Berger + Debord

I’ve seen Ways of Seeing before and I appreciated seeing it again.

I like the idea of “seeing things in the context of our own lives” as a way to inform contemporary practice. I am interested in ways of working with that concept, peeling away layers of process, reflection, and meaning throughout the whole life of a piece of work.

His thoughts about authenticity and preservation that he uses to contextualize the series raise some questions for me, particularly about the time when this was made. How have we come to prioritize authenticity and preservation above all else? Berger clearly unravels these ideas and shows how meaning has been destroyed and recreated with the invention of the camera which makes art “transmittable”. Debord provides more of a context for the political and economic ways in which we have arrived at this moment in history.

As it’s own moment in time, Ways of Seeing, is clear and and makes precise use of the film form (i.e. his idea of the “silent and still” painting vs. the “movement and sound” of film) to illustrate concepts about how that exact form has transformed meaning and art. Or as Debord might say, “Not only is the relation to the commodity visible but it is all one sees: the world one sees is its world” (Debord, 12).

Understanding a Photograph was an interesting complimentary piece to the film. I felt that many of the concepts were very similar, a clear extension of ideas in Ways of Seeing. I was particularly interested in the idea of negation, something I recently learned about in a poetic context. As Berger writes of a photograph, “What it shows invokes what is not shown” (Berger, 3). I think this is a beautiful thing about photography. It poses the form as a question rather than an answer, like poetry.

This idea also appeared in Debord’s writing, relating to what he terms “the spectacle”: If the spectacle is “affirmation of appearance and affirmation of all human life”, it is also "the visible negation of life, as a negation of life which has become visible” (Debord, 3).

Ultimately, Berger makes a strong case that trying to define photography as fine art is simply the wrong way to be thinking about it, that thinking about it as a language of images, frees us from the political and economic restrictions that are inherent in that defined as art.

Society of the Spectacle was challenging but relative. Debord outlined a distinct binary between spectacle and reality and described a contemporary society that is built on the tension between the two.

The idea of “the obvious degradation of being into having” (Debord, 5) and commodity as spectacle/spectacle as commodity expand on Berger’s concept of art being defined as property.

Additionally, there were several quotes I found personal creative ways of relating to in the ways that I experience my identity as an artist and filmmaker in the current digital world, including:

“The spectacle is the nightmare of imprisoned modern society which ultimately expresses nothing more than its desire to sleep.” (6)

“This is why the spectator feels at home nowhere, because the spectacle is everywhere.” (9)