Ways of Seeing is the book based around the 1972 BBC television series (available on Youtube – see my ‘Art’ playlist), presented by the prolific writer John Berger (1926).
The work is a series of essays that encourages us to see and read art, beyond the two-dimensional image, the interpretations of the traditional art establishment and those holding hegemonic interests. It encourages the reader to think from multiple perspectives about a work to allow more profound understanding. Berger explains how ‘the way people look at art is affected by a whole series of learned assumptions … beauty, truth, genius, civilisation, form, status, taste etc’ (Berger, p11) – importantly that these assumptions may not be relevant and ‘mystify rather than clarify’.
Take for example, the perspective of the commissioner of the work (much art work is necessarily funded and influenced by someone other than the artist). Berger discusses how shifts in power influenced art; from religious works adorning grand places of worship and acting as icons for the believers; through power-plays by royalty and its favoured nobles and grandiose shows of ownership by wealthy merchants; to ‘publicity’ material (mostly photographs) of commercial organisations and their advertising agencies.
The gaze created in the art work is often designed to elicit a certain response in the viewer; to encourage envy or desire for example. As viewers we need to be conscious of this impact on our own interpretation. One essay deals specifically with the portrayal of women in art vs men in art. This is an interesting read, though I’m unconvinced that Berger’s reading of female psychology and place is as relevant in 2015 UK as it was in the 1960s – something for deeper consideration another time!
Berger discusses the impact of photographic reproduction on the art world – transforming art from something accessible only in certain places to something that can be viewed as a reproduction anywhere. The message of art became available to anyone who would care to view a reproduction, without need for the time or expense of visiting galleries or museums. The power shifted from control of access to ownership of ‘original’ work and the vast sums of money that circulate that entails; ‘the bogus religiosity which now surrounds original works of art … dependent on market value … has become the substitute for what paintings lost when the camera made them reproducible.’ (ibid p23). He draws a comparison between oil painting and photography; with oil paining being the first medium to make the illusion of reality possible in two dimensions, with its ability to show contrasting textures for example. Later, photography largely surplanted this role. Therefore Berger argues that the traditional genre of oil painting existed between about 1500 and 1900, when photography took over (ibid p84)
The final essay discusses ‘publicity’. This is a view on the use of publicity to encourage envy and how consumers can become envied (and feel superior) through purchases. He contrasts this with oil paintings of wealthy merchants, which were used to display the wealth already possessed, whereas publicity images fuel dreams of consumers who do not necessarily have the means to purchase and may never have the means to do so. Berger sums up the nature of publicity/advertising wonderfully:
Publicity, situated in a future continually deferred, excludes the present so eliminates all becoming, all development. Experience is impossible within it. All that happens, happens outside it … everything publicity shows is there awaiting acquisition. The act of acquiring has taken the place of all other actions, the sense of having has obliterated all other senses.
Overall, the book contains important lessons on keeping ones eyes and mind open.
Berger J, et al (1973). Ways of Seeing. London, Penguin Books Ltd.
Maughan P (2015). The New Statesman [online) “I think the dead are with us”: John Berger at 88. Available from: http://www.newstatesman.com/culture/2015/06/i-think-dead-are-us-john-berger-88 [accessed 5.5.16]