John Berger proposes that, in the contemporary setting, images are not always interpreted on the basis of their explicit denotation but the often-slanted viewpoints of the audience. He stated, “The way we see things is affected by what we know or believe” (8). The implication is that the language of images in art is grounded on the underlying interactions between an individual’s perception of information, and their sociological bias.
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In exploring this language, Berger also comments on technological developments and their impact on contemporary artistic interpretation. Additionally, he criticizes current perceptions of the arts because of their fascination with “originals” which surpasses the understanding of the works themselves. This problem is further escalated because technology can reproduce numerous copies of an original work, which ultimately devalues it.
How the Language is used to Interpret Art
The language of art has spawned divergent interpretations of various works, but in many cases, those that claim to appreciate art are ignorant of its real value or meaning. Berger argues that in many instances, art lovers, ranging from seasoned patrons to amateurs tend to read art based on its rarity rather than the intrinsic value. For example, it is common to find people crowding around a rare piece like the Mona Lisa.
However, their interpretation of the experience is not based on the picture’s history or its underlying meaning, but merely the fact that they saw an original (Berger 21). Evidently, the writer feels that peoples’ material interest in art waters down its significance and misuse the language of art. This notion resonates with his next argument that, when one looks at art without considering the historical and perhaps personal factors that motivated it, they can easily misread it.
For example, Van Gogh’s, Wheatfield with Crows, invokes serenity in many viewers. Nevertheless, this is ironic considering that it was the last thing he painted before committing suicide (Berger 21). Evidently, the writer’s concern for simplicity and even ignorance with which people often approach art is justified.
Example of a Powerful Image and Reflection
Not even contemporary works have been spared misinterpretation, which often replaces their artistic value with a commercial one. For example, the image of Che Guevara, the Cuban “freedom fighter”, has become synonymous with freedom struggle and human rights campaigns world over.
Conversely, the said hero was in many ways a terrorist and by his own admission carried out executions of those who did not share his ideology. Irrespective of this, people interpret his iconic image in millions of T-shirts (for sale), and art galleries as a symbol of peace and equality. This demonstrates how insignificant the intrinsic meaning and value of art have become. As a designer, I observe and create numerous images, but Berger’s book has forced me to reconsider my sometimes non-critical perception of art.
Reflecting on his sentiments, I realize that art is far greater than the canvas, on which it exists or its overt significance. Every artwork ought to be valued by, not only rarity or abundance but also the covert meaning and movement behind it. The fact that art loses value after duplication is a testament to the inverted priorities both within and without the art world.
However, if the language of art is applied correctly, art can be primarily interpreted as a product of an artist’s imagination, observation, and reflective experience. From this viewpoint, I must also re-examine the pieces that I interact with daily and recalibrate my mental schemas about them. This way, I can do justice to both the creations and the creators by seeing past, ascribed commercial value, and popular assumptions.
Berger, John. Ways of seeing. Vol. 1. London: Penguin UK, 2008. Print.