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31 JULY 2013

Was Ways of Seeing the first pre-digital book?

"Everyone is talking about the way in which digital media is destabilizing print. I thought it was interesting to choose the reverse scenario: something that started digital but found its real audience in print. Ways of Seeing started as a four–part television series on the BBC in England conceived of and written by art critic John Berger. Berger was reacting specifically to the traditional connoisseurship of Kenneth Clark in the Civilisation series, another famous television program, which inscribed the canonical march of Western culture in heroic terms. As a critique of Clark, Berger created a popular reading of the icons of western art not as aesthetic objects, but deeply cultural artifacts that reveal, upon close 'reading', the limitation, prejudice, bias, and obsession of the culture from which they sprang.

This form of cultural criticism was established in the Universities, especially Marxist leaning polytechnics, but had never before had such a popular airing. The idea that classic paintings could be decoded to reveal social facts–and in fact Berger compared them to modern advertising–was heretical and his work was met with incredulity and anger in the hallowed halls of University Art History departments around the country, But Berger's position, especially his proto–feminist critique of female nudes, would grow to become the dominant form of art criticism in the years ahead.

The television program had moderate success but shortly after it aired Berger joined with producer Mike Dibb and graphic designer Richard Hollis to produce a printed version of the televised series. Clark had also produced a book to accompany Civilisation: a huge, lavish, full–color coffee table monster that must have weighted 10 kilos. In contrast Berger, Dibb and Hollis produced a slim paperback, 127 x 203mm, of only 166 pages. Even more radical, the book was produced in black + white, reducing the famous art to mere notations on standard, uncoated paper of a trade book. It was published by the BBC Books under the Pelican Books imprint, a division of the venerable Penguin Press organized to publish books to educate rather than entertain the reading public.

Even more striking was the book's design. Hollis starts the text of the first essay on the cover: 'Seeing comes before words. The child looks and recognizes before it can speak.' This simple typographic trick gives the book both a certain modesty (saves on pages) and an urgency (no time to waste). Starting on the outside also suggests a digital quality, the content is broadcast to the reader even as they pass the shelf.

The interior is equally unusual. Hollis set the entire book in a bold sans serif font, a very unlikely choice and aggressively un–civilized. There is no nod to classicism, the book is an entirely modern form. The text is broken down into short bursts, usually no more than a paragraph coupled with a visual example. Again reflecting its origin as a televisual experience the text and images work simultaneously, one form leveraging the other. There are five such text–and–image essays on everything from renaissance nudes to modern advertising. But Berger also adds for entirely visual essays. He assembles a series of examples that by the power of his selection and through their aggressive juxtaposition, he makes his thesis without any words at all. In so doing he presages the development of the curated playlist as a predominant contemporary form and creates the first pre–digital book."

(Michael Rock, 2011, 2x4)

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TAGS

2011 • 2x4 • aesthetic objectsart criticismart history • BBC Books • BBC Twoblack and white • canonical march • Civilisation (series) • contemporary form • cultural artefactscultural criticism • curated playlist • destabilising force • digital media • digital quality • educate rather than entertain • end of print • famous art • female nudes • heroic terms • John Bergerjuxtaposition • Kenneth Clark • Michael Rock • Mike Dibb • modern advertising • modern form • modestypaperback • Pelican Books • Penguin Random Housepolytechnic • pre-digital book • print and digitalprinted version • proto-feminist critique • renaissance nudes • Richard Hollis • sans-serif typeface • seeing comes before words • short formsocial factstelevision programmetelevision seriestelevisual experiencetext and image • trade book • typographic trick • uncoated paper • urgency • visual culturevisual essayWays of Seeingwestern artWestern culture

CONTRIBUTOR

Simon Perkins
22 FEBRUARY 2012

Towards a critical discourse of practice as research

"A problem confronting many artistic researchers is related to the need for the artist to write about his or her own work in the research report or exegesis, The outcomes of such research are not easily quantifiable and it can be difficult to articulate objectively, methods processes, and conclusions that emerge from an alternative logic of practice and the intrinsically subjective dimension of artistic production. Moreover, conventional approaches and models of writing about art generally fall within the domain of criticism, a discourse that tends to focus on connoisieurial evaluation of the finished product. How then, might the artist as researcher avoid on one hand, what has been referred to as 'auto–connoisseurship', the undertaking of a thinly veiled labour of valorising what has been achieved in the creative work, or alternatively producing a research report that is mere description (Nelson 2004)?

In this paper, I suggest that a way of overcoming such a dilemma is for creative arts researchers to shift the critical focus away from the notion of the work as product, to an understanding of both studio enquiry and its outcomes as process. I will draw on Michel Foucault's essay 'What is An Author ' (Rabinow, 1991) to explore how we might move away from art criticism to the notion of a critical discourse of practice–led enquiry that involves viewing the artist as a researcher, and the artist/critic as a scholar who examines the value of artistic process as the production of knowledge. As I will demonstrate, in adopting such an approach, practitioner researchers need not ignore or negate the specificities and particularities of practice – including its subjective and emergent methodologies which I have argued elsewhere, constitute the generative strength that distinguishes artistic research from more traditional approaches Barrett, 2005). In elaborating the relationship between a these aspects and the more distanced focus made available through Foucault's elaboration of author function, I will draw on Donna Haraway's (1991, 1992) notion of 'situated knowledge' and her critique of social constructivism which reveals how the scientific method is implicated in social constructivist accounts of knowledge. It is this alignment, suggests Haraway,that results in the effacement of particularities of experience from which situated knowledges emerge. In order to ground and illustrate the arguments and ideas presented in this paper, I will also refer to Pablo Picasso's, Demioselles d''Avignon and a selection of critical commentaries on this work by Leo Steinberg (1988), William Rubin (1994) and Lisa Florman (2003)."

(Estelle Barrett, 2006)

Barrett, E. (2006) "Foucault's 'What is an Author': towards a critical discourse of practice as research". Working Papers in Art and Design Vol 4 Retrieved from URL http://sitem.herts.ac.uk/artdes_research/papers/wpades/vol4/ebfull.html ISSN 1466–4917

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TAGS

2006academic writingart criticismartist • artist as researcher • artist as scholar • artistic processartistic research • auto-connoisseurship • connoisseur • connoisseurshipcontribution to knowledge • creative arts researchers • creative problem solvingcreative work • critic as scholar • design processDonna Haraway • emergent methodologies • established research strategiesEstelle Barrettexegesis • finished product • Leo Steinberg • Lisa Florman • Michel FoucaultPablo Picassopractitioner researcherproblem solving researchproduction of knowledge • research report • scientific methodsituated knowledgessocial constructivismstudio enquiry • subjective methodologies • traditional research • What is An Author • William Rubin • Working Papers in Art and Design • writing about creative work

CONTRIBUTOR

Simon Perkins
12 MAY 2011

John Berger: Ways of Seeing

"Published in 1972 and based on a BBC television programme of the same name, this is a very influential text on art criticism. Although the book and programme make the same case, they do so in slightly different ways, and the programme is well worth watching. For the photographer, the book has the advantage of putting photography in the context of western art. For the student new to critical theory, it has the advantage of being produced for a mass audience, and has as a central aim the de–mystification of art. These two points make it relatively easy to understand. A further advantage this book has is that many students have not had the opportunity to study photography, but have studied art, and so the book presents a logical progression for them when they start to study photography.

The television programme is divided into four sections and although the book is divided into seven chapters (three being made up solely of images), the book also covers four areas."

(John Berger, 1990)

John Berger (1990). 'Ways of Seeing: Based on the BBC Television Series', Penguin

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TAGS

1972academic discourse • advertising photography • artart criticismauthorshipBBC • buying power • commercialisationconnoisseurshipconsumerism • demystifying • John Bergermass audiencemeaningmechanical reproduction • modern consumerist society • nude in western artobjectification of women • objectified women • oil painting • photographic reproduction • photographypictorial reproduction • power of money • publicity • realismrepresentationseeingsocial constructionismspectacletelevision documentarytelevision programmetraditionvisual culturevisual depictionvisual languagevisual literacyvisual representational strategiesWays of Seeingwestern art • what we know

CONTRIBUTOR

Simon Perkins
28 DECEMBER 2010

Denis Dutton: A Darwinian theory of beauty

"Delighted to be here and to talk to you about a subject dear to my heart, which is beauty. I do the philosophy of art, aesthetics, actually, for a living. I try to figure out intellectually, philosophically, psychologically, what the experience of beauty is, what sensibly can be said about it and how people go off the rails in trying to understand it. Now this is an extremely complicated subject, in part because the things that we call beautiful are so different. I mean just think of the sheer variety –– a baby's face, Berlioz's 'Harold in Italy', movies like 'The Wizard of Oz', or the plays of Chekhov, a central California landscape, a Hokusai view of Mt. Fuji, 'Der Rosenkavalier', a stunning match winning goal in a World Cup soccer match, Van Gogh's 'Starry Night', a Jane Austen novel, Fred Astaire dancing across the screen. This brief list includes human beings, natural landforms, works of art and skilled human actions. An account that explains the presence of beauty in everything on this list is not going to be easy.

I can, however, give you at least a taste of what I regard as the most powerful theory of beauty we yet have. And we get it, not from a philosopher of art, not from a postmodern art theorist or a bigwig art critic. No, this theory comes from an expert on barnacles and worms and pigeon breeding. And you know who I mean –– Charles Darwin. Of course, a lot of people think they already know the proper answer to the question, what is beauty? It's in the eye of the beholder. It's whatever moves you personally. Or, as some people –– especially academics –– prefer, beauty is in the culturally–conditioned eye of the beholder. People agree that paintings or movies or music are beautiful because their cultures determine a uniformity of aesthetic taste. Taste for both natural beauty and for the arts travel across cultures with great ease. Beethoven is adored in Japan. Peruvians love Japanese woodblock prints. Inca sculptures are regarded as treasures in British museums, while Shakespeare is translated into every major language of the Earth. Or just think about American jazz or American movies –– they go everywhere. There are many differences among the arts, but there are also universal, cross–cultural aesthetic pleasures and values.

How can we explain this universality? The best answer lies in trying to reconstruct a Darwinian evolutionary history of our artistic and aesthetic tastes. We need to reverse engineer our present artistic tastes and preferences and explain how they came to be engraved in our minds. By the actions of both our prehistoric, largely pleistocene environments, where we became fully human, but also by the social situations in which we evolved. This reverse engineering can also enlist help from the human record preserved in prehistory. I mean fossils, cave paintings and so forth. And it should take into account what we know of the aesthetic interests of isolated hunter–gatherer bands that survived into the 19th and the 20th centuries.

Now, I personally have no doubt whatsoever that the experience of beauty, with its emotional intensity and pleasure, belongs to our evolved human psychology. The experience of beauty is one component in a whole series of Darwinian adaptations. Beauty is an adaptive effect, which we extend and intensify in the creation and enjoyment of works of art and entertainment. As many of you will know, evolution operates by two main primary mechanisms. The first of these is natural selection –– that's random mutation and selective retention –– along with our basic anatomy and physiology –– the evolution of the pancreas or the eye or the fingernails. Natural selection also explains many basic revulsions, such as the horrid smell of rotting meat, or fears, such as the fear of snakes or standing close to the edge of a cliff. Natural selection also explains pleasures –– sexual pleasure, our liking for sweet, fat and proteins, which in turn explains a lot of popular foods, from ripe fruits through chocolate malts and barbecued ribs.

The other great principle of evolution is sexual selection, and it operates very differently. The peacock's magnificent tail is the most famous example of this. It did not evolve for natural survival. In fact, it goes against natural survival. No, the peacock's tail results from the mating choices made by peahens. It's quite a familiar story. It's women who actually push history forward. Darwin himself, by the way, had no doubts that the peacock's tail was beautiful in the eyes of the peahen. He actually used that word. Now, keeping these ideas firmly in mind, we can say that the experience of beauty is one of the ways that evolution has of arousing and sustaining interest or fascination, even obsession, in order to encourage us toward making the most adaptive decisions for survival and reproduction. Beauty is nature's way of acting at a distance, so to speak. I mean, you can't expect to eat an adaptively beneficial landscape. It would hardly do to your baby or your lover. So evolution's trick is to make them beautiful, to have them exert a kind of magnetism to give you the pleasure of simply looking at them.

Consider briefly and important source of aesthetic pleasure, the magnetic pull of beautiful landscapes. People in very different cultures all over the world tend to like a particular kind of landscape, a landscape that just happens to be similar to the pleistocene savannas where we evolved. This landscape shows up today on calendars, on postcards, in the design of golf courses and public parks and in in gold–framed pictures that hang in living rooms from New York to New Zealand. It's a kind of Hudson River school landscape featuring open spaces of low grasses interspersed with copses of trees. The trees, by the way, are often preferred if they fork near the ground, that is to say, if they're trees you could scramble up if you were in a tight fix. The landscape shows the presence of water directly in view, or evidence of water in a bluish distance, indications of animal or bird life as well as diverse greenery and finally –– get this –– a path or a road, perhaps a riverbank or a shoreline, that extends into the distance, almost inviting you to follow it. This landscape type is regarded as beautiful, even by people in countries that don't have it. The ideal savanna landscape is one of the clearest examples where human beings everywhere find beauty in similar visual experience.

But, someone might argue, that's natural beauty. How about artistic beauty? Isn't that exhaustively cultural? No, I don't think it is. And once again, I'd like to look back to prehistory to say something about it. It is widely assumed that the earliest human artworks are the stupendously skillful cave paintings that we all know from Lascaux and Chauvet. Chauvet caves are about 32,000 years old, along with a few small, realistic sculptures of women and animals from the same period. But artistic and decorative skills are actually much older than that. beautiful shell necklaces that look like something you'd see at an arts and crafts fair, as well as ochre body paint, have been found from around 100,000 years ago.

But the most intriguing prehistoric artifacts are older even than this. I have in mind the so–called Acheulian hand axes. The oldest stone tools are choppers from the Olduvai Gorge in East Africa. They go back about two and a half million years. These crude tools were around for thousands of centuries, until around 1.4 million years ago when Homo erectus started shaping single, thin stone blades, sometimes rounded ovals, but often in, what are to our eyes, an arresting, symmetrical pointed leaf or teardrop form. These Acheulian hand axes –– they're named after St. Acheul in France, where finds were made in 19th century –– have been unearthed in their thousands, scattered across Asia, Europe and Africa, almost everywhere Homo erectus and Homo ergaster roamed. Now, the sheer numbers of these hand axes shows that they can't have been made for butchering animals. And the plot really thickens when you realize that, unlike other pleistocene tools, the hand axes often exhibit no evidence of wear on their delicate blade edges. And some, in any event, are too big to use for butchery. Their symmetry, their attractive materials and, above all, their meticulous workmanship are simply quite beautiful to our eyes, even today.

So what were these ancient –– I mean, they're ancient, they're foreign, but they're at the same time somehow familiar. What were these artifacts for? The best available answer is that they were literally the earliest known works of art, practical tools transformed into captivating aesthetic objects, contemplated both for their elegant shape and their virtuoso craftsmanship. Hand axes mark an evolutionary advance in human history –– tools fashioned to function as what Darwinians call fitness signals –– that is to say, displays that are performances like the peacock's tail, except that, unlike hair and feathers, the hand axes are consciously cleverly crafted. Competently made hand axes indicated desirable personal qualities –– intelligence, fine motor control, planning ability, conscientiousness and sometimes access to rare materials. Over tens of thousands of generations, such skills increased the status of those who displayed them and gained a reproductive advantage over the less capable. You know, it's an old line, but it has been shown to work –– 'Why don't you come up to my cave, so I can show you my hand axes.'

(Laughter)

Except, of course, what's interesting about this is that we can't be sure how that idea was conveyed, because the Homo erectus that made these objects did not have language. It's hard to grasp, but it's an incredible fact. This object was made by a hominid ancestor –– Homo erectus or Homo ergaster –– between 50 and 100,000 years before language. Stretching over a million years, the hand axe tradition is the longest artistic tradition in human and proto–human history. By the end of the hand axe epic, Homo sapiens –– as they were then called, finally –– were doubtless finding new ways to amuse and amaze each other by, who knows, telling jokes, storytelling, dancing, or hairstyling. Yes, hairstyling –– I insist on that.

For us moderns, virtuoso technique is used to create imaginary worlds in fiction and in movies, to express intense emotions with music, painting and dance. But still, one fundamental trait of the ancestral personality persists in our aesthetic cravings: the beauty we find in skilled performances. From Lascaux to the Louvre to Carnegie Hall, human beings have a permanent innate taste for virtuoso displays in the arts. We find beauty in something done well.

So the next time you pass a jewelry shop window displaying a beautifully cut teardrop–shaped stone, don't be so sure it's just your culture telling you that that sparkling jewel is beautiful. Your distant ancestors loved that shape and found beauty in the skill needed to make it, even before they could put their love into words. Is beauty in the eye of the beholder? No, it's deep in our minds. It's a gift, handed down from the intelligent skills and rich emotional lives of our most ancient ancestors. Our powerful reaction to images to the expression of emotion in art to the beauty of music to the night sky will be with us and our dscendants for as long as the human race exists.

Thank you.

(Applause)"

(TED Talks, 2010)

[Professor Denis Dutton died of cancer on the 28 December 2010.]

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TAGS

2010Andrew Parkanimated presentationAotearoa New Zealandartart criticismbeautycarvingCharles DarwinChristchurch • ClimateDebateDaily • creativitycriticismcritiquecross-cultural • Denis Dutton • evolution • evolutionary origins • evolutionary theoryhuman nature • in the eye of the beholder • instinctJane Austennoveltyphilosophytaste (sociology)TED Talks • The Art Instinct • theory • theory of beauty • theory or art • universal • university academic • University of Canterbury • Van Gogh • visual sensibility • Wizard of Oz

CONTRIBUTOR

Simon Perkins
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