On Berger’s “the Moment of Cubism”

This is the first part of a different sort of post. I’ve mentioned John Berger’s essay, The Moment of Cubism a number of times recently. While I recommend you read the original I felt it was time I describe why I find it such a vital document. Berger differentiates “The Moment of Cubism” from the “movement” of Cubism. He writes about a handful of artists during the period between 1907 and 1914. I’ve long seen this as a pivotal time for a variety of reasons. Berger’s analysis of the invention of a world-view at that time helps put all these other factors into perspective.

Berger wrote this in 1969, yet another example of the warnings we’ve missed throughout the past century. It helps put the lie to the lament of the powerful, “How could we have known?

“The meaning of both time and place (changed)…. The concept of the fieldseeing the whole world as a totality became realizable…. The process of the secularization of the world (was) complete…. (There was) No longer any essential discontinuity between the individual and the general…. (It became) More and more difficult to think of having been placed in the world. (We became) part of the world and indivisible from it…. (We needed to begin to see ourselves as) enhanced or diminished according to how (we) act towards the enhancement or diminishment of the world….”

This language comes out of Marxist Theory, but transcends its narrow ideology, as does all Berger has written. He shows us the moral and ethical implications of our modern experience.

“(Our) selfwrenched from its global context – the sum of all existing social contexts – is a mere biological accident.
As soon as more than one (of us) says this, or feels it, or aspires towards feeling it… the unity of the world has been proposed.”

This “unity of the world” is more meaningful, more profound than our popular conception of unity through the existence of ubiquitous media. This unity comes out of the totality of ways in which the Cubist Moment changed our understanding of the world and our place in it. Once we could see its entirety – not all of it of course – but our recognition of it through our own experiences of it as a whole, our place changed. The consequence was that:

“A sine qua non for the unity of the world is the end of exploitation. The evasion of this fact is what renders the term utopian.”

Exploitation is THE central fact of our modern existence, the commodification and colonizations of every aspect of existence. Evasion is what renders the idea of a unity of the world into a utopian fantasy instead of the hard fact it is. Our insistence that “we generate our own facts,” as the G.W. B. boys put it, is at the root of our derailment.

We can replace the term “imperialist” in the next quote with “civilized” – though not because the former term is inaccurate, just not inclusive enough.

“The profound psychological sickness of the imperialist countries, hence the corruption implicit in so much of (our) learning – when knowledge is used to deny knowledge.”

“Knowledge… used to deny knowledge.” This is THE basis of our crises of expertise and leadership.

The following statement points directly at the unique form Hope can take in our time:

“The limitless, which… had always reminded (us) of the unattainability of (our) hopes, became suddenly encouragement. The world became a starting point.”

“The world became a starting point.” Beyond the fact of our new-found awareness of the world as a whole, and that we are part of it, comes this affirmation that what had been a reason for despair; that there is a limitlessness beyond our knowledge; becomes a wellspring for a genuine hope.

1914forced… (everyone) to face the full horror of what stood in the way of (our) progress. Forced to face (it) in terms of (our) own responsibility not in terms of clearly defined enemies…. Each (of us) had to live with the (incomprehensible blind forces) within (our)self….”

World War One struck just as this moment’s implications were coming into view. This is the Tragedy of the Twentieth Century, the tragedy of our civilization. Here is where a mighty cry of, “If only!” strikes us with its deepest poignancy. But, there’s more…. This vale of tears was a necessary beginning to the ongoing process of disillusionment we are still undergoing. Here is why it was – and continues to be – so important:

“(this) destroyed will and confidence.”

I’m not sure how Berger meant this; whether, in 1969, this still seemed to him something to mourn; but it is a central process that has been necessary for us to experience if we are ever to get out of the traps of civilization.

“The Cubists imagined the world transformed, but not the process of transformation.”

This statement is a sign of the fragility of our human attainments. They are forever partial and never complete. This was the final of the three factors that brought about our tragedy. The tragedy that gave us the Twentieth Century fits the profile of any as it emerges from its serial contingencies. The evasion of the need to end exploitation, and the continued misunderstanding of the possibilities for hope; might have been overcome. Our inability to discover the process of this transformation at that time left us no way out.

The next part of this essay covers Berger’s delineation of the evolution of the Western world view as traced in the history of its Art. From this basis he explored the meaning of the Cubist Moment and I attempt to draw out the relevancy of his analysis to our present conditions.

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20 thoughts on “On Berger’s “the Moment of Cubism”

  1. “Beyond the fact of our new-found awareness of the world as a whole, and that we are part of it, comes this affirmation that what had been a reason for despair; that there is a limitlessness beyond our knowledge; becomes a wellspring for a genuine hope.”

    Maybe we differ here, in how we see the significance of any changes in awareness that have occurred. Not arguing which is “right”, but where the differences might lie. I tend to see a shift towards more holistic scientific and artistic world views as having relatively minor significance — as improvements on a still-sinking Titanic of consciousness. I think these broadening visions still remain on the deck of the good ship ego. And I think what may be happening is these admittedly broadening visions are becoming a kind of sentimental superstructure in their own right convincing us that we’ve changed more than we actually have.

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