Seeing and Believing
“Seeing is believing,” according to the familiar adage, as if visual perception authenticates. But more accurately, “Seeing is believing what we think we saw.”
At a recent workshop, I took part in an exercise to write about a painting, choosing Rembrandt’s Old Man with a Gold Chain. This was my “reading”: “Half a face, just one eye gazing out, the other lost in a dark shadow. Black dominates. Even the gold chain is barely visible. Is the insignificance of the chain a commentary on the insignificance of material wealth?”
Now, I knew the Dutch had enjoyed a bonanza of riches during Rembrandt’s lifetime. That was during the Dutch Golden Age, a period flush with the profits of trade and indulgence in conspicuous consumption. That’s why I found myself puzzled why the artist could have been so blatant in his blurring of gold. But the painting’s reproduction lay right in front of me, the title chain barely visible against the black of the old man’s garment.
After jotting our comments, we were instructed to use our wi-fi devices to find online information about the painting we had chosen. The reproduction that appeared on my screen startled me. It was so very different from the print I had been interpreting. Not only was the man’s face fully illuminated, the chain dominated the centre of the work, the gold heavy and opulent.
Even though this online version was yet another reproduction, I had to assume it was much closer to the original work, because it was clearer and because it fulfilled my assumptions about the values of Rembrandt’s time. The reproduction that had misled me so drastically was obviously the product of faulty printing. Yet multiple copies had been sold, and I must have been one of many who failed to experience the “real” Rembrandt—and, in my case, come to a wildly wrong interpretation.
Then it stuck me that I hadn’t been subjected to a one-off. There must be thousands of poorly printed art reproductions and even significant shades of difference in those of high quality. Yet we look at such prints many times more than we view originals.
How many of our artistic perceptions are inaccurate? And how do we define an accurate perception? Is my “accurate” perception, your “accurate” perception? What does it mean to really see a painting?
The art critic John Berger takes on this question in his 1992 work, Ways of Seeing. Writing about a reproduction of a different painting, he says, “… the uniqueness of the original now lies in it being the original of a reproduction. It is no longer what its image shows that strikes one as unique; its first meaning is no longer to be found in what it says, but in what it is.”
Berger also believes the context and placement of a reproduction—along with our background of viewing works of art —determines the way we regard the work: “What we make of that painted moment when it is before our eyes depends upon what we expect of art, and that in turn depends today upon how we have already experienced the meaning of painting through reproductions.”
By implication, Berger considers whether I could ever—if I traveled to witness the Rembrandt original hanging in the Chicago Art Institute—see the painting as an aesthetic object complete in itself. Even if I stood before the real thing, I wouldn’t really be seeing it purely, my perception skewed by my memory of the bad reproduction as well as by the reverent artificiality of the museum setting and the archetypal fame of the artist.
This artificiality, according to Berger, shouldn’t be considered a phenomenon limited to public collections in monumental settings. He finds a version of such an attitude in the origin of oil painting, where the possession of such a painting in a private home was itself a status symbol more than it was a tribute to artistic excellence.
Even though oil pigments had existed for centuries, Berger dates the dominance of oil painting to the sixteenth century and finds that the medium still informs our cultural assumptions about viewing works of art and defining “artistic genius.” Beyond the skill of the creation, a painting’s value is inseparable from possession of the work itself.
Berger argues that the “art of any period tends to serve the ideological interests of the ruling class.” Between 1500 and 1900 oil painting provided the ideal visual medium to depict a new way of seeing the world though its attitudes to property and exchange. The unique ability of oil painting to render the solidity of its subjects offers the illusion of entities filling a space. The owners of such paintings were really displaying their power over the objects of the world around them by bringing representations inside to hang on their walls.
While rarely using the real gold leaf common in medieval art, “many oil paintings were themselves simple demonstrations of what gold or money could buy. Merchandise became the actual subject-matter of works of art.”
Such a display probably was the true purpose of the gold chain I failed to see clearly in the poor reproduction. Yet, if Berger is right, I may have blundered onto an insight despite my misinterpretation. Rather than the belt, Rembrandt’s painting itself has become the real object of conspicuous consumption. The Old Man with a Gold Chain must be valued at multiple millions, far more than the chain itself, a possession of immense monetary worth. What I was really seeing in the flawed copy involved a mixture of misperception, history, economics, and speculation. It turns out that optical vision is only one part of seeing what I think I believe I saw.
Walter Cummins has published seven short story collections:Witness, Where We Live, Local Music, The End of the Circle, The Lost Ones, Habitat: Stories of Bent Realism, and Telling Stories: Old & New. His new essay collection, Death Cancer Madness Meaning, came out in 2019. His collection of essays and reviews,Knowing Writers, was released in 2017. Early in his career, two novels, A Stranger to the Deed and Into Temptation, were paperback originals. Cummins has also published more than 100 stories—as well as memoirs, essays, and reviews—in such magazines as Kansas Quarterly, New Letters, Other Voices, Crosscurrents, Florida Review, Arts & Letters, South Carolina Review, Green Hills Literary Lantern, Virginia Quarterly Review, Bellevue Literary Review, da Cunha, and Confrontation, and on the internet.
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