John Berger’s Ways Of Seeing, originally a BBC television series, was further elaborated in the format of a book that consists of seven essays. Four of these essays are worded and three are pictorial. Famous for its visual art criticism, John Berger’s Ways Of Seeing raises questions about how we see images and what influences us when we see them – drawing our attention to the relationship between vision, images, words and meaning.
The design of the book done by Richard Hollis, who matches the weight of the images by setting the text in bold, Univers 75 black in an awkward layout. This book recreates the feeling of the television, almost reading like Berger’s declarative script pulling one inside the text with its characteristically pithy sentences. A masterpiece that draws parallels between art, advertising, desire and capitalism.
“We never look at just one thing; we are always looking at the relation between things and ourselves.”
John Berger is a British painter, novelist, poet and art critic who bases his point of view on his experiences explains what it means to see. Inspired by Walter Benjamin’s The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Production, Berger examines manipulated human perception and explores the idea of art as a commodity. His first essay focuses on seeing and knowing, the lapse between vision and knowledge.
He explains the difference between optics and perspectives and how our personal biases and surroundings affect the way we scrutinise a piece of art. Berger believes that we establish our place in the world by seeing and by being seen, and how we see things is often mediated by society’s assumed concepts such as beauty, form, taste, truth and the value of art that tends to hide the original meaning and build up a false mystification around it. Berger wants to demystify art and transmit an understanding that dismisses elitism and start a process of questioning.
“Men survey women before treating them. Consequently how a woman appears to a man can determine how she will be treated.”
In his third essay, Berger focuses on women’s place in art. Specifically the female form in paintings and sculptures among others. He talks about the male gaze and power entitlement within representations, where women are often objectified and labelled. Berger further differentiates between being naked and nude and criticises the system of gender hierarchies, where man is often the spectator while the woman is seen as an object, subservient to man. This essay deals with a very specific social issue and dissects it.
“The art of any period tends to serve the ideological interests of the ruling class.”
With his fifth essay, Berger goes into a wider booth and comments on oil paintings as social status symbols on the whole. He declares that their collectibility only reflects glorified ideals of possession. Berger explains how a painting is measured not with the artistic skill it possesses but rather with the price of the piece -making the artform mystified and defining a power structure that only one with high moral and cultural value can possess such pictures. By the end of the third essay, you can sense that Berger can very efficiently single out the cynicism of the people involved in rating these works of art. He also calls out the patrician face of the industry.
“Publicity has another important social function. Publicity turns consumption into a substitute for democracy. The choice of what one eats (or wears or drives) takes the place of significant political choice. Publicity helps to mask and compensate for all that is undemocratic within society. And it also masks what is happening in the rest of the world.”
Finally, with his last essay, he talks about things that are taking art out of the patrician zone and making it more bourgeoisie. He explored the possibilities of art reproduction and how it would open art to a broader audience, free from the bonds of time and space. He highlights the world of advertising and its overwhelming consequences as we surround ourselves with more images than ever, especially in the age of Instagram and Google.
While Berger might find some satisfaction in the turn that the industry is taking, he doesn’t shy away from expressing his doubts about the same. There was a time when paintings could mean something and could overwhelm onlookers. Today, consumerism leads us to such a gigantic flow of information that we start turning blind to narratives. Events that could be labelled as atrocities now start being overlooked.
The pictorial essays allow the readers to focus on images and let them build their own meanings, interpretations and opinions – without any descriptions to manipulate their thoughts it is befitting to the author’s point of view. Not only do Berger’s political inclinations and his Marxist and feminist ideologies give a lot of insight into the world of art but they also help him reflect on architecture. He forces his readers to see beyond the template of Classical or Modern Architecture and see things that are relevant without any complexity surrounding it, for what is important is to be aware, to question and see things in our ways. That is precisely what is so crucial in this age of aggressive advertising. Being able to pick and dismiss content that is fed to you by a preordained algorithm.
Berger’s Way of Seeing is an act of remediation, translating and adapting art to the human interfaces, questioning what it means to be transmittable, uprooted from context and placed in newer environments devoid of original meanings and hierarchies. This book exists in between context and disconnection, stillness and movement, gain and loss – drawing fundamental distinctions about changing times. Presenting a reflective engagement, Ways Of Seeing is an appealing slim read that critically questions established systems and gives its readers a new perspective, a new light on how to see things.
- Book: Ways of Seeing
- Berger, John, and Michael Dibb. 1972. Ways of seeing. [London]: BBC Enterprises.