I have chosen to respond to James Bridle’s series on the BBC 4 channel concerning his observations on Berger’s ‘Ways of Seeing’. It is presented as a series of broadcasts on his understanding of Berger’s insight on visual art. Later I will cast some doubts on Bridle’s thinking around the internet and its influence on thinking and doing.

However, John Berger was wrong in choosing the artists in the 50’s as representing social realism. The artists themselves, in time, reacted and became either abstract or less ‘soviet’ in style. I knew most of the painters and saw their style change to become more personal, less observational on contemporary life, more an exploration of form. My feelings about Berger is that his art criticism was exciting and fresh, but his novels go further in depth of feeling in giving attention to detail and poignant expression about life.

Ken Turner reprising Diogenes

A few days before his broadcasts Berger was standing in front of large posters on London’s underground platform and realised what his starting point would be for his TV series. He needed to speak about how advertising was corrupting people’s ideas on visual form. These posters did not really benefit one’s life, but ensnared a public into believing that they did and of course still do.

I want to bring Codswallop into this discussion because Codswallop from the depths of the Atlantic remains a constant irritant on the failings of human kind. He says, “why not rely on our feelings?”

We all realize the dangers of over production in a product driven world, we all can see the looming catastrophe of climate change and the effect on biodiversity, and we, perhaps though not all, see the dangers of the internet.

Bridle, as a digital artist and broadcaster, is saying that we need to have more control over the digital communication network, to understand it more and deal with it from a position of knowledge. He is saying that in its operations, it creates a better world in communication, information and knowledge. What nonsense is this; do we have to give ourselves over to a world of algorithms in a world where feeling is absent? As this tendency grows, I think Berger is turning to return because the world of images on the internet are in themselves losing art’s function, of interpretation, of seeing life through art. “Look at your art,” says Codswallop, “look at its form, feel what it is expressing. See the dangers of losing the ability to play, and a kind of play that opens up your amazing ability to use your imagination, and, importantly, see what lies outside the material side of life. Seeing life and art differently is being pushed aside by dazzling displays of products that you don’t need”. Berger again turns.

‘The artist talks to his model’ – Ken Turner: pastel on paper. (private collection)

However, what are the displays portrayed by the ‘art market’ as it is today? Duchamp a while back was playing and amusing himself with found objects. But he was a mischief- maker. And perhaps mischief itself casts spells on ways of seeing that shake us out of a torpor, or a dullness of mind to look at art as a way of thinking, which after all is the job of art, or at least one of them. But what about the sense of feeling in these works? I leave the reader to think on.

Art is something that takes its time, a kind of time outside our own normal dimensionality of time. It is not hurried into life and surprises people by its ‘deconstruction’ of form. I use this word of Derrida’s carefully because it is often used sloppily. The word is close to the process of how art is made in its forming of form from the un-form, and thus, evolves as a new sense of reality realized through many layers of seeing. Incidentally, this is a sure way of escaping from the internet’s hold on culture and its cruel hand turning the screw on knowledge.

Like Derrida I may be surfing the language to find sense, but this is also the language of art in its process of making. Most importantly, I want to escape the confines of bird cage life. I want to escape the logical reasoning of academic constraints and abstruse intellectual arguments. I also want to free myself from the speed of the internet in collapsing and compressing time and space, where the imagination has no place. Slavery has not gone out of the window, it has flown through the back door and taken us by surprise. Slavery that is, to technological advance, and as it is suggested, to a better life. Thus, cooking the goose twice over, once through greed and once through convenience. Hah! A job done quickly is a job well done!(?). Also, mischief raises its head again, or is it that mischief can be art. Duchamp says so, call it art and it becomes art. So, mischief and deception are one and the same, perhaps?

Let’s get back to ways of seeing. Take Jeff Koons and Kaws, how do they see? Quite easy, both are entrepreneurs, both aspire to fame and money, both are egocentric individuals and revel in glamour and publicity because this enhances their art price. The auction houses and collectors also see to that. And industrialisation plays its part in enabling works to be made without the hand of the artist. And the art market thrives.

Freeze everybody, freeze, not the art fair, but the unfair inequality and muck-spreading money sucking greed that dismantles the aspirations of playing in the territory of the creative spirit. Greed and slavery to money through entrepreneurial practice is undermining democratic rights and destruction of aesthetic and subjective visions.

James Bridle has suggested that Artificial Intelligence is nearer the truth and makes our lives easier, blimey, that’s not the way of an artist or creative thinker, life is hard work and needs to be so in order to live and feel more deeply. My sense of being is about knowing the unknown and finding the unimaginable truth in things.

Ken Turner

10 thoughts on “New Ways of Seeing

  1. Hello Mr Codswallop,

    It was about time you wrote another article for the New Art Examiner! I rather enjoyed this one, and as with your other writing have had to read this a few times to get the whole sense of it, even though I’m still not sure of it all. I have some problems when I read the contradiction that your sense of being is about knowing the unknown. I also had difficulty understanding the meaning of this sentence, “These posters did not really benefit one’s life, but ensnared a public into believing that they did and of course still do.” Could you elaborate a little and explain what you mean by “they did and of course still do”? What is it they do?

    1. Hi Jonathan,
      Don’t you think our sense of being is a contradiction in itself? Ken Turner is in his nineties, and he must certainly know the unknown.
      I disagree though when he says there’s no place for imagination with internet, but then it depends on what you’re using internet for – to play games, to go on Facebook or instead for some of the most beautiful explorations possible. I find the endless possibilities of information (some good, some not so good) an amazing voyage for the mind – the pathways are endless.

      1. Hi Eugenia,
        Pathways are endless, but life isn’t! Just think of all the hours you spend in internet and on your phone. How many?
        I remember life before the internet, and it was long Saturday and Sunday breakfasts, homemade bread, paper newspapers, friends for dinner, lectures that weren’t online, public libraries, conversations with real people in person and not on Skype or Whatsapp, handwritten letters in the mail, and most of all, I had “time”. I also think that my brain was my brain and not a brain manipulated by this external microchip that isn’t implanted yet in my brain, but it’s as if it were. Internet is like an external microchip for our minds.

        1. How can we gain a sense of community? In theory that was what artists, poets, and writers did. it was called Bohemia were the oddballs went and found a cultural space. Alas no more. The soulless of the computer and consumer culture has eaten the art world. Pride and prejudice, class war, gender war, have infiltrated and taken over. Politics is a disgrace. Both the US and the UK are into self-destructing. As Olivia has noted we have lost time, for living and in my opinion, no longer know how to contemplate or focus or appreciate the creative contribution. Status and competitiveness are the top dogs. I suggest for the cultural lonely in Cornwall to attend the Redwing Gallery when they host Art Examiner writers’ meetings and have a discussion about the decline of culture, and civilized discussion. I thank Olivia for her sensitive words and sharing her view of life. This is what the visual arts should be about. The New Art Examiner has a long history of caring, We try.

        2. Going one step forward but back into the art world, Lucy McRae has an exhibition from her “creative research practice” entitled “How will technology transform the body?” This “beguiling work” is on display at the National Gallery of Victoria. Call it “beguiling” and if this is what we have to look forward to from the art world, I think it’s time to start all over. Nonetheless, the exhibition is free of charge. Can you imagine paying to see this work?


  2. Ken is plainly and painfully correct. We are slaves to high tech–whether we know or not and mostly likely not. Never is a slave more a slave when they know not the cage that enslaves them/us. In this never ending labyrinth of hoodwinking passing it self off as communication, our wits are off the table, our eyes confused and constrained, language is actually confined as one way traffic and our minds are unknowingly confused by speed and readiness of the screen. The computer picks the pocket of your mind digitally as never ceasing surveillance of your person, friends and family, is constantly analysis-ed, programed back commercially, politically and I would argue — psychologically/spiritually. And with the advent of AI and the speed of 5G networking and the encroaching internet of “things” the notion of freedom Ken laid out is ever more a real concern for all who wonder about the future of civilization. I hate to sound that dramatic, but when the US government speaks about “full spectrum dominance” — they are not talking about some abstract notion. They mean you,- and do not be confused about it.. 1984 is here and rather, if you pay attention, spelled out for you. So in that case, art, and what we think and feel about art, becomes a very important human activity. Ken Turner is up for that.

    We here at the New Art Examiner readily take of the challenge laid a fore us. We will wrestle with art and artists and more over, the distribution systems that pass off what they rightfully or wrongly declare art to be or not be art. Art is a very loaded word. Art is never wholly decided on or a result, as the paths of history and discourse play their role in the determination of art. The artist has a degraded role in our culture as a co-modifier… how did we let that happen? Art will message us on many levels and appeal to us on many levels. I often think both the artist and the critic as spies or detectives in the reckoning of this process. But as we shake this out, the call for what is human may well emerge. Maybe not.

    So when Ken Turner says he wants out of the bird cage… let his birds emerge… not necessarily fly. Maybe his bird must peck a bit but let it out of the cage…

  3. Hi Ken,
    Internet most certainly does have a hold on our culture. We are condemned and blessed by it at the same time, condemned because we have to sort out the real from the fantasy world of what Big Brother is feeding us, while blessed because if we are able, we can find the information we are desperately searching for in the back pages of our search engines. However, it does tend to make us all pseudo-intellectuals, myself included. I wonder if I can think a straight thought without it.

  4. Dear Mr Turner,
    If you can find the unimaginable truth in things, what’s the truth behind a creative spirit? Don’t creative spirits (and also artists) have difficulty being boxed in or put in a birdcage, as you say?
    You sound like you were educated with a Protestant ethic when you say, “life is hard work and needs to be so in order to live and feel more deeply.”

  5. As a teenager, Ways of Seeing” opened my eyes to semiotic thought and the underlying social and political themes in visual art. As an adult artist and scholar, I found that Berger relies much on Walter Benjamin. Where we thought “The Work Of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” was research similar to today’s academic scholarship, it is in fact Marxist propaganda. History reminds us that Marxists saw truth and accuracy as useful when convenient; we cannot read Benjamin innocently when the work has political priorities.

    Walter Benjamin’s thesis insists that all we can ask of art is to reproduce reality. He writes that authorship, creativity, and aesthetics are outmoded Fascist concepts, and the only valid art is that made by the working class for political use. Benjamin is himself writing propaganda without concern for accuracy. He shares flawed assumptions, fact and fiction twisted to fit political theory; the reductions, contradictions, and leaps of faith are obvious.

    At the core of Benjamin’s argument is “that which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art”. He’s wrong in that books are made by mechanical reproduction yet stories and authors retain their aura as much as any work of art. Munch’s The Scream is known from reproduction yet remains haunting, as haunting as any Raven perched upon a bust of Pallas just above my chamber door.

    Among other misconceptions Benjamin wrote that “from a photographic negative, for example, one can make any number of prints; to ask for the ‘authentic’ print makes no sense.” 80 years later an authentic Ansel Adams or Edward Weston sells for over $80,000. Walter Benjamin failed his reality check; as a Marxist he had to follow the Party line.

    And so we return to John Berger and his foundation in Benjamin. Berger’s socialist loyalties did not seem to create the sacrificium intellectus that Benjamin suffered; Berger made accurate observations of visual language, for which I hold him in high regard. And yet we need constantly review what we’re offered, not to take what is said at face value, but consider if it’s real, if it’s true.

    1. What an informed response by Miklos; the New Art Examiner is well blessed to have him as our Canadian Editor.

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