Through the looking-glass

Through the looking-glass and into an alternative reality.


A large part of seeing depends upon habit and convention. — John Berger

The role of art, of the artist, and here I am referring to art and artist in the broadest sense, not only the visual arts, words, drama, music, dance, is to enlarge a tiny crack in space and time and take us through into an alternative reality, to take us through the looking-glass, down the rabbit hole, out through the back of the wardrobe.

Charlotte Du Cann expresses this very well in her excellent essay Seeing through a glass darkly:

I want to ask: what are the arts of uncivilisation? What happens outside the gallery and the multiplex, what are the barbarian images that might liberate our vision, that bring us home? If we live in a culture that is separated from and in control of what is seen, how can we make an unofficial art created within experience to include dimensions our ordinary attention might miss? Behavioural scientists observe that change happens slowly and deliberately over time but artists know it happens in a split second: a chink in the door, a wild unexpected moment that appears before you and for no reason you change lanes. A flash of quicksilver that can transform the dark materials of a whole culture.
Roland Barthes in his elegant deconstruction of the bourgeois mindset, Mythologies, laments how hard it is to forge a culture unbound from a market economy. He points to a painting of a Dutch interior where a wealthy burgher sits surrounded by his possessions. His library, bolts of cloths, furniture. Shipped from all round the world, the goods set a pattern for material desire that has become the stuff of Sunday colour supplements ever since.
This is the art of civilisation. Globalised goods, fetishisation, possession. This is mine, all mine! Houses, horses, naked women, rich and poor, the painter who paints the canvas and the canvas itself. And even when art has rebelled against the pattern in a hundred dexterous and avant-garde moves the painting (or sculpture, or drawing) is still possessed. It is still property, a commodity in the minds and hands of those who could buy it — once the Church and then the collector and the State museum.
What do art and aesthetics look like within the frame of collapse? What does photography look like that is not alienated from its subject?

What we see, depends upon who is doing the looking, observer and observed, are intimately linked. What we see, is processed by all our previous experiences.

The artist makes us see afresh a new reality, which challenges our existing reality. We have been dislodged from the tracks we were travelling on. When we return to our existing reality, we no longer see it with the same eye.

On my bookshelves, a cover of a book by Hermann Hesse, has a painting on a wall, or rather the wall is painted, possibly the wall of a prison cell, a man is seen stepping through the painting into the open countryside beyond.

If we look at the works of Escher and various illusions, we see that the world is not as we thought we saw it.

In the Culture series, a universe a long way in the future, back track to the present, and it opens up possibilities of where we could be.

Athena in The Witch of Portobello uses dance to transport herself to another place.

Hildegard von Bingen, whose music took those who sang it into a state of ecstasy, described herself as ‘a feather on the breath of God’,

Charlotte Du Cann speaks of being at an event called What if . . . . the seas keep rising? If the seas keep rising what might this might mean to the marshlands and coastline of Suffolk? She is transfixed by a photograph on the wall.

Creek Men by Laurence Edwards, clay giants on a raft down the river Ore http://www.laurenceedwardssculpture.com/

What had caught her attention is Creek Men, the beings of these waterlands that have emerged from the landscape, from the artist’s imagination and from his hands. They are clay giants, being transported on a raft down the river Ore.

People who have read The Alchemist, say it has changed their lives. How has it changed their lives? It can only have changed their lives if it exposed them to a new reality, that in turn, forced them to look at their existing reality in a new light. Maybe that explains why The Alchemist is a much-loved, international best-seller, and why 25 years on from publication, it has this Sunday marked two hundred and eighty-one weeks in New York Times best-seller list.

Ways of Seeing by John Berger, questions how we see art
Ways of Seeing by John Berger, questions how we see art
Ways of Seeing by John Berger, questions how we see art
Ways of Seeing by John Berger, questions how we see art

Ways of Seeing, questioned how we see things. In part, a response to Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation series. In the first episode of Ways of Seeing, John Berger contrasts the straightforwardness with which a group of schoolchildren talk about what they see in a painting with the views of so-called art professionals. The difference between the two groups is that that the school children have not been brainwashed how to see, they have no preconceived notions, that prejudice and filter what they see.

What is interesting is how the children pick up on the indeterminate sexuality of the central figure in the supper scene, and the fact there may be a dispute or disagreement.

His friends, his comrades, do not recognise Him. They know Jesus the Man, but do not know the Risen Christ, the Christos. They walk with him, sit down to eat, it is only when he breaks the bread, they recognise who he is. Mary Magdalene was the closest, and she does not recognise, she mistook for the gardener.
Has there been so much change? Or maybe they were in a state of shock. They have seen a close friend, comrade, travelling companion brutally executed. Why would they recognise a few days later, if approached by someone they knew to be dead? It is something the mind would not accept.
Men and Women were created equal in his image. What is that image? Is it like one of those strange images that flips between two states as you look at it? If created equal in the same image, can the Risen Christ not be female?

Where though I would disagree with John Berger, is the value of an original painting, not its monetary value, its value as a commodity, but that transcendental value, the transportation to another reality. No reproduction can do that, that is the gift of the artist in transporting us to an alternative reality.

Having spent some time with the Sistine Tapestries, no reproduction could replace the sense of awe. And having seen them twice, and expecting not to have the same intensity of feeling upon me the second time, I found the exact opposite.

When an artist take a well known song and ‘makes it their own’, they do not, they give us an inferior copy. On the other hand, if they improvise, they can transport us in a way the original never could.

John Berger lives in the mountains of the Haute Savoie, in a valley too steep for mechanical farming and therefore among the last enclaves of peasant life in western Europe. He agreed to donate his archive to the British Library, on the condition that its head of modern manuscripts should lend a hand with the harvest during his visit. The location, gives him a foot in two different worlds, the world that once was, and looking outwards the world that is.

A couple of weeks ago, I wished to see an art exhibition by Sherree Valentine Daines, but it had gone some weeks ago. Instead, images of London by Henderson Cisz. No photos allowed, and all I could find on the net was postage stamp sized pictures. I then found a gallery, where you see if one these paintings matched or enhanced your room. Art reduced to wall décor.

In a recent Reith Lecture, Grayson Perry said there are now only two schools of art: Commercialism and Nepotism.

Grayson Perry noted, nothing wrong with being commercial, so long as you are honest about it, but then added, those artists who are creative are usually the ones who are most likely to experience success.

Art reduced to a commodity.

We see this with record labels. Artists forced to tailor their music to a market, rather than being helped to explore their creative genius.

Top Story in The Kinsey Art Review (Tuesday 17 December 2013).

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