Looking At, Through, and Beyond the Fog

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Looking At, Through, and Beyond the Fog

Zvosecz 1Zachary JJP ZvoseczProfessor XURhetoric 11521 November 2011Summary of John Berger’s “Ways of Seeing”In an essay titled “Ways of Seeing,” art critic John Berger argues that art has lost itsintrinsic value due to reproduction en masse and the way in which modern viewers observe it.Berger criticizes this process and offers alternative steps that society can take in order to preservewhat can still be kept safe in regards to art’s value. His thesis reads, “The art of the past is beingmystified because a privileged minority is striving to invent a history which can retrospectivelyjustify the role of the ruling classes” (2).Berger begins by discussing the separation that people have between what they see andwhat they know. For example, a viewer may “see” a subject in two ways: first, by the subject’sown representation, and second, by the viewer’s interpretation of the subject. Berger explainsthat each individual viewer, therefore, may have a different interpretation of a certain subject.Berger also introduces the idea that there are preconceived notions that describe what “good art”entails. These notions are a set of qualities defined by the so-called privileged minority, an elitistgroup whose existence Berger criticizes.Berger continues to discuss the mystification of art, primarily, how art is seeminglygrowing intangible to the modern viewer. He uses two of Frans Hals’ artworks as examples: amodern viewer had mistakenly observed that the “drunkard regent” in one of the paintings isnegatively portrayed because of his appearance, but Berger argues that this man is actually

Zvosecz 2positively portrayed because he was one Hals’ benefactors, whom he would not insult, and thatdrinking was a social habit in that time. The passing of time skewed the modern viewer’sinterpretation. Berger defines this process of mystification as “the process of explaining awaywhat might otherwise be evident” (3).Berger expounds on the difference between past and present and how modern viewers“see” subjects differently. According to Berger, the camera changed the everlasting appeal ofpaintings because it could make a still picture instantly. This idea introduces his discussion of theuniqueness and authority of art, or rather, the change these qualities undergo. Berger contendsthat art’s uniqueness shifts away from the original because of reproduction. Berger explains thatreproductions alter art in two ways: the art’s meaning is divided into as many alternativemeanings as there are reproductions (and so over exposure lessens the appeal), but also that theoriginal image’s value increases in that it is the original of a reproduction. The latter scenario ofincreasing the original’s values is explained by what Berger calls a “bogus religiosity” (6). This“bogus religiosity” replaces some of the value that the art had lost due to reproduction becausethey are treated as priceless objects. The privileged minority locks them away, and museumsbecome the only way to view art, but Berger shows that museums are becoming less frequented.Finally, Berger addresses how a meaning is transmittable. A movie director may presentan image to convey a thought in accordance with his film agenda, sub-captions can alter themeaning of a painting, and a collection of images together take on a collective meaning inregards to their common ground. Concluding, Berger stresses that there are ways in which peoplemay reclaim art’s lost value by replacing museums with personal collage boards or by hangingtheir personal reproductions on the walls in their rooms in order to preserve art’s authority.

Zvosecz 1Zachary JJP ZvoseczProfessor XURhetoric 1152 December 2011It surprises me even as I type it, but I have decided that my audience for this essay will bemyself. A strong urge evolved in prewriting to include a personal interpretation of my artwork inregards to my unclear decision of a major/career. I feel as if this essay is a journal or diary entrysince I have written it as if it were an exercise in understanding my thoughts. Since this “entry”may be read years in the future, the Berger footnotes act as reminders of the assignment. Thepiece of art that I am working with is a reproduction of Caspar David Friedrich’s paintingWander above the Sea of Fog (1818). Since I am trying to make my “foggy” thoughts clear tomyself, I am required to be honest with my analysis of the fog, which represents my uncertaintyin my decision. I have intentionally formatted my essay to make it seem as if the reader/viewer isprogressively “entering” further into the painting (and my thoughts). I do this by analyzing theforeground, the middle-ground, and the background of the painting. Additionally, I include achange in verb tense to separate my narrative paragraphs from my analysis paragraphs.Looking At, Through, and Beyond the FogMy page-long assignment description may be summarized in a very simple instruction:pick an artwork, and write. The assignment for my Rhetoric class was intentionally broad,granting me free access to the vast scope of art throughout history. I could have chosen WaterLilies or other impressionist works of Claude Monet, noted for their soft colors and simplicity. Icould have chosen Transfiguration or other works of Raphael taken out of the High Renaissance,praised for their use of chiaroscuro. I could even have chosen from the modern surrealism ofSalvador Dali in works such as Persistence of Memory. I could have chosen from any one of themost famous artists recognized in popular culture.And yet, I chose not to do so.

Zvosecz 2I wanted my interpretation to be entirely guided by my own understanding, letting thepainting speak for itself. 1 A well-known work or a recognized artist would carry all the“baggage” of popular culture or a previous exposure that I had had with my chosen artwork. Thiswould have hampered my personal reaction. I rejected the easy route of searching for a paintinganalysis that some professor or art scholar had prewritten to explain how the intricacies anddetails meshed together to form an ideal representation of some artistic theory that may onlymake sense to said art critic and his or her colleagues. 2 Instead, I began my search with the intentto discover a painting that I had neither seen nor even heard mention of before, created by anartist that I did not recognize either. In order to get a wide range of potential artworks, I turned tomy trusty source that mass-produces results: the Google Images search engine.Amid a flurry of searches predominated by a mix of colors, styles, and representations,the scrolling tool on my computer mouse ground to a halt while searching a certain Wikipediapage titled “landscape art.” I expected to immerse myself in a beautiful autumn landscape, butthe painting that I had stumbled across was much different from what I had expected. Aparticular painting by the German artist Caspar David Friedrich had commanded my fullattention, 3 appearing to scream silently at me, “Pick me! See what meaning you may discover inmy brushstrokes.” At first I was unconvinced that this painting had hidden meaning, but as Icontemplated my collection of potential artworks, my thoughts continuously flitted back to theswirling vapors of Friedrich’s Wanderer above the Sea of Fog (1818).1 I am relating my ideas to those of John Berger as presented in his essay “Ways of Seeing.” In the essay, Bergermakes claims and interpretations on how art is viewed in modern times, once stating, “Paintings…have to hold theirown against all the other information” (7). I therefore avoid outside information that may skew my understanding ofmy chosen artwork. [Additional Note: “Ways of Seeing” was included in Donald McQuade and ChristineMcQuade’s Seeing and Writing 3, which was published in 2006 by Bedford/St. Martin’s in Boston.]2 Berger would call this group the “privileged minority,” a select group of elites that determines the value of art (2).3 Berger speaks of a seduction that art works upon the viewer (3). It’s this seduction that led me to select my piece.

Zvosecz 5Now from my perspective atop my little crest, I am trying to discern the best route to takethrough the fog settling upon my own life. 8 Like coming to the edge of a cliff, I have come to theend of my previous life in high school. During my time there, instead of the man’s velvet jacket Idonned the blue blazer, a symbol of my dedication, education, and formality. Instead of a cane, Ihave been given tools that have helped me reach my college years, which are now spread outbefore me. Even though my next four years lie just ahead, they are hidden from sight as if theytoo are covered by fog. The landscape appears vast and dreary from my vantage point, and thefog obscures my view.Amid the fog drift my own doubts, worries, and trepidations. I fear that these may cometo realization if I become misguided once I commit myself to one path. Of course, if there areconverging paths up ahead, I may change course (change my major), and have nothing to fear;but through the fog I can barely see a few months ahead let alone converging paths. Some of thedoubts and worries that I harbor are more prevalent thanothers and frequently accompany my flow of thoughtswhen I try to discern a major: Will I be financially securenot only for myself to live contentedly, but also to support afamily should I choose to start one? Will there be positionavailabilities when I graduate in the field in which I study?Will I have job security once I obtain a position?I sometimes hear people talk about majors as if theywere magical formulas that solve life’s problems, or as if any person who knows his or her major8 Somewhat unconventionally, I have chosen to include Wanderer above the Sea of Fog on this page as well. Bergerhad also done something similar, demonstrating that words can influence an image’s interpretation (7). In thissecond showing of the painting, I want my reader to “re-see” the painting within the context of choosing a major.

Zvosecz 6knows what he or she is going to do with the rest of his or her life. Clearly I understand this isnot the case, but I feel as if it would make the path through college academics easier to traverse ifI could just pick a field of study. I have plenty of options (too many, possibly); I see myselfteaching in high schools, counseling or tutoring others, and even taking Holy Orders. And ofcourse there is the possibility of a career or vocation that I have not even foreseen. I can take oneof any number of paths, but I dare not take one step in one direction for my fear that it would bethe “wrong” route. There is pressure to move forward, some of which I place upon myselfbecause I am eager to continue along the trail. My major does not have to whisk all of the fogaway, but it may at least clear some off the path.And yet even with these doubts, I maintain a degree of confidence in my ability todiscern the proper route. I trust that in the end I will make the best out of whatever major Ichoose. Additionally I can rely on the guidance of my family and of my mentors. Luckily I donot have to walk through the fog-filled valley alone for somebody is always behind me tosupport me just as the viewer is behind the man in Wanderer above the Sea of Fog. Just as theman holds himself in a dominant posture, I come to understand that I am the master over mydoubts and decisions. And besides, if I ever grow frustrated over my decision, all I have to do isset my sight on the horizon. By looking out over the unknown valley in the direction of thehorizon, I see the results of my education in their splendor. It is difficult to tell what those resultsare exactly because the distance separates them from me, but I cannot help but hope that the daysspent in those results will be as bright as the sunrise in Wanderer above the Sea of Fog. I maynot know what awaits me there, but clearly there is a potential to reach new heights because I cansee the sharp peaks even from where I stand now.

Zvosecz 7Looking back on my experience with the Wanderer above the Sea of Fog, I am intriguedin that I became so engrossed in the painting. Among everything else that I came to understandabout the painting, I found the timelessness of art to be the most awe-inspiring phenomenon. 9The fact that a nearly two-hundred-year-old painting is able to span the passing of centuries tocarry meaning for a present day college freshmen – this is truly remarkable. And without takingthe time to search for the painting or extract it for meaning, I would never come to view theartwork as I do now – a hesitant and wary moment before a life-altering decision.In the end, my Google Image search proved fruitful. I discovered a painting unknown tome that nonetheless conveyed deep meaning through my interpretation. I had never expected toapply my personal experiences to the piece, but Wanderer above the Sea of Fog compelled me todo so. I allowed myself to read a “professional” analysis of the painting once I had finished theabove reflection. Interestingly enough, the “professionals” came to the same analysis as I did.This of course aligns with Berger’s disapproval of the “privileged minority” and their role as thedefiners of good art because I myself – only vaguely aware of the intricacies of artistic ability –came to the same conclusion. In fact, the experts even suggested that viewers of Wanderer abovethe Sea of Fog should use the painting as a starting point for a personal reflection.Whenever I see Wanderer above the Sea of Fog in the days to come, my understanding ofthe piece will always have the undertone of my early college decision of choosing a major. I donot see it as a clouded interpretation; instead, I personally see it as a more fulfilled interpretation.9 Berger claims that the “timelessness of art” had been altered by the invention of new technology (3). Although Iagree with the fact as he presents it, I believe that Berger doesn’t fully discuss a second superior understanding ofthe timelessness of art, an understanding that is enhanced by the use of technology. Reproductions, especiallydigital, preserve art in an unchanging state and allow images to exist unceasingly, making it possible for manygenerations to benefit from the art. Had Wanderer above the Sea of Fog not been preserved in this way, I would nothave had the experience of self-reflection and appreciation of the painting.

Wanderer above the Sea of FogCaspar David Friedrich1818

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