Berger’s “The Moment of Cubism” part II
by Antonio Dias
As background to the thrust of The Moment of Cubism discussed in the last post, Berger provides us with the most concise recapitulation of the evolution of our world-view as seen through the prism of art beginning with the Renaissance.
“Renaissance …painting was a mirror. (Art) renders the appearances of nature and delivers them to (us). (We became) the eye for which reality had been made visual: the ideal eye.”
Our “common-sense” view of art remains at this stage. Single-point perspective was the symbolic articulation of the then-new scientific view, what I commonly refer to as the Newtonian model. It reduced our immersion in perceptual totality to a squinting peak at that which our idealization had already told us was important, “reality made visible.” Reality as that which we choose to make visible. A manufactured reality made visible so as to give it the power of the seen.
“(For) Michelangelo (and) 18th Century Classicism, art imitated nature. (Art) reconstructed aspects of nature to transcend nature.”
The Mannerist/Classical “conceit” was that nature could be re-assembled to create an artifice that transcended its “lowly” sources. Here was the full-flowering of Humanist Conceit at a time when the term was used with a wry knowing smile between those privileged enough to rise above “dirty necessity.” This attitude remains a basis of our progressivist fantasies from all factions along our political spectrum; from “victorious regime change” to “bio-engineering.”
“The 19th Century Experienced nature.”
From the Romantics to the Neo-classicists, and on to Impressionists and Symbolists; the Nineteenth Century discovered the experience of nature that had been left un-examined within simpler modes of being or actively denied by western culture. These artists chose to examine the experience of nature itself in their search to connect with authenticity and originality, their touchstones. This too has left traces on our legacy. Ecological awareness grew from this root before being co-opted by the dominant culture. The expectation that an avant-garde, acting as scouts for the wider culture, became another aspect of Nineteenth Century rebellion rolled into business-as-usual, reduced today to douche-bag hipsterism.
“Cubists realized (through their) awareness of nature, (that they were) part of nature.”
This realization, along with the methods they intuited and began to develop to inhabit their new-found awareness, brings us to where we find ourselves still struggling today to come to grips with the implications of their discovery. Berger connects this intuitive process with the scientific breakthroughs of that time:
“Heisenberg (discovered that) Natural Science does not simply describe and explain nature; it is part of the interplay between nature and ourselves; it describes nature as exposed to our method of questioning.”
Picasso, Braque, Legér, and a few others; found a way to visualize this new view of the world. They created a “map” and a “sketch-pad” to delineate this new space and they began to “play” – in the most profound sense of play, as a means for us to situate ourselves in our environment.
“Cubist use of space broke the continuity of illusionistic space. Two-dimensional surface is always there as the arbiter and resolver of different claims. (It is) the constant that allows us to appreciate the variables. The totality is the surface which is now the origin and sum of all that one sees. A field of vision that is the picture itself.”
Scale and reference: a work of perception/understanding seen as a playground in which we hold sight of our contingent place within the greater totality.
“Form’s aim was to arrive at a much more complex image of reality.”
They began to see complexity not as a negative, as the merely inconveniently complicated; but as a fact; an essential attribute of our condition; something that must be confronted squarely, not simply wished away. This can only happen through the direct experience of complexity. This cannot happen without a ground for experience.
Their play led them to certain conclusions:
“(The Cubists) Abandoned the habit of looking at objects and bodies as though complete in themselves, its completeness making it separate. Cubism (was) concerned with the interaction between objects.”
This playground gave them the opportunity to engage with interaction and interconnection, to disabuse themselves – and us – of the notion of distinct and complete objects in a neutral or empty field. They found that:
“Discontinuity of space (equals) continuity of structure.”
Scale and context: space which “appears” to us seamless, and structure that appears to us as discrete; are in fact reversed. Their surfaces presented the phenomenology of these facts made clear and more readily apparent to our eyes. Eyes so long accustomed to an earlier paradigm which had led us away from an even earlier form of direct experience.
“Space is part of the continuity of the events within it. It is an event, not a mere container. The space between is the same structure as the objects themselves.”
Through Berger’s analysis we can begin to see what was developing during this Cubist Moment. The seemingly arbitrary translates for us into an articulate whole that points out fabrications inherent in earlier views.
Surfaces are shown to be Fields:
“Art recording processes instead of static entities.”
Subjects are seen to be Dynamic Systems:
“Modes of interaction, aspects of some event, empty and filled space, structure and movement, seer and thing seen.”
Simultaneous multiple viewpoints arise from knowing what question is being asked:
“(A) Cubist picture (asks) – not ‘Is it true?’ ‘Is it sincere?’ But, ‘Does it continue?’”
The question is that of sustainability! Not a buzzword for green-washing, but in its most profound sense. What matters is what continues. From there we get to attaching value to what lasts, not out of nostalgia, but because what lasts is what works. At this moment that was taken as the birth of yet another “modernism,” we have a truly “conservative,” in the conservationist sense, value placed within a vibrant context. Two major misunderstandings of the Cubist Moment were that they were the birth of abstraction and that they jump-started the fetish of the new. Berger shows us how concrete this art was, more than its practitioners may have been able to put into words though they reveled in it as makers. By finding the moment’s question, he shows how it was diametrically opposed to a new-for-newness-sake, soon to be consumerist, mentality.
The final part will take us through a comparison between a Mannerist and a Cubist work. We’ll explore some conclusions that lead me to find Berger’s essay so pivotal as we work out our way forward.