John Berger, in his book of essays, "Ways of Seeing", offers provocative reasoning why the historical nature of art is critically important to both the individual and society. He argues that the most significant aspect of viewing art is its historical significance, not as a relic, but as a personal testimonial of a specific time and place. Berger boldly criticizes what he calls the “mystification” of visual art, created by elite classes. He argues that, in effort to maintain the status quo of a fragile, outdated, social structure; art and its valuable historical content has been controlled and obscured. Although his cultural critique is controversial, Berger poses a convincing argument for the historical relevance of art.
The ruling classes have always maintained the financial power to control works of art physically, and consequently their meaning. For this reason, as Berger illustrates statistically, the less educated lower classes have little or no interest in “art appreciation.” These heavily guarded “holy relics” are viewed as priceless objects, owned and maintained by the wealthy.
Consequently, these objects are not viewed as direct historical links offering crucial perspective for an individual to understand their present existence.
Berger illustrates convincingly that this historical ignorance negatively impacts the choices and actions one makes in the present. The past can be a powerful learning tool, offering proven examples for positive solutions. Henry David Thoreau’s essay, “Civil Disobedience”, inspired Mahatma Gandhi. The success of Gandhi and his peaceful methods became an example which later inspired and educated leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. to accomplish other changes. These examples may seem unrelated to Berger’s point; however, the significance of these events has been translated into visual art. Diego Rivera’s murals depicting the political and social struggles of Mexico are a perfect example of this translation.
In the ambitious task of his essay, Berger is largely successful in bringing attention to the historical relevance of visual art. Although Berger expands on what he views as a highly complex social problem, he offers no solution. A positive solution is the increasing trend of donations from private collections to museums, provide public accessibility to experience our artistic history.
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