This is a video by John Berger about the true meaning of European oil paintings and what traditions they have. He argues that oil paintings exist mainly to depict the owner's wealth. If the image is of yourself, then the point is to depict all of your possessions with you in the middle of them. The subject of the art isn't necessarily art, but instead the wealth and purchasing power, the fact that it's merchandise. This is the main argument made by Berger about oil paintings.
Key Concepts Edit
In life, we have real and tangible objects. When these objects are depicted in art, however, they are no longer real. We are looking at images of the things that may exist somewhere, but they aren't tangible in this painting. This is similar to the icon discussion in McCloud's "The Vocabulary of Comics". As Berger points out, it's ironic that we then protect these paintings and guard them for fear of someone stealing the image of the desired objects depicted in the painting. Seems pretty silly. But this is just perpetuation of the tradition of oil paintings. Near the end of the video, Berger describes Rembrandt's self portraits. The young portrait embodies all of the principles of displaying incredible wealth and possessions. The portrait of him later in life, though, is barren of these possessions to comment on the oil painting style. Yet, even though Berger claims Rembrandt is making commentary against oil painting tradition, the painting still adheres to it! The painting would be valued somewhere around 3 billion pounds. The ultimate possession.
Why did this idea come about with oil paintings specifically? John Berger doesn't give too much detail about why oil paintings brought this about. Mostly, he describes that oil paintings allowed artists to be a lot more detailed in their work, so the immense amount of possessions could be carefully painting with this great detail.
Ultimately, though, we must remember what the main purpose of oil painting is. John Berger doesn't want us to fall into the trap of museums and art experts that all these old oil paintings are exquisite and beautiful art. As Berger details, "we should not confuse such exceptional works with the purpose and significance of the general tradition" of oil painting. This is because "oil painting was, before everything else, a medium which celebrated private possessions." We should remember this fact and temper our opinions of these oil paintings accordingly.
There's two different ways that Berger's argument is exhibited. The first is through a painting depicting opulence.
In this painting, the wealth of the people depicted is obvious. The clothing is the place where the wealth is the most clear. Even the child is dressed is such opulent garb. The dog also has a "customized" collar, too. Looking past just the possessions, though, is also important. The expressions of indifference on the faces exudes a sense of them being "above" everyone else, simply not caring about anyone else. The man on the left even has a face that, to me, has a "what's your deal" kind of expression.
The other way a painting fulfills Berger's argument is through it's worth. As described in the Key Concepts section, a paintings worth just perpetuates the idea of these oil paintings being all about possession and value. Examples of expensive oil paintings are a plenty, but one example could be the Mona Lisa.