How John Berger's Ways of Seeing Discovered the Way We See Art
Two days into 2017, John Berger passed away at the age of 90. One of the academic superstars, his work has profoundly influenced not just academia but more generally art lovers and aficionados worldwide. His erudite yet accessible style of writing is perhaps best known through his seminal work Ways of Seeing, a successful BBC TV series that he authored in 1972, and which was followed by an equally successful book of the same title. Starting out as a visual artist, a profession he never fully abandoned, Berger turned to written words and mass media to transfer his polemical and at the time often controversial art history surveys. Besides studies of individual artists, he also wrote plays and experimental fiction. In the same year when his BBC documentary appeared, he published the novel G, for which he won the Booker Prize. Exemplary in his knowledge of art, he was an astute art critic, but also a theorist of art and an explorer of its transformative potential.
As we say goodbye to John Berger, we remember his Ways of Seeing and the actual ways he transformed the way we see art. Arguably more relevant today than ever, his theory informed numerous theoretical and critical stances, from feminist to Marxist. Being himself a Marxist intellectual, Berger was astutely aware of the negative sides of global capitalism and he reflected on them in his numerous texts. His art writings are contingent to his writings about the world, and they unmistakably transfer his thoughts on general condition that surrounds us through a take on images which are its integral part. They raise questions on how these images – from Old Masters to photography – infuse everyday life and perpetuate its inequalities.
What do we see, and can we see differently?
John Berger and the Cinematic Method
Although Berger primarily dealt with words and examined the manner in which we see art, his theoretical approach was influenced by cinematographic editing and cinema’s ability to shift focus from wide shots to close-ups. Transferring this visual tool into writings, Berger approached each subject with a combination of wide shots and close-ups in a manner that historical narratives stood for a general context which meaning becomes more alive when infused with a close-up story of human destinies and relationships. Even in his later writings the focus on human experience that affects how we perceive a wider frame dominates:
People everywhere, under very different conditions, are asking themselves – where are we? The question is historical not geographical. What are we living through? Where are we being taken? What have we lost? How to continue without a plausible vision of the future? Why have we lost any view of what is beyond a lifetime?
The Materiality of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction
The materiality of art takes a central place in Berger’s Ways of Seeing. A striking sequence of him cutting a Botticelli painting Venus and Mars plays on this card as well, situating his discourse in examination of the physicality of an artwork, and the modern age of reproductions. His act appears sacrilegious, and this sentiment is precisely what Berger is trying to conceptualize in relation to observing art. By attacking the materiality of an artwork, he pushed its physical presence to the fore of discussion informed by ideas from Walter Benjamin’s The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.
The meaning in modern times is located in the material aspects of each art piece, which in turn is the outcome of the capitalist system. Instead of having some ethereal or transcendent meaning and function, art today is emptied out of its original meaning and is instead filled with the multiple ones. Berger finds the culprit for this change in camera that reproduces art and makes it transmittable. Today’s false religiosity that surrounds art is the outcome of the cash value invoked in the name of culture and civilization, as a substitute for the lost value due to art’s reproducibility.
Berger’s Take on Male Desire and Female Nudes in Art
While his dealings with mechanical reproduction in art cut through some sedimented beliefs on meaning production, Berger’s take on female nudes is equally provocative and a long-awaited gesture towards a deeper engagement with these historical depictions. Berger, in his explanation of the nudes, focuses on male gaze and the rendering of women as objects. His interest is not limited to a certain period, so he starts with post-Renaissance European paintings and makes a link with today’s advertisements and posters. In these examples, female nude feeds male sexual desire and does not possess desire of her own. She is there to be looked at, and not to look herself. The position of passivity woman is almost invariably put in in Western painting throughout history conditioned the mode she sees herself, restricted her social movement, and limited her rights. The irony and hypocrisy behind such representations did not escape Berger, who wrote:
You painted a naked woman because you enjoyed looking at her… Put a mirror in her hand and you called the painting ‘Vanity,’ thus morally condemning the woman whose nakedness you had depicted for you own pleasure.
Fighting against injustice, Berger here attacks sexism, but in his texts and interviews, he raised his voice against other forms of oppression that plague our world, such as racism, imperialism, unrestrained capitalism, and military aggressions.
Ways of Seeing: Episode 1
Discovering Something about Ourselves
In the introduction to the series, Berger states that the manner in which we perceive images, most notably paintings and artworks from the past, tells us more about ourselves, than about the works themselves. And here lies the ingeniousness of Berger’s approach. Making a paradigmatic shift away from the historical understanding and iconography, to the eyes of the beholder, he refocused the interpretative machine from the work to the observer, and the manner in which her or his perception conditions each interpretation. The act of looking for him is a political act and a historically constructed process in which where and when (we see) is affected by what (we see). He situated “the look in the context of political otherness”  which allowed him to question the meaning production and its intricate links with perception.
The span of his influence covers multiple theoretical trajectories, but nonetheless they are all concerned with the conditions we are living under, as Berger engaged with it in his texts as well. Modern capitalist age that has terribly afflicted many around the world remained in his focus to the very end. The mode in which we see images discover things about ourselves and the circumstances that affected the observing process. Observing art is never a straightforward aesthetic act of enjoyment, but is in our time afflicted by capitalist regimes of sensory distributions. Always fighting against inequalities, his later pieces are glum and pessimistic in their take on our age, but they nevertheless contain a spark of hope among the pervasive darkness:
This is written in the night. In war the dark is on nobody’s side, in love the dark confirms that we are together.
John Berger’s book on seeing is one of the most stimulating and the most influential books on art in any language. First published in 1972, it was based on the BBC television series about which the Sunday Times critic commented: “This is an eye-opener: by concentrating on how we look at paintings . . . he will almost certainly change the mode you look at pictures.” By now he has.”Berger has the ability to cut right through the mystification of the professional art critics . . . He is a liberator of images: and once we have allowed the paintings to work on us directly, we are in a much better position to make a meaningful evaluation.” —Peter Fuller, Arts Review
- Berger J., (2003), Written in the night: The pain of living in the present world, Hartford HWP [January 11, 2017]
- Berger J., (1973), Ways of seeing, p.24.
- Hope Allwood E., (2017), Why we still need John Berger’s Ways of Seeing, Dazed and Confused [January 11, 2017]
- Gunaratnam Y., Bell V., (2017), How John Berger changed our way of seeing art, The Conversation [January 11, 2017]
- Berger J., (2003), Written in the night.
Featured image: John Berger Portraits. Image via sacredtrespasses.com. All images used for illustrative purposes only.