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On Berger’s “the Moment of Cubism”

I’ve mentioned John Berger’s essay, The Moment of Cubism a number of times. While I recommend you read the original I felt it was time I describe why I find it such a vital document.

Berger differentiates “The Moment of Cubism” from the “Movement” of Cubism. He writes about a handful of artists during the period between 1907 and 1914.

I’ve long seen this as a pivotal time for a variety of reasons. Berger’s analysis of the invention of a world-view at that time helps put these other factors into perspective.

Berger wrote this in 1969, yet another example of the warnings we’ve missed throughout the past century. It helps put the lie to the lament of the powerful, “How could we have known?

“The meaning of both time and place (changed)…. The concept of the fieldseeing the whole world as a totality became realizable…. The process of the secularization of the world (was) complete…. (There was) No longer any essential discontinuity between the individual and the general…. (It became) More and more difficult to think of having been placed in the world. (We became) part of the world and indivisible from it…. (We needed to begin to see ourselves as) enhanced or diminished according to how (we) act towards the enhancement or diminishment of the world….”

This language comes out of Marxist Theory, but transcends its narrow ideology, as does all Berger has written. He shows us the moral and ethical implications of our modern experience.

“(Our) self — wrenched from its global context — the sum of all existing social contexts — is a mere biological accident.
As soon as more than one (of us) says this, or feels it, or aspires towards feeling it… the unity of the world has been proposed.”

This “unity of the world” is more meaningful, more profound than our popular conception of unity through the existence of ubiquitous media. This unity comes out of the totality of ways in which the Cubist Moment changed our understanding of the world and our place in it. Once we could see its entirety — not all of it of course — but our recognition of it through our own experiences of it as a whole, our place changed. The consequence was that:

“A sine qua non for the unity of the world is the end of exploitation. The evasion of this fact is what renders the term utopian.”

Exploitation is THE central fact of our modern existence, the commodification and colonization of every aspect of existence. Evasion is what renders the idea of a unity of the world into a utopian fantasy instead of the hard fact it is. Our insistence that “we generate our own facts,” as the G.W. B. boys put it, is at the root of our derailment.

We can replace the term “imperialist” in the next quote with “civilized” — though not because the former term is inaccurate, just not inclusive enough.

“The profound psychological sickness of the imperialist countries, hence the corruption implicit in so much of (our) learning — when knowledge is used to deny knowledge.”

“Knowledge… used to deny knowledge.” This is THE basis of our crises of expertise and leadership.

The following statement points directly at the unique form Hope can take in our time:

“The limitless, which… had always reminded (us) of the unattainability of (our) hopes, became suddenly encouragement. The world became a starting point.”

“The world became a starting point.” Beyond the fact of our new-found awareness of the world as a whole, and that we are part of it, comes this affirmation that what had been a reason for despair; that there is a limitlessness beyond our knowledge; becomes a wellspring for a genuine hope.

1914forced… (everyone) to face the full horror of what stood in the way of (our) progress. Forced to face (it) in terms of (our) own responsibility not in terms of clearly defined enemies…. Each (of us) had to live with the (incomprehensible blind forces) within (our)self….”

World War One struck just as this moment’s implications were coming into view. This is the Tragedy of the Twentieth Century, the tragedy of our civilization. Here is where a mighty cry of, “If only!” strikes us with its deepest poignancy. But, there’s more…. This vale of tears was a necessary beginning to the ongoing process of disillusionment we are still undergoing. Here is why it was — and continues to be — so important:

“(The war) destroyed will and confidence.”

I’m not sure how Berger meant this; whether, in 1969, this still seemed to him something to mourn; but it is a central process that has been necessary for us to experience if we are ever to get out of the traps of civilization.

“The Cubists imagined the world transformed, but not the process of transformation.”

This statement is a sign of the fragility of our human attainments. They are forever partial and never complete. This was the final of the three factors that brought about our tragedy. The tragedy that gave us the Twentieth Century fits the profile of any tragedy as it emerges from its serial contingencies. The evasion of the need to end exploitation; and the continued misunderstanding of the possibilities for hope; might have been overcome. Our inability to discover the process of this transformation at that time left us no way out.

The next part of this essay covers Berger’s delineation of the evolution of the Western world view as traced in the history of its Art. From this basis he explored the meaning of the Cubist Moment and I attempt to draw out the relevancy of his analysis to our present conditions.

Part Two:

As background to the thrust of The Moment of Cubism discussed above, Berger provides us with the most concise recapitulation of the evolution of our world-view as seen through the prism of art beginning with the Renaissance.

Renaissance …painting was a mirror. (Art) renders the appearances of nature and delivers them to (us). (We became) the eye for which reality had been made visual: the ideal eye.”

Our “common-sense” view of art remains at this stage. Single-point perspective was the symbolic articulation of the then-new scientific view, what I refer to as the Newtonian model. It reduced our immersion in perceptual totality to a squinting peak at that which our idealization had already told us was important, “reality made visible.” Reality as that which we choose to make visible. A manufactured reality made visible so as to give it the power of the seen.

“(For) Michelangelo (and) 18th Century Classicism, art imitated nature. (Art) reconstructed aspects of nature to transcend nature.”

The Mannerist/Classical “conceit” was that nature could be re-assembled to create an artifice that transcended its “lowly” sources. Here was the full-flowering of Humanist Conceit at a time when the term was used with a wry knowing smile between those privileged enough to rise above “dirty necessity.” This attitude remains a basis of our progressivist fantasies from all factions along our political spectrum; from “victorious regime change” to “bio-engineering.”

“The 19th Century Experienced nature.”

From the Romantics to the Neo-classicists, and on to Impressionists and Symbolists; the Nineteenth Century discovered the experience of nature that had been left un-examined within simpler modes of being actively denied by western culture. These artists chose to examine the experience of nature itself in their search to connect with authenticity and originality, their touchstones. This too has left traces on our legacy. Ecological awareness grew from this root before being co-opted by the dominant culture. The expectation that an avant-garde, acting as scouts for the wider culture, became another aspect of Nineteenth Century rebellion rolled into business-as-usual, reduced today to douche-bag hipsterism.

Cubists realized (through their) awareness of nature, (that they were) part of nature.”

This realization, along with the methods they intuited and began to develop to inhabit their new-found awareness, brings us to where we find ourselves still struggling today to come to grips with the implications of their discovery. Berger connects this intuitive process with the scientific breakthroughs of that time:

Heisenberg (discovered that) Natural Science does not simply describe and explain nature; it is part of the interplay between nature and ourselves; it describes nature as exposed to our method of questioning.”

Picasso, Braque, Legér, and a few others; found a way to visualize this new view of the world. They created a “map” and a “sketch-pad” to delineate this new space and they began to “play” — in the most profound sense of play, as a means for us to situate ourselves in our environment.

Cubist use of space broke the continuity of illusionistic space. Two-dimensional surface is always there as the arbiter and resolver of different claims. (It is) the constant that allows us to appreciate the variables. The totality is the surface which is now the origin and sum of all that one sees. A field of vision that is the picture itself.”

Scale and reference: a work of perception/understanding seen as a playground in which we hold sight of our contingent place within the greater totality.

Form’s aim was to arrive at a much more complex image of reality.”

They began to see complexity not as a negative, as the merely inconveniently complicated; but as a fact; an essential attribute of our condition; something that must be confronted squarely, not simply wished away. This can only happen through the direct experience of complexity. This cannot happen without a ground for experience.

Their play led them to certain conclusions:

“(The Cubists) Abandoned the habit of looking at objects and bodies as though complete in themselves, its completeness making it separate. Cubism (was) concerned with the interaction between objects.”

This playground gave them the opportunity to engage with interaction and interconnection, to disabuse themselves — and us — of the notion of distinct and complete objects in a neutral or empty field. They found that:

Discontinuity of space (equals) continuity of structure.”

Scale and context: space which “appears” to us seamless, and structure that appears to us as discrete; are in fact reversed. Their surfaces presented the phenomenology of these facts made clear and more readily apparent to our eyes. Eyes so long accustomed to an earlier paradigm which had led us away from an even earlier form of direct experience.

Space is part of the continuity of the events within it. It is an event, not a mere container. The space between is the same structure as the objects themselves.”

Through Berger’s analysis we can begin to see what was developing during this Cubist Moment. The seemingly arbitrary translates for us into an articulate whole that points out fabrications inherent in earlier views.

Surfaces are shown to be Fields:

Art recording processes instead of static entities.”

Subjects are seen to be Dynamic Systems:

Modes of interaction, aspects of some event, empty and filled space, structure and movement, seer and thing seen.”

Simultaneous multiple viewpoints arise from knowing what question is being asked:

“(A) Cubist picture (asks) — not ‘Is it true?’ ‘Is it sincere?’ But, ‘Does it continue?’”

The question is that of sustainability! Not a buzzword for green-washing, but in its most profound sense. What matters is what continues. From there we get to attaching value to what lasts, not out of nostalgia, but because what lasts is what works. At this moment that was taken as the birth of yet another “modernism” we have a truly “conservative,” in the conservationist sense, value placed within a vibrant context. Two major misunderstandings of the Cubist Moment were that they were the birth of abstraction and that they jump-started the fetish of the new. Berger shows us how concrete this art was, more than its practitioners may have been able to put into words though they reveled in it as makers. By finding the moment’s question, he shows how it was diametrically opposed to a new-for-newness-sake, soon to be consumerist, mentality.

The final part will take us through a comparison between a Mannerist and a Cubist work. We’ll explore some conclusions that lead me to find Berger’s essay so pivotal as we work out our way forward.

Part Three:

Just as with every previous mode of modern art since the Renaissance, Berger shows us how the way we look at art, how we navigate its expanse, is tied to the world-view which created it. He shows us the act of seeing as the embodiment of our world-view. Here is his description of the process of looking involved in a Cubist painting.

“We start with the surface, we follow a sequence of forms which lead us into the picture, and then suddenly we arrive back at the surface again and deposit our newly acquired knowledge upon it, before making another foray. This is why I called the Cubist picture-surface the origin and sum of all we can see in the picture. There is nothing decorative about such two-dimensionality, nor is it merely an area offering possibilities of juxtaposition for dissociated images — as in the case of so much recent neo-Dadaist or Pop art. We begin with the surface, but since everything in the picture refers back to the surface. We begin with the conclusion. We then search — not for an explanation, as we do if presented with an image with a single, predominant meaning (a man laughing, a mountain, a reclining nude), but for some understanding of the configuration of events whose interaction is the conclusion from which we began. When we ‘deposit our newly acquired knowledge upon the picture surface’, what we in fact do is find the sign for what we have just discovered: a sign which was always there but which previously we could not read.”

This is the best description to date of the “play-back” afforded us by a work of art. It is impossible to “hold” a concept in our heads. We can only attempt to “return” to it to re-live the experience. This is the birth of ritual. Any functioning ritual differs from the hollowed out forms we saddle with that name by the way they allow us access to re-immerse ourselves in a valuable insight. This is art’s second purpose beyond providing a medium for insight’s creation.

This series of actions depict how we make sense of our phenomenologically en-trained reality. This “scan” is the embodiment of a process that brings us all that we can know of our surroundings. It also shows us “where” this knowledge resides and what it becomes as we accrue it, “a sign which was always there, but which previously we could not read.”

Berger presents a comparison between Pollaiuolo’s Martyrdom of St. Sebastian and a Cubist picture:

“…In front of the Pollaiuolo the spectator completes the picture. It is the spectator who draws the conclusions and infers all except the aesthetic relations between the pieces of evidence offered…. The work is presented to him. One has the feeling almost that St. Sebastian was martyred so that he should be able to explain this picture. The complexity of the forms and the scale of the space depicted enhance the sense of achievement, of grasp.”

In this Mannerist/Classical painting the incident exists as the picture’s object. Its complexity and the scale of its depiction exist merely to enhance the artist’s grasp, and by extension, the grasp of his Patron. This is a celebration and apology for Will.

In contrast,

“In the Cubist picture, the conclusion and the connections are given. They are what the picture is made of. They are its content. The spectator finds his place within this content, whilst the complexity of the forms and the discontinuity of the space remind him that his view from that place is bound to be only partial.”

The cubist picture places us within a field where we cannot forget our vulnerability and the need for humility.

Such content and its functioning was prophetic because it coincided with the new scientific view of nature which rejected simple causality and the single permanent all-seeing viewpoint.”

Our “common-sense” view of science, even that held by many scientists who don’t struggle much with finding a context for their personal assumptions, is that “Progress” is “proven” by science and that each “step-forward:” has expanded our abilities to exercise our will-to-control. That this path is leading us to some transcendental “Future.”

Heisenberg writes: One may say that the human ability to understand may be in a certain sense unlimited. But the existing scientific concepts cover always only a very limited part of reality, and the other part that has not yet been understood is infinite. Whenever we proceed from the known to the unknown we may hope to understand, but we may have to learn at the same time a new meaning of the word understanding.”

This new meaning for understanding is what I go on about when I use expressions like “finding a place to stand.” This is about understanding as a way to locate us, not as a key to power. Assuming understanding to be whole-sight, that it can expand to the point where it does give us control is simplistic hubristic folly. The folly of the naive willing to throw themselves — and us — at the Sisyphean task of filling an infinite space, or dividing existence an infinite number of times. A place to stand assumes horizons beyond which we cannot see, back-sides of things presently out of our view, it is founded on the essential contingency of standing here and not there. It’s promise is not power, but a place to exist. An existence defined by an acceptance of an intractably limited field of view and sphere of action.

“Such a notion implies a change in the methodology of research and invention.”

There’s a modest understatement! Berger exhibits such “cool” when reaching some of his most telling conclusions!

“W. Grey Walter, the psychologist writes: Classical physiology, as we have seen, tolerated only one single unknown quantity in its equations — in any experiment there could be only one thing at a time under investigation…. We cannot extract one independent variable in the classical manner, we have to deal with the interaction of many unknowns and variables, all the time.… In practice, this implies that not one but many — as many as possible — observations must be made at once and compared with one another, and that whenever possible a simple known variable should be used to modify the several complex unknowns so that their tendencies and inter-dependencies can be assured.”

These are founding tenets of “Systems Theory.” Too bad it is commonly used as a back-door to game new life into the will-to-control. Unless we find means to embody these insights, Ego will always try to fold them into its own ends. Humility is a hard-won precursor to the ability to resist these urges.

“The best Cubist works of 1909, 1911, and 1912 were sustained and precise models for the method of searching and testing described above. That is to say, they force the senses and imagination of the spectator to calculate, omit, doubt, and conclude according to a pattern which closely resembles the one involved in scientific observation. The difference is a question of appeal. Because the act of looking at a picture is far less concentrated, the picture can appeal to wider and more various areas of the spectator’s previous experience. Art is concerned with memory; experiment is concerned with predictions.”

This may seem rather trivial, an “appeal” to an “easier” realm. That would be a misreading. This takes the artistic act-of-looking out of an “expert” domain and grounds it in a firmly universal realm of experience. This is a central issue, one that has kept science from the possibility of a wider utility. This artistic practice is open to all experience and provides a font of discipline applicable to anyone.

His last assertion, that art is concerned with memory not prediction, grounds art in the Epimethean as a counter to science’s Promethean urges.

“Outside the modern laboratory, the need to adapt oneself constantly to presented totalities — rather than making inventories or supplying a transcendental meaning as in front of the Pollaiuolo — is a feature of modern experience which affects everybody….”

The studio shown to be a better model than the laboratory for exploring experience.

“The Cubists were the first artists to attempt to paint totalities rather than agglomerations.”

Totalities not agglomerations, I use the terms whole and vital, aggregates and commodities in discussing these factors. This connects back to Berger’s insight concerning exploitation. To see the world as a series of agglomerations, aggregates or commodities; blinds us to the consequences of its exploitation. The same holds true with our fellow beings. The insistence on “mass-movements,” and the discrediting of the personal; lead to a predatory role as we regard our fellows.

“I must emphasize again that the Cubists were not aware of all that we are now reading into their art. Picasso and Braque and Legér kept silent because they knew they might be doing more than they knew.”

This silence can be read as an act of humility by people we might rightly consider to be supremely egotistical. This touches on one of Art’s hidden gifts. There is a profound humility in dedicating oneself to the life of the studio that does give an opening for the relaxation of Ego’s hold. Our focus on Fame and Fortune as the rewards of artistic “success” grows out of our unwillingness to see beyond the appetites of Ego.

What made this a crucial moment was not only the depth of awareness and the profound implications that surfaced at that time, but also the way in which it was interrupted. The consequences of the accumulated results of civilization-to-that-point had brought us to an epoch of catastrophes we’ve yet to see the end of. During the intervening century artists, including the ones who participated in this Cubist Moment, were thrown off the scent and dazed by the repercussions of everything that had been unleashed beginning with the First World War. Reactions varied from cold formalism to hot emotionalism; but most, if not all, failed to break-free of earlier notions of reductivism. They attempted to place a part of visible experience — a part chosen to fit their particular slant — as the only part and to exclude the rest. Artists lived-out the various displacements and denials of the age without giving us any further glimpse into what might surpass their myopic views. Faced with the collapse of old ways, and the horrors of the Twentieth Century, we flailed about looking for ways to avoid what was upon us. This was also a necessary stage in our ongoing disillusionment. This had to be passed through to reach where we are now.

Berger’s essay explodes with the import of rediscovery of what had been lost in a stratification of layers sedimented over as the years passed. When I look at where I now stand, I see this essay and its insights as essential elements of my foundations. Berger shows us that there is a curious parallel here to our moment in the close synchrony between their moment of realization and the latent consequences of mounting conditions that made it too late to avoid their tragedy.

The intricate trap the western world had laid for itself was ready to spring in 1914. No bolt of insight in 1909 was going to overcome that latency. Today, our multiple predicaments centered around the big three: over-reach, environmental degradation and mass-extinction, and nuclear and biological weapons; make it unlikely we will escape without an overwhelming tragedy. No matter how well we analyze our situation.

Still, what the Moment of Cubism gives us is the ability to put so much apparently senseless destruction into some form of sense. We can begin to see that what went “wrong” weren’t accidents or mistakes, but the outcomes of certain ways of seeing and the actions these views led to, as well as the actions these views precluded. By helping remove our blinders, it does help us face our tragedies. As with all wisdom, it opens up a space between conflicting fantasies: of escape or annihilation. It reminds us that there is room for all of life in that space, and shows us an entry into its proximity.

“The limitless, which… had always reminded (us) of the unattainability of (our) hopes, became suddenly encouragement. The world became a starting point.”


Read John Berger, especially The Sense of Sight, 1985, from which this essay has been glossed. If you are new to Berger, his Ways of Seeing, 1983 is a great place to start.


Originally published at horizonsofsignificance.wordpress.com on February 17, 2011.

Published by Antonio Dias

My work is centered on attending to the intersection of perception and creativity. Complexity cannot be reduced to any given certainty. Learning is Central: Sharing our gifts, Working together, Teaching and learning in reciprocity. Entering into shared Inquiry, Maintaining these practices as a way of life. Let’s work together to build practices, strengthen dialogue, and discover and develop community. Let me know how we might work together.

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