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Art and Property Now

John Berger 3 January 2017

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In tribute to John Berger, who died yesterday, on 2 January 2017, we excerpt 'Art and Property Now' from Landscapes, edited by Tom Overton. The 1967 essay of materialist art criticism fed into Ways of Seeing (1972), the influential TV series and book that changed our understanding of art and its private ownership. 

"Painting or a sculpture is a significant form of property – in a sense in which a story, a song, a poem is not. Its value as property supplies it with an aura which is the last debased expression of the quality which art objects once possessed when they were used magically. It is around property that we piece together our last tattered religion, and our visual works of art are its ritual objects." — John Berger

A love of art has been a useful concept to the European ruling classes for over a century and a half. The love was said to be their own. With it they could claim kinship with the civilisations of the past and the possession of those moral virtues associated with ‘beauty’. With it they could also dismiss as inartistic and primitive the cultures they were in the process of destroying at home and throughout the world. More recently they have been able to equate their love of art with their love of freedom, and to oppose both loves to the alleged or real abuse of art in the socialist countries.

The usefulness of the concept had to be paid for. There were demands that a love of art, which was so apparently a privilege and was so apparently and intimately connected with morality, should be encouraged in all deserving citizens. This demand led to many nineteenth-century movements of cultural philanthropy – of which Western ministries of culture are the last, absurd and doomed manifestations.

It would be exaggeration to claim that the cultural facilities concerned with the arts and open to the public at large have yielded no benefits at all. They have contributed to the cultural development of many thousands of individuals. But all these individuals remain exceptions because the fundamental division between the initiated and the uninitiated, the ‘loving’ and the indifferent, the minority and the majority, has remained as rigid as ever. And it is inevitable that this should be so; for, quite apart from the related economic and educational factors, there is a hopeless contradiction within the philanthropic theory itself. The privileged are not in a position to teach or give to the underprivileged. Their own love of art is a fiction, a pretension. What they have to offer as lovers is not worth taking.

I believe that this is finally true concerning all the arts. But – for reasons which we shall examine in a minute – it is most obvious in the field of the visual arts. For twenty years I have searched like Diogenes for a true lover of art: if I had found one I would have been forced to abandon as superficial, as an act of bad faith, my own regard for art which is constantly and openly political. I never found one.

Not even among artists? Least of all. Failed artists wait to be loved for themselves. Working artists love their next, as yet non-existent, project. Most artists alternate between being one and the other.

During the summer, at the Uffizi Palace in Florence, the crowds, packed together, hot, their vision constantly obstructed, submit to a one- or two-hour guided tour in which nothing reveals itself or is revealed. They suffer an ordeal, but their reward is that they are able to claim that they have been to the Uffizi Palace. They have been near enough to the Botticellis to make sure that they are framed bits of wood or canvas which are possessible. They have, in a certain sense, acquired them; or, rather, they have acquired the right to refer to them in a proprietary context. It is as though – in a highly attenuated way – they have been, or they have played at being, the guests of the Medicis. All museums are haunted by the ghosts of the powerful and the wealthy, and on the whole we visit them to walk with the ghosts.

I know a private collector who owns some of the finest Cubist paintings ever painted, who has an encyclopaedic knowledge of the art of the period in which he is interested, who has excellent discrimination, and who was or is a personal friend of several important artists. He has no business distractions; his inherited wealth is assured. He would seem to represent the antithesis of the uninformed and unseeing crowds who suffer the ordeal of the Uffizi Palace. He lives with his paintings in a large house with the time and quiet and knowledge to come as close to them as anybody has ever done. Here, surely, we have found a love of art? No, here we find a manic obsession to prove that everything he has bought is incomparably great and that anybody who in any way questions this is an ignorant scoundrel. So far as the psychological mechanism is concerned, the paintings could as well be conkers.

Walk down a street of private galleries – but it is unnecessary to describe the dealers with their faces like silk purses. Everything they say is said to disguise and hide their proper purpose. If you could fuck works of art as well as buy them, they would be pimps: but, if that were the case, one might assume a kind of love; as it is they dream of money and honour.

Critics? John Russell speaks for the vast majority of his colleagues when – without any sense of incongruity or shame – he explains how one of the excitements of art criticism lies in the opportunity it affords of acquiring an ‘adventurous’ private collection.

The truth is that a painting or a sculpture is a significant form of property – in a sense in which a story, a song, a poem is not. Its value as property supplies it with an aura which is the last debased expression of the quality which art objects once possessed when they were used magically. It is around property that we piece together our last tattered religion, and our visual works of art are its ritual objects.

It is for this reason that, during the last decade, with the emergence of the new ideology of the consumer society, the visual arts have acquired a glamour such as they have not enjoyed for centuries. Exhibitions, art books, artists carry an urgent message even when the works themselves remain unintelligible. The message is that the work of art is the ideal (and therefore magical, mysterious, incomprehensible) commodity. It is dreamed of as the spiritualised possession. Nobody dreams or thinks of music, the theatre, the cinema or literature in the same way.

The extremism of most recent visual art is a consequence of the same situation. The artist welcomes the prestige and liberty accorded him; but insofar as he has an imaginative vision he profoundly resents his work being treated as a commodity. (The argument that there is nothing new in this situation, because works of art have been bought and sold for centuries, cannot be taken very seriously: the concept of private property has been stripped of its ideological disguise only very slowly.) Abstract Expressionism, L’Art Brut, Pop Art, Auto-Destructive Art, Neo-Dada – these and other movements, despite profound differences of spirit and style, have all tried to exceed the limits within which a work of art can remain a desirable and valuable possession. All have questioned what makes a work of art art. But the significance of this questioning has been widely misunderstood – sometimes by the artists themselves. It does not refer to the process of creating art: it refers to the now blatantly revealed role of art as property.

I have never believed and still do not that Francis Bacon is a tragic artist. The violence he records is not the violence of the world; nor is it even the violence such as an artist might subjectively feel within himself. It is violence done to the idea that a painting might be desirable. The ‘tragedy’ is the tragedy of the easel painting, which cannot escape the triviality of becoming a desirable possession. And all the protesting art of recent years has been defeated in the same way. Hence its oppressiveness. It cannot liberate itself. The more violent, the more extreme, the rawer it becomes, the more appeal it acquires as an unusual and rare possession.

Marcel Duchamp – much admired today by the young because he was the first to question what makes a work of art art, and who already in 1915 bought a ready-made snow-shovel from a hardware store and did no more than give it a title (several editions of it are now in museums) – Duchamp himself recently admitted defeat as an iconoclast when he said: ‘Today there is no shocking. The only thing shocking is no shocking.’

I do not mean it metaphorically when I say that soon a dealer will mount an exhibition of shit and collectors will buy it. Not, as is repeatedly said, because the public is gullible or because the art world is crazy, but because the passion to own has become so distorted and exacerbated that it now exists as an absolute need, abstracted from reality.

A certain number of artists have understood this situation, instead of merely reacting to it, and have tried to produce art which by its very nature resists the corruption of the property nexus: I refer to kinetic art and certain allied branches of Op Art and Constructivism.

Twelve years ago, Vasarely wrote:

We cannot leave the pleasure to be got out of art in the hands of an elite of connoisseurs for ever. The new art forms are open to all. The art of tomorrow will be for all or it will not exist . . . In the past the idea of plastic art was tied to an artisan attitude and to the myth of the unique product: today the idea of plastic art suggests possibilities of re-creation, multiplication, expansion.

That is to say, the work of art can now be produced industrially and need have no scarcity value. It does not even have a fixed and proper state in which it can be preserved: it is constantly open to change and alteration. Like a toy, it wears out.

Such art differs qualitatively from all art that preceded it and that still surrounds it, because its value resides in what it does, not in what it is. What it does is to encourage or provoke the spectator by the stimulus of its movements to become conscious of, and then to play with the processes of, his own visual perception: in doing this it also renews or extends his awareness and interest in what is immediately surrounding both him and the work. The kinds of movement involved can vary; they may be optical or mechanical, planned or haphazard. The only essential is that the work is dependent upon changes whose origins are outside itself. Even if it moves regularly, driven by its own motor, this movement is only to start and set in motion changes which are beyond itself. Its nature is environmental. It is a device, of little intrinsic value, placed for our pleasure to interact between our senses and the space and time that surround them.

The promise of such art to date is limited. Its proper application to those environments in which the majority work and live must involve political and economic decisions beyond the control of artists. Meanwhile it has to be sold on the private market.

More profoundly, such art is limited because as yet its content does not admit the stuff of social relations: that is to say, it cannot treat of tragedy, struggle, morality, cooperation, hatred, love. It is for this reason that one might categorise it so far (but not to belittle it) as a decorative art.

Nevertheless its essential nature, its mode of production and its refusal to exploit the individual personality of the artist (which is inevitably unique) allow it to be free of the inversions and to escape the contradictions which cripple the rest of art today. The experiments of these artists will eventually be useful. As artists they have found a way of partly transcending their historical situation.

Does all this mean that the enduring and unique work of art has now served its purpose? Its heyday coincided with that of the bourgeoisie – will they both disappear together? If one takes the long historical view, this seems quite probable. But meanwhile the unevenness of historical development can hide unexpected, even unforeseeable possibilities. In the socialist countries the development of art has been artificially restrained. In much of the Third World the autonomous work of art exists only as an export to feed the sick appetite of Europe. It may be that elsewhere the unique work will be given a different social context.

What is certain is that, in our European societies as they are now, the unique work of art is doomed: it cannot escape being a ritual object of property, and its content, if not entirely complacent, cannot help but be an oppressive, because hopeless, attempt to deny this role.