Ways of Seeing – John Berger

2nd November 2012

A great book and great TV series, but I’m glad I watched the TV series before I read the book, it made so much more sense and filled in the holes from the video, especially with John Bergers’ idiosyncratic style of delivery, I could hear the cadences of his voice through some of the seven essays within the book as I read it.

A collaboration of five people put the book together, I’m not sure if the same five collaborated on the TV series, and even though it was made so many years ago it still held a great deal of new knowledge for the uninitiated.

The best message I took away from the first episode of the video was to be sceptical of all experts, including him, when they deliver their interpretation of an image.  I say image, because although the series and book is about oil painting, and Berger continually refers to oil painting, the methods of interpretation and guidance he gives in both media can be just as easily modified to the newer medium of photography.  There is a lot of transposition to make as the emphasis of ‘Ways of Seeing’ is on oil painting from the Renaissance to about 1900, but the way he looks at pictures and interprets them is so different from the traditional art expert/critic that it has to be acknowledged as an influence on all genres.

I was gratified to find that his interpretation of the nude in art coincides with one I espoused last year, long before I’d heard about John Berger and certainly long before I saw the video or read his book.  I’d had an on-line discussion/argument with Gareth Dent about the position nude photographs in the daily tabloids (page 3 girls) fitted into mainstream photographic art, where I’d contended that if it was consumed by so many, and some people that I know consider it art, then it is art, just as much as the nudes that were painted for the super-rich of the past when they commissioned nude images for their titillation and pornographic desires.  Gareth contended that there was no comparison and tabloid nudity was simply soft-porn.  I now think that both arguments have a substance of justification within them, although only the best of the hundreds-of-thousands of nudes painted in the past would qualify as high art, the rest would fall into the same category as tabloid nudity, a position I think Berger takes.

His contention that oil paintings from about 1600 to 1900 were about ownership of and display of wealth and substance, used to cement the landed gentry into their social position of control and standing are probably more accurate than those espoused by others that they represent just beautiful scenes with their patrons and owners within them.  A parallel can be drawn with that today where the super-rich no longer commission paintings in that genre anymore, but they certainly use photographs to portray similar, if not quite, the same controlling image as their counterparts of old.  Now instead of being hung on their walls to display their wealth and acquisitiveness, they appear in popular magazines to display that ‘I’ve made it’ message to the masses, whereas previously the patron would have used the images to impress fellow landed gentry, but certainly not the masses.

The final parts of the video and the book regarding publicity and advertising are extremely interesting.  The assertion that advertising is used by the capitalist society as a way of controlling the masses I think goes a bit far and is clearly a political platform that one of the five contributors wants to use for whatever reason and I’m not sure it has a place in art.  However, art has been used for political purposes since forever, perhaps not so unsubtly as this, but never-the-less used and although I personally don’t like the obvious hijacking I can’t say I’m not swayed by the argument.

The political slant is only a minor part of the essay and the rest of the arguments put forward make sound sense to me.  The masses have a dream that they would like to fulfil to live a life that is less ordinary than the one they have and more like that of the super-rich who seem to have a beautiful living, are beautiful people, move amongst equally beautiful people doing amazing things.  Advertising woos them into believing that by owning the product advertised, the images that present that product will be transferred to them and make them more beautiful, more popular, and less faceless.

There is also a contention that modern advertising images can be seen to be copies of oil paintings that reflected the classic past.  One of the reasons in past centuries for owning oil paintings of classic Greek and Roman mythology was to prove to the world that you were educated.  If you were one of the masses the probability was that you never received an education, and if you did it would only be basic reading, writing and ‘rithmetic, whereas the rich and powerful would have education in the classics and may even do ‘The Grand Tour’.  Once again this cemented the social and governing relationship in society.

Now, education is universal(?), more people have some knowledge of the classics, however fleeting, and this fuzzy knowledge is exploited by advertisers who use this to develop a belief that classical imagery equates to quality and desirability.

The final shot at publicity is that the masses are duped in reality as the capitalist system wants to keep them focused down a narrow channel to make it easier to control(?)/govern and that publicity keeps them in a dreamlike state so they don’t notice that there is no real democracy and that the plutocrats in control make profits from the masses at both ends of the work/sale process as the masses are exploited at work and then purchase what they make so providing profits twice.

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2 Responses to Ways of Seeing – John Berger

  1. Catherine says:

    A very reasoned analysis Eddy. I saw the TV series when it originally appeared and remember finding it quite fascinating. The book came as a shock as it seemed much more didactic in tone – maybe that’s because of the times when it was written and that it was ‘academic’ in its approach.

  2. Eddy Lerp says:

    I think that the difference between the series and the book is related to the fact that the series was presented by one person, John Berger, and his idiosyncratic speech rhythms that he gave to all the material, his own or other contributors, gave the presentation an overall style and feel, whereas the book is definitely a collaborative work and their individual styles, tones and political leanings come through. There’s certainly some ‘I’m higher than thou’ attitude in some of the writings, but at the same time if you don’t know that stuff in the first place it’s not that hard to take.

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