Berger’s “Moment of Cubism,” part III

Just as with every previous mode of modern art since the Renaissance, Berger shows us how the way we look at art, how we navigate its expanse, is tied to the world-view which created it. He shows us the act of seeing as the embodiment of our world-view. Here is his description of the process of looking involved in a Cubist painting.

“We start with the surface, we follow a sequence of forms which lead us into the picture, and then suddenly we arrive back at the surface again and deposit our newly acquired knowledge upon it, before making another foray. This is why I called the Cubist picture-surface the origin and sum of all we can see in the picture. There is nothing decorative about such two-dimensionality, nor is it merely an area offering possibilities of juxtaposition for dissociated images – as in the case of so much recent neo-Dadaist or Pop art. We begin with the surface, but since everything in the picture refers back to the surface. We begin with the conclusion. We then searchnot for an explanation, as we do if presented with an image with a single, predominant meaning (a man laughing, a mountain, a reclining nude), but for some understanding of the configuration of events whose interaction is the conclusion from which we began. When we ‘deposit our newly acquired knowledge upon the picture surface’, what we in fact do is find the sign for what we have just discovered: a sign which was always there but which previously we could not read.”

This is the best description to date of the “play-back” afforded us by a work of art. It is impossible to “hold” a concept in our heads. We can only attempt to “return” to it to re-live the experience. This is the birth of ritual. Any functioning ritual differs from the hollowed out forms we saddle with that name by the way they allow us access to re-immerse ourselves in a valuable insight. This is art’s second purpose beyond providing a medium for insight’s creation.

This series of actions depict how we make sense of our phenomenologically entrained reality. This “scan” is the embodiment of a process that brings us all that we can know of our surroundings. It also shows us “where” this knowledge resides and what it becomes as we accrue it, “a sign which was always there, but which previously we could not read.”

Berger presents a comparison between Pollaiuolo’s Martyrdom of St. Sebastian and a Cubist picture:

“…In front of the Pollaiuolo the spectator completes the picture. It is the spectator who draws the conclusions and infers all except the aesthetic relations between the pieces of evidence offered…. The work is presented to him. One has the feeling almost that St. Sebastian was martyred so that he should be able to explain this picture. The complexity of the forms and the scale of the space depicted enhance the sense of achievement, of grasp.”

In this Mannerist/Classical painting the incident exists as the picture’s object. Its complexity and the scale of its depiction exist merely to enhance the artist’s grasp, and by extension, the grasp of his Patron. This is a celebration and apology for Will.

In contrast,

“In the Cubist picture, the conclusion and the connections are given. They are what the picture is made of. They are its content. The spectator finds his place within this content, whilst the complexity of the forms and the discontinuity of the space remind him that his view from that place is bound to be only partial.”

The cubist picture places us within a field where we cannot forget our vulnerability and the need for humility.

Such content and its functioning was prophetic because it coincided with the new scientific view of nature which rejected simple causality and the single permanent all-seeing viewpoint.”

Our “common-sense” view of science, even that held by many scientists who don’t struggle much with finding a context for their personal assumptions, is that “Progress” is “proven” by science and that each “step-forward:” has expanded our abilities to exercise our will-to-control. That this path is leading us to some transcendental “Future.”

Heisenberg writes: One may say that the human ability to understand may be in a certain sense unlimited. But the existing scientific concepts cover always only a very limited part of reality, and the other part that has not yet been understood is infinite. Whenever we proceed from the known to the unknown we may hope to understand, but we may have to learn at the same time a new meaning of the word understanding.”

This new meaning for understanding is what I go on about when I use expressions like “finding a place to stand.” This is about understanding as a way to locate us, not as a key to power. Assuming understanding to be whole-sight, that it can expand to the point where it does give us control is simplistic hubristic folly. The folly of the naive willing to throw themselves – and us – at the Sisyphean task of filling an infinite space, or dividing existence an infinite number of times. A place to stand assumes horizons beyond which we cannot see, back-sides of things presently out of our view, it is founded on the essential contingency of standing here and not there. It’s promise is not power, but a place to exist. An existence defined by an acceptance of an intractably limited field of view and sphere of action.

“Such a notion implies a change in the methodology of research and invention.”

There’s a modest understatement! Berger exhibits such “cool” when reaching some of his most telling conclusions!

“W. Grey Walter, the psychologist writes: Classical physiology, as we have seen, tolerated only one single unknown quantity in its equations – in any experiment there could be only one thing at a time under investigation…. We cannot extract one independent variable in the classical manner, we have to deal with the interaction of many unknowns and variables, all the time.… In practice, this implies that not one but many – as many as possible – observations must be made at once and compared with one another, and that whenever possible a simple known variable should be used to modify the several complex unknowns so that their tendencies and inter-dependencies can be assured.”

These are founding tenets of “Systems Theory.” Too bad it is commonly used as a back-door to game new life into the will-to-control. Unless we find means to embody these insights, Ego will always try to fold them into its own ends. Humility is a hard-won precursor to the ability to resist these urges.

“The best Cubist works of 1909, 1911, and 1912 were sustained and precise models for the method of searching and testing described above. That is to say, they force the senses and imagination of the spectator to calculate, omit, doubt, and conclude according to a pattern which closely resembles the one involved in scientific observation. The difference is a question of appeal. Because the act of looking at a picture is far less concentrated, the picture can appeal to wider and more various areas of the spectator’s previous experience. Art is concerned with memory; experiment is concerned with predictions.”

This may seem rather trivial, an “appeal” to an “easier” realm. That would be a misreading. This takes the artistic act-of-looking out of an “expert” domain and grounds it in a firmly universal realm of experience. This is a central issue, one that has kept science from the possibility of a wider utility. This artistic practice is open to all experience and provides a font of discipline applicable to anyone.

His last assertion, that art is concerned with memory not prediction, grounds art in the Epimethean as a counter to science’s Promethean urges.

“Outside the modern laboratory, the need to adapt oneself constantly to presented totalitiesrather than making inventories or supplying a transcendental meaning as in front of the Pollaiuolo – is a feature of modern experience which affects everybody….”

The studio shown to be a better model than the laboratory for exploring experience.

“The Cubists were the first artists to attempt to paint totalities rather than agglomerations.”

Totalities not agglomerations, I use the terms whole or vital, aggregates or commodities in discussing these factors. This connects back to Berger’s insight concerning exploitation. To see the world as a series of agglomerations, aggregates or commodities; blinds us to the consequences of its exploitation. The same holds true with our fellow beings. The insistence on “mass-movements,” and the discrediting of the personal; lead to a predatory role as we regard our fellows.

“I must emphasize again that the Cubists were not aware of all that we are now reading into their art. Picasso and Braque and Legér kept silent because they knew they might be doing more than they knew.”

This silence can be read as an act of humility by people we might rightly consider to be supremely egotistical. This touches on one of Art’s hidden gifts. There is a profound humility in dedicating oneself to the life of the studio that does give an opening for the relaxation of Ego’s hold. Our focus on Fame and Fortune as the rewards of artistic “success” grows out of our unwillingness to see beyond the appetites of Ego.

What made this a crucial moment was not only the depth of awareness and the profound implications that surfaced at that time, but also the way in which it was interrupted. The consequences of the accumulated results of civilization-to-that-point had brought us to an epoch of catastrophes we’ve yet to see the end of. During the intervening century artists, including the ones who participated in this Cubist Moment, were thrown off the scent and dazed by the repercussions of everything that had been unleashed beginning with the First World War. Reactions varied from cold formalism to hot emotionalism; but most, if not all, failed to break-free of earlier notions of reductivism. They attempted to place a part of visible experience – a part chosen to fit their particular slant – as the only part and to exclude the rest. Artists lived-out the various displacements and denials of the age without giving us any further glimpse into what might surpass their myopic views. Faced with the collapse of old ways, and the horrors of the Twentieth Century, we flailed about looking for ways to avoid what was upon us. This was also a necessary stage in our ongoing disillusionment. This had to be passed through to reach where we are now.

Berger’s essay explodes with the import of rediscovery of what had been lost in a stratification of layers sedimented over as the years passed. When I look at where I now stand, I see this essay and its insights as essential elements of my foundations. Berger shows us that there is a curious parallel here to our moment in the close synchrony between their moment of realization and the latent consequences of mounting conditions that made it too late to avoid their tragedy.

The intricate trap the western world had laid for itself was ready to spring in 1914. No bolt of insight in 1909 was going to overcome that latency. Today, our multiple predicaments centered around the big three: over-reach, environmental degradation and mass-extinction, and nuclear and biological weapons; make it unlikely we will escape without an overwhelming tragedy. No matter how well we analyze our situation. Still, what the Moment of Cubism gives us is the ability to put so much apparently senseless destruction into some form of sense. We can begin to see that what went “wrong” weren’t accidents or mistakes, but the outcomes of certain ways of seeing and the actions these views led to, as well as the actions these views precluded. By helping remove our blinders, it does help us face our tragedies. As with all wisdom, it opens up a space between conflicting fantasies: of escape or annihilation. It reminds us that there is room for all of life in that space, and shows us an entry into its proximity.

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

*  *  *

Read John Berger, especially The Sense of Sight, 1985, from which this essay has been glossed. If you are new to Berger, his Ways of Seeing, 1983 is a great place to start.

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Published by Antonio Dias

My work is centered on attending to the intersection of perception and creativity. Complexity cannot be reduced to any given certainty. Learning is Central: Sharing our gifts, Working together, Teaching and learning in reciprocity. Entering into shared Inquiry, Maintaining these practices as a way of life. Let’s work together to build practices, strengthen dialogue, and discover and develop community. Let me know how we might work together.

4 thoughts on “Berger’s “Moment of Cubism,” part III

  1. Stunningly good! I’m only able to access a fragment of it. The initial connections I’m going to try to make below are frail and skinny, leaving out worlds of meaning. But I’m going to school here a bit, trying to find some general orientation first. So again, feel free to give corrective shoves where you need to.

    “Begin with the surface”. Is this more or less like “attend to “what is”, not to “what should be.” Is it like sticking to the “text” and not leaping off into conjecture?

    The word “Conclusion” in the context of your essay: Are you using it as we might use (in a Bohm context) metaphor, theory and assumption? Does it imply holding a vision in a state of suspension, neither dismissing it nor defending it, but trying to embody the perspective?

    By “coming back to the conclusion” do you mean that if we look at this painting (or anything) from this open-ended state of suspension, then later we return to the vision almost proprioceptively, able now to read our own interpretations, our own creative involvement in the picture?

    “It is impossible to “hold” a concept in our heads. We can only attempt to“return” to it to re-live the experience.”
    I suspect that this is what I meant by “perspective” in the NG blog – an angle of view that we can’t claim as ours, and which only makes sense when we’re standing in that spot again.

    So writing is a ritual, in which we attempt to return to a wider perspective not contained in us, but in the relationship between elements of the world. (I’m going to toggle between “ritual” and “ceremony” for now).

    “In the Cubist picture, the conclusion and the connections are given. They are what the picture is made of. They are its content. The spectator findshis place within this content, whilst the complexity of the forms and thediscontinuity of the space remind him that his view from that place is bound to be only partial.”
    This reminds me of what my brother Brian has often mentioned. However the language is very different, so I may easily misinterpret things. But I see a potential connection here: When a new perspective or vision is presented to people (say, Bohm’s theory of the Implicate Order or Krishnamurti’s take on the observer and the observed), listeners often don’t wait to absorb the whole vision, the whole perspective, but argue their way from one supposedly discreet point to the next, never seeing the overriding pattern (which might be equivalent to the “conclusion” in the context of Berger). First you have to “find your place” within the content of the perspective, which with Bohm and K in particular, are always recognized as limited in a verbal sense: K saying “these words are not the thing” and Bohm saying “this is theory or assumption.” So they, too, tell people that what is being SAID is “bound to be only partial.”

    “Horizons beyond which we cannot see”
    Yes. This is really what I want to broach with the statement “negative geography” – a limit to the “infinity” (Heisenberg) of thought’s understanding. A new infinite space that is not approachable as a cut and dried concept. When all these concepts are negated, then we stop “seeing”, but we are “immersed” physically in a “new meaning of the word understanding” (Heisenberg). (And thanks for the link to “the spell of the sensuous”).

    Your “place to exist” is calling up echoes of Beckett’s “space to breathe.” (Oh, I never saw your poetry yet either!).


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