individuals: ‘the birth of the reader must be ransomed by the death of the Author’ (Barthes, 6). 

Foucault famously expanded Barthes work outside Literature to other types of production. He focuses again on the role that the work in itself has, outside of the context of its creation, ‘the work, which once had the duty of providing immortality, now possesses the right to kill, to be the author’s murderer’ (Foucault, 1).  He explains that, contrary to historical believe since the Renaissance, ‘the author is not an indefinite source of significations that fill a work; the author does not precede the works; he is a certain functional principle by which, in our culture, one limits, excludes, and chooses; in short, by which one impedes the free circulation, the free manipulation, the free composition, decomposition, and recomposition of fiction’ (Foucault,14). According to him, hence, the author is an ideological figure and people assign meaning to a work for who made it instead of what is really present in that work.  

But, if we kill the author, should we kill the historical context of the work as well? After all, we have established that for Berger and the critical theorists of the 1960s, the most important thing of a work of art was the value it had for the public in the present moment. I think that this is important to highlight: the value of context depends entirely on the reason of approaching the piece. For example, it is very different if we aim to engage with art as audience than if we want to approach a piece of material culture to understand a specific period, and both of these are compatible. For instance, Berger obviously emphasises on the Ways of Seeing that are useful for our personal and social development in the present, but he also understands the value the pieces had in its time and why they were made like that. This is noticeable when he talks about oil paintings in the third essay of Ways of Seeing (83-112). So, if we approach a work as an starting point to talk about a period, then it’s important to know about the context and even the author but if we just want to experience art and live it now, with its value for the present then it is really not necessary.  

In conclusion, I think that the idea of death of the author can help us break with imposed meanings from historical authorities, and make us engaged freely with art while finding use for it in our present moment for us as individuals and as society. Furthermore, for the art historian or the person that seeks to analyse a work of art for its value as proof of material culture, understanding that meaning changes depending on the material conditions of the audience’s time period can help them understand that they also have to deal with the ways that the audience of that specific period engaged with their culture (Who had access to this art? What did they perceive? What was their value? How does it compare to the value now?).

COMMODITY FETISHISM

So far I have explored spectatorship and how it challenges authorial intent when engaging with art works. In addition to this, in order to understand the shift in the interpretation of art, we must address (at least briefly) commodity fetishism. After all, art works nowadays (and since, as Berger shows in Ways of Seeing, the advent of capitalism and the invention oil painting) are seen as high-level commodities rather than public objects. Before, following Berger’s ideas and the cited critical theories, I argued that art works should be analysed according to the value it has for the individual and society. I realise that the term value is quite ambivalent, especially when dealing with art, because it can be read as monetary value – even though I meant more pragmatic and intellectual value. This is exactly what commodity fetishism is: the perception that what it is involved in the production of an object are not social relationships, but economic relationships of market exchange.

Karl Marx was critical of this view of objects as mere inter-exchange because each work (artistic or not) was the result of social relations and the active production of a human being. For Marx, seeing objects created by humans as mere commodities was alienating, because it was against our social nature as producers. Indeed, seeing art as mere objects that represent monetary value is completely alienating for us, because we can fail in seeing a real connection with our society. For this reason, commodity fetishism is very much connected with the wider debate of artistic perception. Art works are not commodities (the belief that they are is also why originals are mystified according to Berger), but part of humanity’s heritage and a language to connect people throughout time and space.

In his essay, Revolutionary Undoing, Berger explains that ‘art historians with a social or Marxist formation have interpreted the art of the past in terms of class ideology. […] It now appears that in the later stages of capitalism this has ceased to be generally true. Art is treated as a commodity whose meaning lies only in its rarity value and in its functional value as a stimulant of sensations’. So, commodity fetishism can also occupy the functional value of stimulation. Precisely for this reason, it is important to engage actively with art and see it as a public right which’s value is that it stimulates our intellect as individuals in a society. 

DEMOCRATIC PRAXIS

In the end, we can conclude that Berger’s thesis in Ways of Seeing and these works of critical theories is that art should be more accessible for common people. If perception of art is fragmented because it depends on subjectivity, and any imposition of a true and unique meaning is just authoritarian and aims to create a passive audience (and society), then freedom of interpretation and engagement is the productive intellectual value that can create better individuals and societies. This is what I refer to as democratic praxis. 

In his essay, The Author as Producer, Walter Benjamin (one of the references for Berger in Ways of Seeing) proposes that ‘when it examined a work of art, materialist criticism was accustomed to ask how that work stood in relation to the social relationships of production of its time. [But what if instead of asking] how does a literary work stand in relation to the relationships of production of a period, [we ask] how does it stand in them?’. By this, he meant to explore the technique of the work rather than the context around it, sort of a first step of what Barthes and Foucault would propose later on about the Death of the Author. However, I think that the question should be: how does the work stand today? So, we should examine how our perceptions can create value for that piece of art nowadays. This way, we will democratise art in its final stance and we will de-mystify the works and finally separate their meaning to the elites and authority. We will stop seeing art as commodities that don’t belong to us, and start seeing it as part of our personal and social heritage.  

Berger, along with the critical theorists mentioned, had the ultimate goal to fight against alienation and create a more active public. As Marx first stated in his Theses on Feuerbach, the most important political turn of modern time is a democratic (from below) praxis, a stop to contemplation and a start of active practice. Of course, this must come both from the individual but also from society, because ‘human nature is not inherent in its individual, in reality it is the ensemble of the social relations’. In fact, just by having social relations and engaging in this kind of activities as a group we are being active, because ‘all social life is essentially practical’. The conclusion, then, is still the same: we have for too long only interpreted the world, and the point is to change it. Engaging with our cultural heritage active is one of the first steps to do this.

Sources:

Barthes, Roland. Death of the Author, 1967. <http://www.tbook.constantvzw.org/wp-content/death_authorbarthes.pdf>.

Benjamin, Walter. The Author as Producer, Verso, 1966. <https://yaleunion.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/Walter_Benjamin_-_The_Author_as_Producer.pdf>.

Berger, John. ‘Revolutionary Undoing’ from 1969, in Landscapes, Verso, 2016.

Berger, John. Ways of Seeing, Penguin Books, 1973.

Debord, Guy. The Society of the Spectacle. New York Zone Books, 1994.

Foucault, Michel. What is an Author?, 1969. <http://seas3.elte.hu/coursematerial/HarasztosAgnes/Foucault_WhatIsAnAuthor.pdf>

Marx, Karl. Theses on Feuerbach, 1845. <https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1845/theses/theses.htm>.

Masuda, Takahiko. Cultural Effects on Visual Perception, 2009. <https://www.researchgate.net/publication/299611215_Cultural_Effects_on_Visual_Perception>.

Nagel, Thomas. ‘What Is It Like to Be a Bat?’ The Philosophical Review, vol. 83, no. 4, 1974, pp. 435-450.

Ranciere, Jacques. ‘The Emancipated Spectator’, in The Emancipated Spectator, trans. by Gregory Elliott. Verso, 2009, pp. 1-23.

Stanford Education. Phenomenology. <https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/phenomenology/>.

The Value of Ways of Seeing as Our Theoretical Framework

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. 

Imagine believing THIS is exactly what awaits in the after-life.

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. 

‘Lust allows a soul unable to confront the reality of life with a brief escape. Indulge in lust, and all of life’s troubles and worries disappear for a moment – only to reappear again unchanged, and with one’s soul in a state of peril. Indulging in lust of any kind has a kind of hollowing-out effect on the soul – it sells the person out for all they are worth, simply in order to feel good for a little while.’ (Source: https://www.catholicgentleman.net)

VERSUS

‘If everything goes well and sex is natural and flowing it is a beautiful experience because you can have a glimpse of the second through it. If sex goes really very deep, so that you forget yourself completely in it, you can even have a glimpse of the third through it. And if sex becomes a total orgasmic experience, there are rare moments when you can even have a glimpse of the fourth, the turiya, the beyond, through it.’ (Source: Osho, Talking Tao)

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

Ways of Seeing Sexuality in The Garden of Earthly Delights (preliminary thoughts)

As Yifan said in the previous post, we think that John Berger’s ideas in Ways of Seeing can help us analyse our case-studies through the same approach, and we can create a common thread in regards to the fragmentation between the representation of sexuality and its perception. Specifically, we are interested in the claim that ‘nakedness is created by the mind of the beholder’ and, therefore, perception is key for the analysis of sexuality in art.

In my case-study, the example is quite clear. The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch is one of the first examples of the oil painting tradition in Europe. It is considered part of a school known as the Flemish Primitives, a transition between the relatively anonymous art of the Middle Ages and the author-centred art of the Renaissance*. Berger states in his essay that ‘the first nudes in European oil painting were representations of Adam and Eve’ (47), which break with the “nude-less” art of the Middle Ages in Europe. Indeed, we can see an example of this in the left panel of The Garden of Earthly Delights :

“The eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked” (Genesis)

Berger points out that Adam and Eve’s story in the Genesis is striking because it shows that they became aware of being naked and became embarrassed for it after eating the apple, despite having been living in nakedness for a long time. This demonstrates that they saw each other different because their perception had changed and, therefore, ‘nakedness was created in the eye of the beholder’ (48). In my opinion, this can be extrapolated to the fact that sexuality in art (and, actually, in life) is neutral, and it is only considered virtuous or a sin depending on the perception of the audience. The Garden of Earthly Delights exemplifies this.

For instance, if we could isolate the central panel of the triptych and view it without context or knowledge about the rest of the piece, we could easily assume that the scene being depicted was positive and sexuality was being treated as a desirable activity. After all, we see a scene of collective enjoyment depicted in bright colours and a dream-like fantastic background that opens our imagination. Men and women alike have the same status of being subjects of the scene rather than objects, and the spectator has a wider view of the panorama as if it were a window to a magical landscape.

Paradise?

However, when put in context, the panel assumes another meaning. As the spectator follows the sequence on to the right and final painting in the triptych**, they discover that the third chapter of this story is not a positive image. In fact, the panel is commonly known as Hell and it shows images of death and torture, as well as disturbing sexual practices, in a dark and gloomy background.

Consequences?

Even though Bosch probably had a reason for his piece, little is known today of the intent of the author, so spectators, critics and art historians have to make their interpretations of the work, and that opens the door to as many meanings as perceptions of sexuality. As Berger wrote, ‘although every image embodies a way of seeing, our perception or appreciation of an image depends also upon our own way of seeing’ (10). So the triptych could be viewed (for example) as a cautionary tale for those who fall in temptation, a portrayal of the pleasures of heaven in opposition to the horrors of hell, or even the two sides of human life: pleasure and pain. We could also interpret that nakedness is different in the panels, from sensual and erotic in the centre to nasty and gross in the right, and that both panels represent two sides of sexuality. Nevertheless, these interpretations are indeed just perceptions of the viewer, meanings that we attribute to the work depending on our way of seeing.

For example, when I was a little kid and I visited the El Prado museum, I liked to inspect this painting because it had so many things going on. I remember my interpretation of the meaning was that the centre was Heaven and the right panel was Hell, fates that human beings could experience after death, two worlds in which sexuality was pleasurable and ideal or violent and unwanted (respectively). However, as I learned more about the historical period and the basic common idea of the Middle Ages, I thought it was clearly a story of the consequences of taking temptations. Therefore, I assumed that sexuality was portrayed in a negative way in both panels, even though my instinct was to see sexuality as positive in the central panel.

Berger takes into account this change in the ways of seeing depending on our personal circumstances (like time period and social background and cultural symbols). In his introductory essay he mentions that ‘today we see the art as never before, we actually perceive it in a different way’ (16). Our historical context is very different to that of Bosch’s. For example, in that period it was common for Europeans to believe in the actual physical existence of Heaven and Hell so probably this piece was interpreted in a completely different way as we do today.

I wonder if what matters in a work of art is the interpretation and meanings people give it and the use that they can give to the piece, or its meaning as historical text and example of a specific period. Finally, in regards to the ways of seeing, maybe we could consider comparing the perception in its time and nowadays.

*This construction was made later by Art Historians. It is interesting that not much is known about Bosch or the exact date of the creation of the painting, and it was labelled into that period for its characteristics and the history of its property – for which there are records.

**I am particularly interested in triptych as historical examples of sequential art (I wrote my reflective essay about sequential art). However, the story telling in triptychs is very different from the comic-book strip we are accustomed to, even though they share a common language of panels.

Cited: Berger, John, Ways of Seeing, Penguin Books (1973).

Week 3 update – Second Case Study

Our presentation project is designed to be an exploration of our theme (incoherence of sexuality between the visual representation and social perception) through time and space.

Following Yifan’s case study of the Classical Douris Psykter, I will explore The Garden of Earthly Delights, a triptych oil painting from the late 15th century housed in the Museo del Prado in Madrid.

The painting was produced in a period between the European Middle Ages and the Early Renaissance, and has mixed characteristics that correspond to each of the periods in both form and content.

In content, sexual iconography and symbolism is explicit in the central and the right-hand panel. The central panel depicts a fantastical land where people and animals enjoy sensual pleasures with obvious ease. In the right-hand panel, sexuality is represented under an obscure prism of torture and degeneracy.

The right-hand panel (commonly known as hell), is easily identified as a representation of the consequences of sin. However, art historians are divided as to whether the central panel was intended as a moral warning or as a panorama of paradise lost.

The 15th century was also a period fragmented by the social changes and the shift towards more humanist ideas. I will explore this further referencing the following resources:

The Salacious Middle Ages, Katherine Harvey (2018)

Northern Renaissance Art, Susie Nash (2008)

Pagan virtue and the humanism of the northern Renaissance, Anthony Levi (1974)

Medieval Conduct, ed. by Kathleen Ashley and Rober L.A. Clark (2001)

Constructing medieval sexuality, ed. by Karma Lochrie, Peggy McCracken and James A. Schultz (1997)

Intersections of sexuality and the divine in medieval culture: the word made flesh, ed. by Susannah Mary Chewing (2004)

Desire and discipline: Sex and sexuality in the premodern West, ed. by Jacqueline Murray and Konrad Eisenbichler (1996)

Ideas for the next group discussion: 
  • Talk about a common argument and a conclusion that includes all case-studies. I think the presentation should all be connected through a common point that we are trying to make with all the case-studies. (This should be part of a general introduction and conclusion).
  • Talk about the visuals in the presentation (I suggest a Prezi with a map of the World to move from one place to the other).