Jonathan Jones: How to use John Berger’s ‘language of images’ on Trump, polar bears and Kim Kardashian

In the 70s, the late critic revolutionised our appreciation of the visual arts. How do his ideas translate to contemporary culture?
Photograph: Jerome Delay/AP

A statue of Saddam Hussein being toppled in Firdaus Square, Bagdhad, April 2003

Berger was strongly influenced by Marxist ideas of class struggle. In Ways of Seeing, for instance, he calls such art historians as Kenneth Clark “a privileged minority … striving to invent a history which can retrospectively justify the role of the ruling classes”. What might he see here? A statue of an authoritarian ruler is being pulled down in what looks like an image of liberation. It is a picture that evokes revolutionary hope and yet shows the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s image after the US led invasion of Iraq. Few see this as a hopeful image now. It marks the birth of a new age in which left and right often look bizarrely similar, when, for instance, the champions of Brexit can sound like French revolutionaries denouncing elitist “enemies of the people”. It might have stumped Berger, but not Karl Marx himself, who in his most subtle essay, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, writes that the new often wears the robes of the past. A conquest borrows the garb of liberation, a rightwing reaction dresses itself as a peasant’s revolt.

Photograph: PR

Kim Kardashian on the cover of Paper magazine, September 2014

“A woman must continually watch herself,” says Berger in Ways of Seeing. “She is almost continually accompanied by her own image of herself.” These words written in 1972 apply uncannily well to this image of Kim Kardashian. The queen of self-promotion has embraced what Berger saw as the oppressive demands of patriarchy. Does her self-portrayal and the hypersexualised selfie age confirm or mock his analysis of the nude? The early 70s saw a feminist intellectual revolution and Berger brought a feminist perspective on art into the mainstream. He argued that Renaissance paintings of the female nude by the likes of Tintoretto and Bronzino are just as much instruments of male power as are modern porn images. It has all got so messy since then. Perhaps every would-be Kardashian taking a saucy selfie is a self-oppressing victim of the patriarchy, but that’s a lot of false consciousness to go around. As with any severely moralising critique of modern life, you risk dismissing the people as idiots. I would argue that Berger also got Renaissance art wrong, as some of the paintings he condemns can be interpreted as sex guides that put all the stress on female sexuality (he sees Bronzino’s Venus and Cupid as an objectifying image and misses the fact that Cupid is pleasuring his mum). It all comes down to ways of seeing.

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