The Ways of Seeing by John Berger

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Looking at Pictures [Berger]
Original paintings are silent and still in a sense that information never is. Even a reproduction hung on the wall is not comparable in this respect for in the original the silence and stillness permeate the actual material, the paint, in which one follows the traces of the painter’s immediate gestures. This has the effect of closing the distance in time between the painting of the picture and one’s own act of looking at it. ... What we make of that painted moment when it is before our eyes depends upon what we expect of art, and that in turn depends today upon how we have already experienced the meaning of paintings through reproductions. (Berger 116) While Berger describes original paintings as silent in this passage, it is clear that these paintings begin to speak if one approaches them properly, if one learns to ask “the right questions of the past.” Berger demonstrates one route of approach, for example, in his reading of the Hals paintings, where he asks questions about the people and objects and their relationship to the painter and the viewer. What the paintings might be made to say, however, depends upon the viewer’s expectations, his or her sense of the questions that seem appropriate or possible. Berger argues that because of the way art is currently displayed, discussed, and reproduced, the viewer expects only to be mystified. For this assignment, imagine that you are working against the silence and mystification Berger describes. Go to a museum (The Everson for example)— or, if that is not possible, to a large-format book of reproductions in the library, or, if that is not possible, to the Internet — and select a painting that seems silent and still, yet invites conversation. Your job is to figure out what sorts of questions to ask, to interrogate the painting, to get it to speak, to engage with the past in some form of dialogue. Write an essay in which you record this process and what you have learned from...
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