Frances Berenson, “Understanding Art and Understanding Persons”

On Thursday, November 7th, we’ll discuss Frances Berenson, “Understanding Art and Understanding Persons” and Peter Schjeldahl, “Shapes of Things.”

N.B. ALL students must post comments on the Berenson reading; you can reply to this post for that purpose.

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16 Responses to Frances Berenson, “Understanding Art and Understanding Persons”

  1. Destiny Berisha says:

    Frances Berenson said: “Understanding of anything at all, on a deep level, is never easy and requires a certain commitment and hard effort.” The main point of his argument in “Understanding Art and Understanding Persons” is that humans are indeed capable of understanding and appreciating cultures to which they do not belong or were brought up in, contrary to strong and weak relativist beliefs. How come? Aren’t these supposed cultural barriers that divide people supposed to set up frameworks and schemas that we are boxed into by their influence on our perception and understanding? Wrong, according to Berenson, because “the impulse to create and express are exclusively human and universal [and] so is the appeal which art has. Any difficulties which arise are, therefore, also universal, not specifically cultural, as alleged, in some mysterious way.” There are three main levels of understanding, according to Berenson, he says: “The basic two levels demand understanding something of the artistic background from which any work stems…On the third level of understanding we enter into the are of person understanding in general and what works of art mean to individuals, in particular.” This is accomplished by entering into a “relationship” with the artist and thus allowing “personal attitudes” to develop and uncover themselves in the process. For example, to understand a work of art, one must “discover the terms which the natives use in talking about art really mean to them” and understand what the role that these terms play in talking about art and of their experience. Language is NOT a barrier, and so Berenson argues his point that yes, we can indeed understand other cultures and other peoples.

  2. Evgenia Gorovaya says:

    In Berenson’s “Understanding Art and Understanding Persons,” he discusses understanding art across different cultures. Berenson first proves that it is indeed possible to understand art across a culture and that doing so is not as difficult as some people make it out to be. He says that all cultures have some sort of amalgamation to begin with, and that everyone is capable of learning and gaining an understanding of another culture in order to be able to fully appreciate the art that emerges out of said foreign culture. One point that I found interesting was that, on page 55, he states that we are all, in a way, united by a natural “human impulse to create and express.” He then quotes Ruby Meager, who relates art to human life. Seeing these two points presented in such close proximity got me thinking: is this natural impulse to express in any way related to our biological impulses to reproduce? In this sense, it is not so much of an effort to keep our species going but rather an effort to keep our ideas alive and help them flourish by putting them in such a medium which can then germinate in other people’s minds and repeat the cycle. What do you think? Does this make sense, or am I reading (no pun intended) too much into it?

    • lilokuo says:

      In response to your question on the purpose of art in relation to evolutionary development, I think that the reason people write and create art is in and of itself a struggle to achieve that immortality. However, not all artists aimed to leave his/her mark on history, many merely practiced art for their own satisfaction and fulfillment. In relation to the “Ways of Seeing” reading, I guess we can say that every work of art has the power to direct its reader/audience to seeing what the creator intended for them to see. In a sense we are seeing art through the lens of the artist, and seeing what they see. So in the cases of patrons who commission artists (especially in Florence and Venice during times of flourish) , their main goal WAS to immortalize their great name and achievement, thats why the Medici family is so well known today; Botticello’s rendering of the family glorified the success and wealth of its members. Here is where Berenson’s statements can be applied; in our date and age, a well off businessman commissioning to have his portraits done (well, because of the creation of photo imaging, there is no longer the need to document ourselves for hopes of being remembered, but I think patrons mostly commissioned those portraits for the people of their time to show power rather than for the sake of being remembered in the future..) might be seen as pompous and a narcissist, and in this case cultural relativism would be relevant.

  3. apalathingal says:

    Frances Berenson touches upon a topic that can offer valuable insight on how to understand our surroundings and the people in it. Although Berenson does continuously state how one can understand, he acknowledges the fact that it is not possible to completely understand anything or anyone. Simple observations will not suffice when it comes to a deeper level of understanding. According to Berenson, one cannot just empathize with another individual. It is very difficult to pretend you are another person and to imagine you are in another situation. Why? Because you are not that person and you are not living in that situation. People are objects of scientific experiments that have certain conclusions or results. Berenson states that the key to understanding any piece of art, music, or aspect of culture lies within how well we can understand the emotions and importance behind it. One line that stood out to me was “empathy then involves the notion of putting oneself in the others place.” He then continues to explain that it is not that simple to empathize with someone. I agree with this because no one but you can “live” your own life. I have always disagreed with the statement “you can put yourself in his/her shoes.” I don’t believe that is possible. However, many of you may disagree so I ask you can you really put yourselves in someone else’ shoes (figuratively)? One of the components that I really like about this reading is it’s parallel to real life. I believe that one of the main causes for issues and violence among people is a lack of understanding. I think Berenson attempts to help people master the “art of co-existing” in a world. Of course, one of his main goals is to provide a new vision in understanding music and art. To him “composing music is a human activity and very much bound up with any particular composer being the sort of person that he is.” It seems to me he is saying that the key to understanding music is understanding the emotions and intentions behind it. Is this true? Does music reflect the personality of the composer? One last line that I thought was noteworthy is “once we stand in any kind of relationship with a person, personal attitudes begin to play a lesser or greater part in our understanding of him.” Based on my analysis, I think Berenson is saying that once we get close to an individual we become less or more biased (via preconceived ideas) when it comes to characterizing him or her. Our attitude changes with the development of a relationship. How do you think the development of friendship over time affects our initial characterization of our friends? How do you try to understand people, music, or arts? How can it be compared to Berenson’s way of understanding?

    *I am not exactly sure if we are supposed to post questions with the comments but I did anyway.

  4. danitsa andaluz says:

    In “Understanding Art and Understanding Persons”, Berenson makes reference to cultural relativism, a concept those of us taking philosophy are familiar with. This idea basically states that we cannot impose our standards of what is moral behavior on anyone outside of our culture. He brings this theory to art in saying that a relativist would argue that we cannot present judgements of the arts of other cultures as we are not part of them and therefore our own biases would affect our opinions. Berenson disagrees with this and sites “members of remote cultures excelling in Western music,” as proof that this is not an accurate idea. Although, I think it is sometimes difficult for us to understand the practices and subsequently the art of other cultures and sometimes we have no real basis to judge this art, there are certain unspoken basics to what is considered beautiful or pleasing to the senses. Some art I think appeals to a specific culture such as traditional tribal tattoos or religion-specific music but some arts transcend this specificity and so create an impression on anyone. It is also important to note Berenson’s point about understanding a specific culture and the context of that work of art and how that helps us to further appreciate that work. He says, “one has to work at it in order to understand it with no guarantee of success. One has to learn… about what such music is trying to achieve..” By this I think that he is saying that understanding art in general takes effort, even the art of one’s own culture, it just takes a little more effort to understand another culture’s art. He is also saying that to understand the significance of a work and what that work seeks to achieve furthers our ability to comprehend it. I would fully agree with this point.

    • Gurprit Kaur says:

      Firstly I would like to restate the last few lines of the reading that summarize the entire reading: “Understanding of anything at all, on a deep level, is never easy and requires a certain commitment and hard effort. There are enough problems about understanding persons different from oneself and of understanding the expression of their experiences and emotions in art, whether it be within one’s own culture or interculturally , without adding gratuitous mysteries to this complex field.” This statement explains the comments above that understand art alone is already a difficult task and requires effort even if it is the art of one’s own culture. So the added gratuitous mysteries of a foreign culture does require extra effort to comprehend but its isn’t impossible. I personally agree with this because being from a city that contains so much art from all cultures around the world, I get to experience all types of art and have noticed that if one wants to understand a piece of art, cultures and languages aren’t barriers.

  5. Adrianna Mathew says:

    Although it was kind of difficult to understand what Berenson was trying to say, the extent of my understanding of Berenson’s work is that he concludes that to have a meticulous and in-depth understanding of a culture where the artwork has originated from is unnecessary as your understanding of the artwork is precisely that, yours. What Berenson concludes is that the notion of understanding artwork subjectively through the understanding of its cultural context limits is… unnecessary to YOUR understanding of the work. To say that I vehemently disagree with Berenson, would be too much but I do disagree with this main point that he brought up.
    While I also commented on Ahmed’s post of Shamsur Saab’s poetry, I would like to bring it up again in order to further my perspective. In order to understand the “freedom” that Shamsur Saab’s words are emphasizing, or even the reason why I regard to him as “Saab”, the reader must have a deep understanding of the Bengali traditions and the socio-cultural emphasis placed behind it. Certain lines mentioning aspects of Bengali culture like Rabi Thakur, Shahid Minar, “flag-draped, slogan-serenaded boisterous processions,” tea shops, kal-boishakhi, etc., etc. is so foreign to someone who’s culture does not have the same social and cultural impositions on any of these. To think of American culture specifically, where do we see conversations occuring in tea shops? First of all there are no tea shops in America; there are Starbuck’s and Dunkin Donuts and other commercialized beverage selling stores but the tea shops that Shamsur Saab is talking about in these poems are tiny little stalls that are run by families who sell a hot cup of chai along side a happening plate of gossip about their neighbor’s daughter’s marriage. There are just no cultural equities in the American culture! So how is it that a reader will be able to understand what Shamsur Saab is referring to without having an in-depth understanding of the Bengali culture? This is why, I tend to disagree with Berenson when he say to understand a work of art of another culture, knowledge of the culture is only needed “on a certain level.”
    However, trying to understand a culture as well as a native is difficult. Berenson’s approach gives relief to this very same problem. If the lines between these two sentences on pages 58-59 are read again “In conclusion, I have argued that in order to understand the art of any particular culture we need to distinguish between three levels of understanding… This brings and understanding of the kinds of feelings, emotions and commitments which play a crucial part in aesthetic experience.” we get the answer to an immediate problem in understanding art. But to me, even through Berenson’s dissection of understanding art, culturally and subjectively, into three main components of comprehension, still seem incomplete. No matter how much we can try to understand an artwork without understanding its cultural context, our understandings will be incomplete. Regardless, of the little we do care to find out about the cultural context, socio-cultural symbols that are unique to the culture (for example, the tea shop and its consequent emotional symbolism in Shamsur Saab’s poetry) will still be un-apprehensible.

  6. Ahmed Ashraf says:

    In his article, “Understanding Art and Understanding Persons,” Frances Berenson discusses “whether it is possible to understand the art of other cultures.” He is asking whether a person can have “cross-cultural aesthetic judgement and aesthetic experience” without being involved or growing up in the culture that is foreign to him. He mentions two theories, 1. Relativism and 2. Institutional, that suggests that it is indeed not possible to have such understanding. Rather than fully deconstructing these theories (he just sidetracked them with couple of quotes than in turn can be used to justify those theories), he states why he thinks that such an understanding is possible. One of the reason that he implies that there are somethings that are universal to not only all cultures, but also to all people. Based upon these similarities, one can understand art of other culture to some extent. Now, one can easily understand the foolishness of this notion. There are so many and big differences that finding little similarities are like looking for a needle in haystack. I will give you an example: In American culture, showing your thumb to another person means that you appreciate them or their work, but in the Bengali culture, doing this has the same meaning as the meaning of showing the middle finger in American culture. This ties to the other point, a much more reasonable one, he makes which is that one can always learn about the other culture. I personally relate to it as I have come to learn and understand the meaning of showing thumb in this culture and therefore to appreciate it. But, there arises the other question, isn’t learning about a culture, in any way, is being involved with the culture to some degree? Isn’t this kind of similar to growing up in that culture? The person who is learning, though a grown up, is a child to the culture learning parts of it much like a baby who was born directly in that culture. Learning about the culture can certainly allow a person to understand the art to the “First Level-identification” mentioned by Berenson. It might also allow some degree of “second level” understanding. But it would be extremely difficult to reach level three with that. However, this does not help Berenson’s case in any way. Berenson says that “[Arts] is the expression of beliefs, feelings and emotions of give culture.” To understand art in any level, one has to learn about them. By learning about a foreign culture, one is no longer detached from it and is involved with it to some degree. Therefore, he is no longer understanding the art from outside of the culture.

  7. sanam Bhandari says:

    Frances Berenson, in “Understanding art and understanding people,” discusses the possibility of understanding art of other cultures; where he defines culture as “the whole way of life, material, intellectual, emotional and spiritual, of a given people.” Understanding art of other cultures takes effort and ‘one has to work at it in order to understand it with no guarantee of success.’ He also talks about three levels involved in understanding a piece of art, the first level: where we simply identify music by notes or dance by bodily movements, the second: where we can generically identify them, and third (Subjective meaning): where we try to understand what a particular dance or piece of music means to the performer. To understand the meaning of the artwork to the performer we, according to Berenson, need to know what the words used by the natives to describe art mean to them. He mentions that we can understand the work of art in other cultures and also transfer and develop it into our own; he gives an examples where Arab design of the arabesque in paintings and sculptures have transferred into western dance and music. This he considers an important aspect art, ability to be transferred and developed in different cultures. According to Berenson we often confuse our understanding of something with approving it.
    We approve or disapprove of something based on our biases which is not favorable while studying a work of art, Therefore, aesthetics has to avoid the cultural bias that arises from using an intellectual approach rather than a personal one.

  8. Janna Wu says:

    The issue at hand that Berenson writes in his paper is one that questions the possibility of cross-cultural understanding of art. Berenson first presents arguments against such possibility, taking evidences from the two recent theories: relativism (strong and weak) and the institutional theory of art. The strong relativists view such understanding as nonexistent, that the beliefs and knowledge from one culture can only apply to understand concepts from within that culture.The weak relativist, however, is willing to attempt to understand another culture’s art. Weak relativism centers around the notion of empathy, in which one takes into account the cultural background (beliefs, norms, practices) of another and putting oneself in that person’s place figuratively, which ultimately leads to an understanding for another culture. Then there is the institutional theory of art which dictates whether certain works should be considered art through social/cultural conventions which George Dickie illustrates with the example of a painting by Betsy the chimpanzee. The painting would not be considered as art were it to be exhibited in a natural history museum but having it exhibited in an art gallery would make it an artwork since “the appropriate institution has conferred the status of artwork on it by exhibiting it”.

    Berenson makes clear his stance that there does exists the possibility to cross-culturally understand. He presents three levels of understanding that are crucial to dive into another’s culture. The third level, to understand what a particular piece of work (i.e dance, music) means to the performer which he terms “subjective significance”, completes one’s understanding of another culture. This brought to mind the articles we read in the beginning of the semester about the “right” way to understand art and the ways to go about doing it. I am immediately reminded that all those articles relatively mentions the third level (though in different ways). Berenson stresses the importance of knowing what the artwork mean to someone from a culture where the artwork was developed and the experience associated with it. The idea that if language is used for communication by any culture, then language was learned interpersonally, showing that “concepts and thus understanding and meaning are…dependent…on social interaction.” Hence cross-cultural communication and understanding for ideas and art is indeed possible. Furthermore, the existence of relationship with someone from another person is crucial in our understanding of that person’s culture despite how much personal attitudes (arose from it) or bias can affect our understanding. I agree with Berenson’s statement that ” the knowledge and understanding we begin to acquire…is no longer abstract because it is no longer disconnected from personal attitudes.” I feel that understanding culture will always involve subjectivity, a result from the relationships we have with those from other cultures, therefore it is vastly impossible to objectively understand culture.

  9. Mena McCarthy says:

    In his article entitled “Understanding Art and Understanding Persons,” Frances Berenson asks a very intriguing question on the topic of culture: “Why is such understanding [of culture] seen as a problem needing discussion?” He even states”Given that they [the arguments] are valid, so what?” So what does this entail? Apparently a lot more than I thought.

    One characteristic that Berenson tackles is that of relativism. Like Danitsa stated, the aspect of cultural relativism does come into play. Evidently, Berenson says that in order to “respect” something, we have to “understand” it, whether it is a person or a piece of artwork. Otherwise, we would have ” a moral, intellectual, aesthetic, and emotional self-imposed blindness” cast upon us because there is no tangible way to comprehend what is intangible. He makes this connection in his definition of empathy, asking the questions of how he would feel in a situation, and how he imagines how one would feel in a certain situation. We could always assume the meaning of a piece of art (like the feelings of the person), but how do we actually know if that is what the person meant or if we just took the idea out of context because of how we would feel in that certain situation (This can also include art being “institutionalized”).

    Berenson then goes into the three steps of understanding art, or in this case, music. The first step is “Identification (Embodiment).” This first step explains tat one should analyze the piece of music for its aesthetic value, such as how he states that there are certain notes on the score and certain dance moves that are executed “in time to rhythms.” The second step, “Identification (Particular Embodiment),” means that after viewing the dance and listening to the music, one is to associate that certain piece with its category (a classical piece versus a modern piece), and what kind of dance is associated with that type of music (whether it is a tango or a waltz). The third and final step is “Subjective Meaning (Emergence).” According to Berenson, this step is the hardest to define. It asks that person to infer what the piece meant to the performer, and what the “subjective significance consists of.”

  10. shimon herzog says:

    my first essay in this class
    Shimon Herzog

    “The Art of Understanding”
    In order to ‘understand a work of art,’ a person first has to deconstruct at least two major aspects of this task: what is a work of art, and what does it mean to understand. Webster’s online dictionary defines a work of art as: “a product of one of the fine arts; especially a painting or sculpture of high artistic quality; or something giving high aesthetic satisfaction to the viewer or listener.” To understand is defines as “to perceive the meaning of; comprehend, to be familiar with; have a thorough knowledge of, to interpret or comprehend in a specified way, to grasp the significance or importance of, to regard as agreed or settled; assume, to learn or hear, to infer, to accept something tolerantly or sympathetically, to have knowledge about a particular subject.” With a standard definition of these two concepts understanding a work of art is clearly something that is multi-faceted, and different people choose different definitions when they want to discuss their ‘understanding of a work of art.’

    One way of understanding a work art is to know the history of it and knowing its creator. As mentioned above, one of the definitions of a work of art, is something of “high artistic quality.” This definition can be ascribed by either the artists themselves or anyone viewing the piece of work. If the definition for understanding is taken here to mean “to interpret or comprehend in a specified way,” this too can be ascribed by either the artist or the viewer. One important way through which an artist’s frame of mind can be deconstructed is by having knowledge of the artist and knowledge of the types of works, events, and history that influenced the artist. For example, when trying to understand the late paintings of Frans Hals, the viewer is able to understand the work better by knowledge of the artist’s life. The paintings are those of the Governors and the Governesses of an Alms House which were officially commissioned portraits. Knowing that Frans Hals lived in poverty provides a lens to understand why and how Frans Hals made those paintings. Some art critics view this painting as Hals own critique of the wealthy. In the same way, understanding the background of Frans Hals’ life also explains the types of debates critics have of his work. Other art critics, knowing his background, explicitly disagree that the paintings have a subtle form of critique and just not that the paintings are dark. In this manner, we see that knowledge of the history of the painting and its creator helps the viewer understand the artistic debates people have about their understanding of a work of art.

    Another way in which a work of art can be understood is by knowing the intended audience of a piece of work. In this understanding, the definition of a work of art that is most applicable is “something giving high aesthetic satisfaction to the viewer or listener,” and the ‘understanding’ as perceiving a meaning of something. From this point of analysis, the ability to understand a work of art is placed on the audience. Different audiences with different ways of understanding will perceive the meaning of the work of art in different ways. For example, for the Barnes collection, the creator of the Barnes foundation had a specific way of arranging the pieces of art in the collection he owned so that it would have a specific meaning for him and for the people he wanted to see the collection. He was very particular about who he wanted the audience of the collection to be, even though he was not the artist who ‘created’ the works of art. For Barnes, the audience and the ways they would give meaning to the works of art was of utmost importance – even more important than how the artist may have wanted the works of art to be understood.

    Ways of understanding a work of art depend on a variety of factors. As described, its creator, the audience of the work of art, art critics, or any other number of people, can define a work of art. The different histories of the people involved in the ‘understanding’ of the work, influence the way in which the work will be analyzed. Furthermore, an ‘understanding’ of a work of art can include a number of meanings, which include perceiving the significance of a work, having knowledge of the work, or providing one’s own interpretation of a work.

    • Ruby Cabuya says:

      Is there a difference between having knowledge of art and having an interest of art? As Berenson mentioned, “taking knowledge as culture bound…makes ‘interest’ not ‘knowledge’ relative”, meaning that having knowledge of the culture the art comes from is irrelevant to the interest one has about the art. Understanding art comes from first understanding the intended audience of said piece of art, as you mentioned. This agrees with Berenson’s “institutionalism of art theory”, in learning what such art is trying to achieve. Art was meant to be seen and “recognized in the sense that there are established institutional procedures for conferring the status of artwork on the products of these practices.” Does the audience, then, develop the interest in that piece of work, since they are supposed to have an idea why the artist created it in the first place? Or do they obtain the background knowledge on the subject?

  11. shimon herzog says:

    How do you feel about what my definition of understanding a work of art in comparison to what Frances Berenson is saying in his article?

  12. Michael Marfil says:

    I must say that it was a little difficult to understand what Berenson was talking about, but what I take home from the article is this: In order to understand works of art regardless of culture, one must have a sort of “personal” connection with the artist. Although it is very much impossible to actually meet the artist and actually spend time with him so that you can gain an understanding of the artist’s personality, one can still gain that “personal” connection, according to Berenson. How? If one can understand the historical, cultural, and aesthetic context of that work of art, then it is possible to personally connect with the artist and thus come to an understanding of it. According to Berenson, this understanding comes with a reflection, a rumination on that work of art.

    Berenson puts forth three levels of understanding: an identification based on embodiment, an identification based on a particular embodiment, and an understanding of what the art means to the artist. The first two steps are relatively easy to master, since experienced persons can readily identify the category a work of art fits in. However, it is that third step that is troublesome for most people.

    Perhaps I was wrong in saying that one does not need to have some objective knowledge of a work of art. According to Berenson, the problem we have with understanding a work of art from, say, the African culture is that we do not understand the culture itself. Because we are not educated on African culture we cannot understand why African art may not look realistic, for example. This is why an education on different cultures is very important.

    At times, however, I question how one can apply Berenson’s ideas to the likes of certain modern art forms that emphasize the use of geometric figures. In the article that we were supposed to read, “Shapes Of Things,” they showed a picture of a gallery in MoMA. The gallery contained some works of art that were a bunch of shapes that appeared to be pasted to the canvas. Is it possible to understand modern art forms using Berenson’s method? Perhaps we can understand what the art might mean for the artist, but we can only speculate.

  13. levirybalov says:

    Though she spends many paragraphs analyzing the understanding of foreign culture, Berenson’s rhetorical style in the last paragraph is a good summary of her argument: her very statements assume that individuals do understand the artwork of other individuals and cultures. She “plead[s] that we exorcise this particular ghost,” the ghost being “gratuitous mysteries” in the complex field of understanding the art of other culture.
    This ghost can be seen back in the beginning of her paper, when she questions the validity of even asking whether it is possible to understand the art of other cultures.

    She makes several others arguments including “that there exists an important confusion in the area of intercultural understanding because we constantly confuse the understanding of something with the quite different notion of approving of certain practices,” and characterizing ways of understanding (Embodiment, Particular Embodiment, and Emergence), amongst others. These are there to supplement her final argument, which is that even challenging whether it is possible to understand the art of other cultures is unavailing (a good example of this is at the bottom of page 44: from “Given that they are valid, so what?” onwards) and worthy of discarding because it makes understanding (which, according to her, exists) that much harder to potentiate.

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