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spoko

spoko

Currently reading

The Oligarchs: Wealth and Power in the New Russia
David E. Hoffman
The Master and Margarita
Mikhail Bulgakov, Diana Burgin, Katherine Tiernan O'Connor
Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life
Arun Gandhi, Marshall B. Rosenberg
Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy
Eric Metaxas, Timothy Keller
Parting the Waters: Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement 1954-63
Taylor Branch
The Path to Power
Robert A. Caro
The Nature of Nebraska: Ecology and Biodiversity
Paul A. Johnsgard
Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original
Robin D.G. Kelley
Cutting for Stone
Abraham Verghese
Ways of Seeing - John Berger

By and large, I'm not a fan of manifestos. This one was no exception. It had a lot of insight, as manifestos often do, and I learned a lot from it, which is also not atypical. But to my mind, there's something insulting about a manifesto. To borrow a metaphor from Eudora Welty, writing like this is the equivalent of serving me my brain food already cut up for me. The ideas may be deeper than a trashy romance novel (for example), but the level of respect for the audience is roughly the same. And I always tend, right or wrong, to begin judging the ideology in question through the lens of that disrespect. If they have this much distrust for people in general, then how can their ideas about life not be tainted with that fundamental distrust? Since I do not share that distrust, how much am I really going to accept the ideas they've built on it?

All of that is the case, as I said, with manifestos in general. So what about this particular one? Ways of Seeing, the book, is apparently based on a BBC series of the same name and with the same purpose. Their purpose is to get us to look at art in a different way (namely, and being a leftist myself I don't throw this term around lightly: in a Marxist way). They begin with a very simplistic explanation of the importance of sight (based, apparently, on the fact that we are able to see before we are able to do just about anything else—never mind that we actually start using all four of our other senses before we even open our eyes), and then go on to the importance of visual art: painting, photography, that kind of thing. Then they leap straight into the Marxism and attempt to show the ways in which art, especially painting, has always been used to promote capitalism (even, it seems, before there was capitalism) and to celebrate the virtue of the propertied class. Some of which is interesting, actually, but some of which is stretching quite a bit. In true manifesto fashion, they make sure to consistently point out the ways in which seeming exceptions actually prove the rule. Also in true manifesto fashion, they are careful to pick the most egregious examples they can find in order to make their points without looking like they picked the most egregious examples available.

I have to include one quote, because I think it's so emblematic.

We [the authors of the series/book] are accused of being obsessed by property. The truth is the other way round. It is the society and culture in question which is so obsessed. Yet to an obsessive his obsession always seems to be of the nature of things and so is not recognized for what it is.


Or, to put it another way: "We're rubber, you're glue. Bounces off us and sticks to you." They're right about the nature of obsession, I'm sure, but that isn't much of a defence since their own argument could be described with that sentence.

Here's the thing, though. There's a lot of value in the book. I actually do have a new way of seeing art now, and I think it's a better informed way. I also have a more complex understanding of some other issues, ranging from the nature of masculinity to the nature of history to the nature of envy and beyond. All of which is good, and all of which is despite the fact that this isn't my first exposure to many of these ideas. I got this book on a recommendation from a prof in grad school, and in his class and others I did think about & discuss many of these ideas. But the value of a manifesto, I suppose, is that (since they almost completely disregard opposing viewpoints) they can really succinctly get deep into the ideas at hand. So there is a lot to be gained from a book like this. Even if I didn't particularly enjoy reading it.

P.S. I must say something about the design of this book. It's horrible. Really, absolutely terrible. Take a closer look at that cover image (click on it and look at the large version). The text on there is actually the beginning of the book. It's repeated again inside, but I guess they thought they'd look more serious and utilitarian if they just started right in with the cover? This book also suffers from the same ridiculous modernist notion (later completely disavowed by Jan Tschichold, who started it) that sans-serif fonts are better than serif fonts because they are free of the "adornment" of serifs. They take it one step further here, and use a bold sans-serif throughout the book. Which is just dumb. Many of their other design choices (full one-inch paragraph indentations, for example) are equally dumb, and the book looks like it was thrown together in half an hour by a high-school journalism class. Really, it's just atrocious.

P.P.S. The book ends, and I'm not kidding, with a page that has one line on it: "To be continued by the reader . . ." The absolute pretension at work here was almost more than I had the stomach for.