Mythology Paintings: Self-Serving Snobbery?

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Ways of Seeing" by John Berger. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What is mythological art? Why did mythology use to be accessible only to the rich?

Access to mythology used to be a prerogative of the wealthy elites. According to art critic John Berger, works of art that depicted elements of mythology were the elites’ way of affirming their high status because they were educated enough to know the stories being told.  

Keep reading to learn Berger’s view of mythology paintings in the European tradition.

Mythology Paintings

According to Berger, mythology paintings were the most respected category in the European tradition of oil painting. Because the wealthy elite were educated, they were the minority in society who had access to these myths. But instead of inspiring their wealthy owners to live up to the morality depicted in the paintings, Berger says the paintings instead served only to confirm its owners’ high perception of themselves.

Although oil paints are excellent for depicting tangible objects, Berger says intangible concepts like morality and spirituality were difficult to achieve through the medium. As a result, these paintings had a flatness to them and were more self-serving than examples of artistic mastery. 


Shortform Commentary: A Modern-Day Mythological Painting—Leda and the Swan

Painted in 1962 as one of a set of six, Leda and the Swan is a modern-day mythological painting by Cy Twombly. It’s immediately apparent that this painting is done in a different style than the mythological oil paintings of the European tradition, yet it meets the criteria of the genre. 

The painting is based upon the Greek story of Zeus seducing Leda by taking the form of a swan. This particular painting sold for over $50 million in 2017, demonstrating that the market value for this genre still tops the hierarchy list previously discussed. Another member of this set currently resides at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.

Mythology Paintings: Self-Serving Snobbery?

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of John Berger's "Ways of Seeing" at Shortform .

Here's what you'll find in our full Ways of Seeing summary :

  • Why we don't need experts to "translate" works of art for us
  • How the dominant class uses art and art criticism to “mystify” the working class
  • How our experiences and beliefs influence what we see

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, and philosophy. A switch to audiobooks has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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