Near the end of his essay, John Berger writes:
If the new language of images were used differently, it would, through its use, confer a new kind of power. Within it we could begin to define our experiences more precisely in areas where words are inadequate. (Seeing comes before words.) Not only personal experiences but also the essential historical experience of our relation to the past: that is to say the experience of seeking to give meaning to our lives, of trying to understand the history of which we can become the active agents. (33)
In this passage, Berger is articulating one of the central claims of his essay: that properly seeing the “art of the past” gives us, as viewers, a kind of power. It is relatively clear in Berger’s essay what (and who) can get in the way of us exercising that power: “the art of the past is being mystified because a privileged minority is striving to invent a history which can retrospectively justify the role of the ruling classes” (11). It is more difficult to figure out what kind of power Berger believes seeing art would give us, what it has to do with history, and how it might work.
As a way of exploring these questions and illustrating your understanding of Berger’s ideas, find a painting in an online gallery—an example of the “art of the past”—that seems potentially rich in meanings and use it to think through the issues raised by Berger’s essay. Think about your potential audience as someone who is sympathetic but has not read Berger. Therefore, you’ll need to start by explaining what you understand Berger to be saying. You will need to work closely with his text, through summary, paraphrasing, and quotation, in order to help your reader understand what is important about Berger’s essay. What, for example, is that “new language of images”? How does art help us “understand the history of which we can become the active agents”? As you move on to the analysis of the painting you have selected, you need to explain what “new kind of power” might be “confer[red]” through really “seeing” that painting as Berger imagines. Finally, at the end of your essay, reflect on Berger’s essay and the experience of looking closely at your painting. What kind of statement do you want to make about the power of seeing?
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