Reading John Berger’s “The White Bird”

Last week’s trip to the late dictator’s hometown left a bad taste in my mouth. For almost three years now, I have been engaged in work that touches upon certain points of his legacy. Since then, nostalgia for the strongman’s period of reign has spread among the populace. It may be due to this extended and continued exposure to materials related to him that the recent turn of events have a personal, and somewhat emotional, effect. I was extremely surprised to see how public sentiment turned to his family’s favor and reached a fever pitch in this year’s national elections. The historical mass amnesia and revisionism do not show signs of subsiding in the near future. My reactions of late have mainly been denial, disbelief, and repulsion. In some instances, paralyzing numbness. The visit, however, awakened darker and nihilistic emotions.

While waiting for our bus to leave, I was able to re-read John Berger’s “The White Bird” (available online here). The essay provided a bright spot in what was generally an exhausting trip, due in part by the solitude provided by the act of reading and also by the contents of the essay itself. Berger starts thus,

From time to time I have been invited by institutions – mostly American – to speak about aesthetics. On one occasion I considered accepting and I thought of taking with me a bird made of white wood. But I didn’t go. The problem is that you can’t talk about aesthetics without talking about the principle of hope and the existence of evil.

I first encountered (and reported on) the essay during a class about Folk Art. At that time, I had only read it in the context of traditional and indigenous art-making. The white bird, after all, was a simple wooden construction created traditionally by peasants in Russia and certain parts of Europe. Yet I had overlooked the point Berger made about the aesthetic emotion, which the wooden bird evokes in people who view it for the first time.

One is looking at a piece of wood that has become a bird. One is looking at a bird that is somehow more than a bird. One is looking at something that has been worked with a mysterious skill and a kind of love.

This recognition of sentimentality was startling. It had been ages since I had read a work by an art critic that explicitly used the word “love”, it was more likely that one would come across repeated exhortations for, or against, the “Void”. Berger continues to expound on what can be considered as his theory on the aesthetic emotion and its relation to nature, and by extension, to the world.

Before a mountain, a desert just after the sun has gone down, or a fruit tree, one can also experience aesthetic emotion. Consequently we are forced to begin again – not this time with a man-made object but with the nature into which we are born.

Berger clarifies that nature is not serene and picturesque as we often imagine it to be. Our current technological and industrial progress have allowed many to “enjoy” the beauty of nature without worrying about its destructive capacity. This view, however, is mostly mistaken and we are reminded of this during times of natural calamities. In the midst of turmoil and violence, the perception of beauty becomes all the more acute.

It is within this bleak natural context that beauty is encountered, and the encounter is by its nature sudden and unpredictable. The gale blows itself out, the sea changes from the colour of grey shit to aquamarine. Under the fallen boulder of an avalanche a flower grows. Over the shanty town the moon rises. I offer dramatic examples so as to insist upon the bleakness of the context. Reflect upon more everyday examples. However it is encountered, beauty is always an exception, always in despite of. This is why it moves us.

Other more everyday examples of beauty in nature, perhaps an interesting texture of the mud or the dripping of rainwater, by the very nature of their ephemerality and simplicity adhere closely to the Japanese aesthetic emotion of wabi-sabi. While most Western artworks are more refined, more divorced in form from the natural qualities of the materials from which they were made, works made with the wabi-sabi aesthetic exhibit qualities closer to that found in nature.

While beauty is found “in despite of,” art was humanity’s attempt to capture this emotion. For Berger, art orders itself around the aesthetic emotion; beauty is not incidental anymore, it becomes “the basis for an order”. In this regard, I find Berger’s conception of beauty in art ossifying. Again, it might be interesting to look into the more complex notion of wabi-sabi as a worthy partner to Berger’s notion of beauty in nature. With the former, beauty is not captured for the purpose of fashioning form, but rather, emanates from the object through its texture and unrefined quality. The aesthetic emotion is not permanent (and the objects themselves were not designed to be permanent) and is contained in the object only for a certain period. As Leonard Koren stated, “[a]n object contains the state of wabi-sabi only for the moment it is appreciated as such.” After that, the objects (often used in the context of a tea ceremony) revert to their everyday existence. In the same way that the beauty one finds in the perception of a flower growing from an avalanche is contained within a singular glimpse, the state of wabi-sabi is in the moment and not inherent in the objects. 

All of these presuppose a subject that will recognize (perceive, affirm, or perhaps, mediate) that which causes the aesthetic emotion.

One is obliged to acknowledge a coincidence or perhaps a congruence. The evolution of natural forms and the evolution of human perception have coincided to produce the phenomenon of a potential recognition: what is and what we can see (and by seeing also feel) sometimes meet at a point of affirmation. This point, this coincidence, is two-faced: what has been seen is recognized and affirmed and, at the same time, the seer is affirmed by what he sees. For a brief moment one finds oneself – without the pretensions of a creator – in the position of God in the first chapter of Genesis…. And he saw that it was good. The aesthetic emotion before nature derives, I believe, from this double affirmation.

This perception and affirmation of the object by the subject has roots in Marxist tradition. Andrew Feenberg, in an essay, talks of the aesthetic emotion in the works of Marx and Marcuse:

Marx claims that the senses have a history determined by social and economic development. The real content of experience is gradually revealed as civilization advances. There is a hierarchy of sensation, going from a minimal, crude encounter with the object through the full realization of its complexity and beauty. A dog may hear a symphony but it will not hear what its master hears. The human being at home in the world under socialism will find more in nature than the impoverished and alienated worker under capitalism.

The aesthetic in both senses of the term is invoked here. Like the practice of art-making, the “practice” of sensation involves on the one hand objects rich in meaning and on the other subjects capable of receiving that meaning. This reception is not passive but involves granting form to the given. Marx corrects in this way the over-emphasis on the object in empiricism and the subject in Kantian idealism. His theory corresponds to what Adorno refers to as a “mediation” theory of sensation in which both object and subject contribute to the shaping of experience.

Marcuse’s interpretation of Marx results to a theory of aesthetics that is somewhat congruent with Berger’s conception. Both uphold the creative act as a response by man, one that not only resists violence (in nature or in capitalist society), but also affirms the aesthetic emotion that we, as conscious beings, are capable of feeling; and from this very same emotion, dare to imagine a different world. Berger writes the following:

Art does not imitate nature, it imitates a creation, sometimes to propose an alternative world, sometimes simply to amplify, to confirm, to make social the brief hope offered by nature. Art is an organized response to what nature allows us to glimpse occasionally. Art sets out to transform the potential recognition into an unceasing one. It proclaims man in the hope of receiving a surer reply… the transcendental face of art is always a form of prayer.

Similarly, the aesthetic emotion and man’s creative impulse is a response that errs on the side of life, in despite of the numbing effects of modern society. As Feenberg writes:

[Marcuse] argues that the erotic impulse is directed toward the preservation and furtherance of life. It is not merely an instinct or drive but operates in the sensuous encounter with the world that reveals it in its beauty, the objective correlate of the erotic. But this impulse is repressed by society, partially sublimated, partially confined to sexuality. The loss of immediate sensory access to the beautiful gives rise to art as a specialized enclave in which we perceive the trace of erotic life affirmation. 

… aesthetic form is a kind of simplification and idealization that reveals sensuously the true essences of things, things as they would be redeemed in a better world. [emphasis mine]

In the days following our trip, amongst the deluge of pessimism that threatened to overpower my reason, I turned to Berger’s essay for solace. I am reminded that in the midst of madness, there can be resistance and beauty. And there can be hope.


References:

Berger, John. “The White Bird,” in The Sense of Sight, 5-9. New York: Vintage International, 1985.

Feenberg, Andrew. “Marcuse on Art and Technology,” in Heathwood Institute and Press. Accessed 18 September 2016. http://www.heathwoodpress.com/marcuse-on-art-and-technology-andrew-feenberg/.

Koren, Leonard. Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers. California: Imperfect Publishing, 1994 and 2008.

 

 

 

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