John Berger was an artist, novelist, cultural thinker and art critic who developed a Marxist inspired theory of art.
His best known work is ‘Ways of Seeing’ (1972) in which he explored the ‘hidden ideologies’ in historical works of art.
Berger argued that art reflects the political and economic system in which it was produced and that “the art of any period tends to serve the ideological interests of the ruling class” (1)
Berger is an extremely influential Marxist critique of the arts who is also credited with introducing the concept of the Male Gaze to visual analysis.
Berger: Art and Ruling Class Ideology
Oil painting was the dominant medium for painters between 1500 to 1900.
The ruling classes were more able to impose their view of the world through art simply because oil paintings were expensive and they had the money to commission them.
Berger argued that oil paintings had unique properties that made them especially suitable for portraying ruling class ideology during the Renaissance years and into modernity.
These were the years of emergence of Capitalism when acquiring private property and earning money through trade were becoming increasingly central to the world-view of the ruling class, and most oil paintings during 1500-1900 were concerned with depicting the accumulation of such wealth and property, reflecting the interests of the ruling classes during that period.
Oil paints were particularly suited to making what they depicted seem tangible, or ‘real’ because of the texture, depth and lustre of the medium.
The depiction of wealth in oil paintings changed as modernity developed.
Oil paintings had always portrayed items of value, but in early periods these items were usually linked to the glorifying God. However, as capitalism developed paintings focussed increasingly on portraying the wealth and power of the ruling class, effectively suggesting that money was more important than religion.
Another change was that older works portrayed wealth as a symbol of a fixed social or divine order, reflecting the traditional nature of religious power structures, while oil paintings during modernity portrayed wealth as something more dynamic and linked to the successes of the individuals who had acquired it.
Interestingly many of the works commissioned by the wealthy elites during modernity were of poor quality, or ‘hack work’ as Berger calls it.
This was because it was more important to the elites to have their art showing off their wealth in the way that they wanted rather than for them to have high quality works.
In short there were many more mediocre artists prepared to ‘paint to demand’ than there were excellent artists prepared to do so! So even here the market influences the quality of work that is produced.
The Portrayal of the Ruling Class in Art
Landscape paintings portrayed the property of the rich, and sometimes the property owners insisted on being in the landscapes themselves, to demonstrate that it was them who owned the land.
Berger uses the example of Mr and Mrs Andrews by Gainsborough (circa 1748 to 9). In this landscape painting the husband and wife are in the foreground and Berger argues that their ‘proprietary attitude to what surrounds them is visible in their stance and their expression’.
Other still-life paintings during modernity portrayed expensive furnishings in houses and tables laden with exotic foods as symbols of wealth. Animals were also featured, but not animals in the wild, rather domesticated livestock with a rare pedigree, so that their monetary value was clear.
The Portrayal of the Lower classes in Art
Paintings representing the lower classes were also popular among the ruling classes.
A common theme in portrayals of the lower classes was that of the common people being drunk and debauched in taverns which suggested they were immoral, feckless and lazy.
Such portrayals served to foster a kind of ‘myth of meritocracy’ – the idea that the poor were to blame for their own poverty because they preferred to drink and party rather than to work hard, while it was the hardworking who prospered and thus deserved their wealth.
And of course it was the ruling classes who saw themselves as hard working and deserving the wealth displayed in their own paintings of themselves.
NB – it’s worth noting the following difference:
- the ruling classes controlled what went into the paintings of themselves that they commissioned.
- the working classes had no control over this – artists drew them without any input from them.
Some artists break free of Ruling Class Ideology
While most works of art reflect ruling class ideology, Berger accepts that some artists break free from such ideological constraints.
One example of someone who did this is the artist Rembrandt.
Berger points to an early painting of Rembrandts: Self-Portrait with Saskia (circa 1635) in which Rembrandt is painting within ‘ruling class ideology’ – the painting depicts himself showing off his wife as a form of property, a symbol of this own wealth and success.
However, 30 years later when he produces ‘self-portrait of an old man’ (circa 1664) in this painting he just sitting on his own in a sombre and reflective mood with no symbols of wealth depicted.
In Berger’s interpretation of Rembrandt’s journey he has undergone a struggle over the course of his life to throw off the shackles of ruling class ideology and succeeded in producing a piece of art that is more authentic.
Evaluation of Berger’s theory of art
John Berger’s work has been extremely influential, with Ways of Seeing being described as ‘revolutionary‘.
Berger’s work has become a standard edition to cultural studies and history of art courses the world over and he is responsible for encouraging students and anyone else who reads his work to think critically about the role of power and money in influencing art and culture.
Even if you you do not entirely agree with Berger’s analysis, at the very least you should appreciate the fact that he is encouraging us to ask critical questions about the processes which lie behind the production of art.
It is possible that his analysis isn’t that systematic and thus alternative interpretations maybe just as valid. For example do the expressions of the Andrews really demonstrate that they own the land in the background…? Does Rembrandt’s old man portrait really show that he’s been through a life-time of personal struggle to break free from ruling class ideology, or is he just showing that he’s ‘old and sad’…?
Even though Berger devoted some time to how women are portrayed as being owned and controlled by men in Ways of Seeing he has been criticised for not giving female analysts more of a central role in discussing this.
Sources/ find out more
Brtannica: John Berger
Part of this post was adapted from Haralambos and Holborn (2013) Sociology Themes and Perspectives 8th Edition.
This material is primarily relevant to those studying the Culture and Identity option within A-level Sociology.
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