Even though Picasso knew that millions of people would likely see Guernica at the 1937 Paris World Exhibition, he probably could not have imagined that eighty years later we’d look at his painting, a cubist depiction of that horrific bombing in the Spanish Civil War, on a twelve-inch screen that contains twenty-five smaller screens of people also looking at a picture of the painting on their own screens.
The original painting is twelve feet tall and over twenty-five feet wide, its scale an essential feature of its power, ostensibly. Today we consider it a masterpiece, but at the time, many critics dismissed the painting as convoluted, overly modern, and politically impotent. They believed such a horrible event required, even from Picasso, a more realistic depiction, not this busy grey cluster of human and animal limbs. But Picasso understood that we always view art through some kind of screen—that there is no pure experience of art, let alone of the events or experiences it depicts.
The painting, with all its fractured chaos and pain, now seems to anticipate its own eventual distortion, to know that the experience of tragedy is defined as much by its dissonance and by the chaotic conflict of personal memory and conventional history, as it is by the event it depicts. Picasso knew we see the world through broken glass.
Before everything shut down the first time, I planned on teaching my new course—a research writing class devoted to writing critically about art and art history—like you might expect, with slideshows of paintings projected on a large screen. I would turn off the lights and let my students ponder the pixels imitating priceless works of art, pacing about the dark classroom in a sport coat, shining a laser pointer (I don’t have a laser pointer) over the spread of light in a Vermeer or the finger of a disciple jammed into the hole in the side of Jesus in a Caravaggio, and the ritual itself would affirm the significance of the art. The students would know, by the dynamics of the exchange between us in that physical, actual classroom, that Art is Important.
The class was a general ed. course, full of every stripe of student one can find on a campus these days: a dozen business and nursing majors, some future software engineers, social workers, a scholarship basketball player, and a lone English major. Picturing myself in a classroom with them, I anticipated that these distinctions would be easy to detect and respond to. Every teacher relies on an ability to quickly assume a student’s academic intentions, to assess their imaginative capacities. And every teacher is inevitably proven wrong. But there is an unacknowledged comfort in being able to read a room—especially a room full of students so diverse that they defy even the simplest assumptions.
But when everything went online, I panicked, grumbled over the extra labor to virtualize the course, and wrung my hands over what would be lost. Alone in front of my computer, I also gave more thought than usual to my students’ assumptions about me, many of which were probably correct. To study—let alone teach—art or writing often requires a degree of privilege that may be alienating to students whose scholarships, financial aid, and career prospects hinge upon their GPAs in rigorous science and math courses. For many of them, an art history writing course may have felt like a novel reprieve from this high-pressure work; for others, it may have seemed a gratuitous luxury, even a waste of time.
I have come to understand that this dynamic is largely out of my hands, but after three years as an adjunct instructor, making only slightly more to teach my courses as each student paid to take them, I felt compelled to trouble the notion that studying art was what you did if you had time and money to burn. Even before the pandemic hit, I wanted to create a course that would encourage students to see through the fragile glass that so often comes between each of us, and to break it.
In this mindset, I happily settled on John Berger’s seminal Ways of Seeing, a book and BBC series from 1972 that teachers have used to introduce undergraduates to materialist and Marxist critical frameworks for decades. I was nervous to rely so heavily on the text in our virtual environment, and I didn’t know how the students would take to Berger’s somewhat elliptical style and transparently anti-capitalist language, but I knew I needed a text that could speak into the chaos of the moment—a text that could put our predicament in a larger context without dismissing its significance.
Ten weeks later, as a pandemic and protests raged, the students submitted their final research papers, the topics of which ranged from the influence of the plague on the Renaissance to the role of art in the civil rights movement. Now, I can see that what allowed so many of the students to succeed had little to do with their experience, or lack thereof, of studying or even looking at art, and everything to do with the permission, the trust, that Berger gave them to look at it anyway. Berger always trusts the viewer, trusts us, to see, in the fractured mirror of old art, the glinting likeness of our own remarkable moment.
Berger’s purpose in Ways of Seeing is multi-faceted, but his general intent is consistent with his lifelong project: to give regular people the tools to reclaim art as a meaningful part of their lives. In four essays, he attempts to identify and deconstruct the material and cultural forces in the history of Western art that have, countless times over the last five centuries, combined to keep art out of reach from those regular people who had once experienced art as something vital to their being.
Of course, Berger reminds us, “the visual arts have always existed within a certain preserve; originally it was magical or sacred. But it was also physical: it was the place, the cave, the building, in which, or for which, the work was made.” Art was special because it functioned as a part of the rituals that pointed us to something beyond the everyday—the crude mural above the tomb, the charcoaled sketch of the hunt, the bust of the beloved.
The advent of oil painting turned that sacred preserve into a social one, controlled by the ruling class, a space where the wealthy could admire themselves and be admired. Artists like Rembrandt and Vermeer managed to buck these superficial conventions, but the lustrous tangibility of oil painting, not to mention its physical mobility, provided a perfect medium for an emerging class of elites to project their newfound influence under global capitalism. It did not take my students long to make the connection between a vivid portrait of a Dutch aristocrat draped in fine velvet and a saturated image of an Instagram influencer dappled in digitally enhanced sunlight. There’s no such thing as a “weird flex” in a system that has rewarded it for four hundred years.
Something that has always struck me in Berger’s first essay is a chart that illustrates the statistical correlation between educational background and an interest in the visual arts. Yes, the data reveals that the less formal education a person has, the less interested they are in setting foot in an art museum. But even those with higher education are not all that interested—most people, according to the study, tend to associate museums with churches and libraries. Berger argues that most people “take it as axiomatic that the museums are full of holy relics which refer to a mystery with excludes them: the mystery of unaccountable wealth,” which tells me that our reluctance to enjoy art has a lot less to do with our education and a lot more to do with feeling unworthy of it.
Berger contends that the general public’s ambivalence to art is the result of “mystification,” a process in which critics, academics, art dealers, and curators conspire—both wittingly and unwittingly—to obscure the true purpose and power of art in order to maintain a false “preserve.” In the Preserve, the art can remain untouched, elite, and remote—and thus inconsequential.
We can thank the invention of the photo camera partially for catalyzing the process of mystification in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. By making it infinitely reproducible, and thus infinitely own-able, the camera should have democratized art, but of course that’s not what happened. Instead, Berger argues, the establishment doubled down, creating an elite economy in which art justified other forms of authority, glamorized inequity and celebrated exclusivity. It was the birth of high-stakes auctions, of galleries and collectors and authenticators, followed by the academy, the critics and curators, and eventually the museum. Out of these forces comes what Berger calls the “bogus religiosity” of art in the modern world: the opaque and pristine glass between our eyes and our own art.
The “bogus religiosity” now attached to priceless works of art explains why most people associate art with church, why we feel obliged to use our inside voices in its presence. It explains why many of my students initially assumed their first interpretations of the paintings I put before them—or images of the paintings—were wrong. They thought they lacked the capacity to unlock the art’s hidden spiritual meaning.
Berger presents these insights, not as revelations, but as predictable consequences of the market by which we should no longer be surprised. We should not be surprised when, in the midst of a pandemic, as billionaires increase their wealth by twenty percent and unemployment soars, we see our natural longing for art returned to us in the form of prescriptive plots and syrupy ads—like a Leonard Cohen lyric gently plagiarized in a Bank of America commercial, or Andy Warhol eating a Whopper, for some reason. We should not be surprised when a shift in technology with the power to redistribute art to the masses is quietly seized by the ruling classes to erect a structure that keeps art out of reach from everyone who actually needs it. Instead, we should watch closely for those predictable sleights of hand, and any sign that we might play a role in performing the tricks.
At first, I saw myself as teaching what I hoped was a populist art writing course, but I was reminded at every turn that I was guilty of perpetuating mystification, in part because of how I have been conditioned to think and talk about art in the years since having my own sincere encounters with it—since standing in awe of a Caravaggio in a Roman church as a college junior and feeling that my life would never be the same. But mystification, as Berger describes it, is not strictly an individual decision or experience. It is the nearly inevitable result of collective social and economic forces outside of any single person’s control. The harsh truth is that those of us privileged enough to have these rare encounters—to see a Caravaggio in its original location while studying abroad, say—may be the most susceptible to mystification: both experiencing it and wielding the power of its cynical shroud.
My fear was that Zoom Art History would intensify mystification, that the screens within screens would increase the students’ alienation from the art. How could it not? If art’s meaning was once contingent upon the space where it resided, then how could viewing it in this utter non-space, with digital waiting rooms and floating heads, the students connecting from garages and bedrooms and porches, be anything but mystifying? But this assumption would amount to a misreading, or half-reading, of Berger’s central argument. The problem is not the screen—or screens—obscuring or distorting the art; it is the illusion that there is ever not a screen, and the manipulation that occurs as a result.
Before sharing Guernica on my screen during a class about art and political protest, I stammered through a stilted mini-lecture about what we would miss by seeing it on the screen, stressing the massive size of the original and its rightful location in Spain. If we could see this in person, I said, or at least on a larger screen, in the dark, we could more fully grasp the power of Picasso’s mournful protest. But their responses to the painting were no less meaningful than that of any tourist with his nose six inches from the original. They saw and named it all—the howling mouths and twisting necks, the shattering glass and light. I see now that my pretentious disclaimer was far more mystifying than the size of their screens. I’d furthered the toxic idea that access equated to understanding—that they couldn’t truly see the painting without tickets to the Preserve.
After a few weeks, it was beginning to seem like the opposite of mystification was occurring in the digital classroom. If anything, the bizarre experience of contemplating Byzantine icons and Van Gogh’s self-portraits over screen share, of discussing Nighthawks and Haystacks in sentence fragments in the chat, prevented us from mistakenly believing that we were seeing the art clearly, from believing that there is such a thing as a pure experience of art.
It prevented me, I think, from creating a class that kept the students from taking ownership of the art, and it allowed them to take the kind of ownership that Berger so earnestly desired for his own audience. This ownership was not derived from expertise or heritage or academic major, but from a shared plot in the garden of human history, out of which grows the art of the world, the art on their glass screens.
It allowed them, despite some initial trepidation, to see the art for what it uniquely said—about trees and war and bodies and light, about the shapes they take and the colors they give—and not simply what it was, as Berger says. The screens revealed the Screen that always stands between our eyes and art. It’s just that now there’s no denying it’s there.
I missed being able to pace and wave my arms above my head, yes. But the rest—the hushed tones over projected images of priceless art, the performative reverence—suddenly felt like the theatrics of mystification.
Berger contends that the modern means of reproduction created a “new language of images,” in which art became “ephemeral, insubstantial, available, valueless, free.” And while his predictions about the over-saturation of images have largely come true, what happened in our classroom suggests that these infinitely accessible images are only “valueless” if we allow them to be, that within Berger’s critique of visual excess lies the opportunity he so earnestly encourages us to seize.
In other words, it may be that we are on the verge of creating yet another language of images, that behind the tedium of digital classrooms we can detect a new means of reproduction taking shape, like the advent of oil painting in the wake of global expansion or the photo camera from the fires of the industrial revolution. The temptation is to focus only on what’s lost in this process, to tremble at what’s next, which maybe we should, for a time. But Berger urges us toward a bolder, more imaginative response to these daunting changes. If we can claim this new language of images as our own, we may be able to reclaim the power that art always offers us: the power to define our experiences when words inevitably fail.
On the Monday following the first week of protests over the murder of George Floyd, after narrowly avoiding being tear gassed by the Seattle Police Department at a protest the night before, I scrapped my original lesson plan about in-text citations, or something. Instead I found three paintings and threw them into a slideshow: Picasso’s Guernica, and two paintings done thirty years apart by the great modernist African American painter Jacob Lawrence—Race Riots in East St. Louis and Confrontation at the Bridge. I felt a pressure in my chest and a lump in my throat and saw my head appear on the screen in front of me. The faces of the students appeared one by one, both there and not. National Guard helicopters rumbled through the sky outside my window. For a moment I considered sharing my experience of the protest, of standing shoulder to shoulder with so many people whose lives and suffering I could never comprehend, and the strength I felt in the presence of so many disparate stories collected there, so many ways of seeing. Instead I shared my screen and they looked into theirs and saw the digital reproductions of the paintings. I asked nothing of them but to look.
Once again the students remarked on every significant detail in the paintings—on the blood-red mouths of the dogs snarling at the marchers in Selma; the contorted, ghostly bodies howling in pain in Picasso’s hellish tableau; and the focal point of the Lawrence’s Race Riots: a long, silver blade held high above a twist of black and white limbs, about to descend. They commented not just on the details but on the emotional tone of the paintings—the loneliness of Guernica, the chilling intimacy of Race Riots, the terror of the marchers in Confrontation and the vivid strength in their numbers.
For Berger, art can and should function as a window into the past, in all its complexity, brutality, and beauty—not as relics of nostalgia or fantasy, but as vivid stills on history’s flickering reel. Picasso, Jacob Lawrence, Frida Kahlo, Caravaggio—as the world roiled around them, they sought only to render a moment, and then another, and another. We can look to these moments and enter the space where language fails and sight can lead us forward. All paintings are contemporary.
But the art must be reclaimed for this power to be truly realized. People who control—who access, engage, understand, and own—the art of the past control their understanding of themselves. Berger emboldens his readers to first train their gazes not on the rapidly shifting medium or means of production, but on the powerful, terrified, and shrinking faction of rulers scrambling behind the curtain to control them—to focus not on the rabbit as it goes in the hat, but on the hand that clutches its ears.
I’m not saying that the technological vortex we now find ourselves in will save art, or education, or communication, or any of the nonsense we hear in Facebook commercials that assure us we’re more connected than ever. I’m saying that even though the current moment has revealed the vulnerability of the Preserve, we must be prepared for those same powers to assemble once again to keep art—among other crucial resources—out of our hands. What’s more, Berger teaches us that the inevitable displacement of art in moments of historical turbulence provides the opportunity for us to take it back, and in so doing, to harness its power in imagining a better future. What happened in our virtual classroom was just a glimmer of what could be possible if we were to recognize the power in collecting the pieces of our fractured gaze, in reclaiming art as a central pane in the stained glass of our shared experience.
At Guernica’s debut, critics on the Left objected to the painting’s lack of specificity to the actual air raids that devastated the titular village, or to the dynamics of the Spanish Civil War. Besides the symbolic significance of the horse and bull, there’s nothing particularly Spanish about it. Yet today the painting is regarded as one of the most powerful statements against the brutality of fascism and war in the history of art and remains a treasured artifact of Spain’s history. This seems like a contradiction, like the painting has been taken out of context in service of a message it didn’t initially express, or merely to uphold Picasso’s now mythical status. But John Berger himself saw this paradox as the painting’s greatest strength:
It is a profoundly subjective work—and it is from this that its power derives. Picasso did not try to imagine the actual event. There is no town, no aeroplanes, no explosion, no reference to the time of day, the year, the century, or the part of Spain where it happened. There are no enemies to accuse. There is no heroism. And yet the work is a protest—and one would know this even if one knew nothing of history.
The painting speaks of a non-space, a dark and borderless void where violence transcends its physical boundaries. By anticipating its own inevitable displacement, the painting becomes timeless, universal. The purpose of Guernica, then, is not merely to depict what happened in Guernica. The purpose of Guernica is that any city can become a Guernica, that its moment can instantly become our moment.
And if any tragic moment can become our own, the art born from them can and should be ours as well. The students depicted by the pixels on my screen are part of a generation that may inherit more tragedies than any that has come before it. The glass through which they see the world is fractured and opaque—by technological and social alienation, by mystification in all its vaporous forms, by sight itself. But maybe the cracks themselves will teach them—or require them—to find a new way of seeing. Maybe they will claim the art before them as their own, and the power that comes when it is held by many hands.
Rumpus original art by Briana Finegan.