Ways of Seeing at 50
The core of the argument in the final part of Ways of Seeing is how society's emphasis on property and profit continues through the medium of advertising. We have more images surrounding us than at any time since Ways of Seeing was published. Advertising is fundamentally nostalgic and uses needs, desires, and social relations to consume.
In the film (above), Berger argues that the language of advertising continues the approach of the language of oil paintings. While some of examples are dated, the main argument remains a powerful critique of capitalism.
Many of the ideas developed in Ways of Seeing continue to inform art history.
Berger rejected the idea of the artist as the struggling hero. He argues that the stereotype of the struggling artistic genius is unique to Western society.
Fifty years after Ways of Seeing was published, the value of artwork is still celebrated and equated with the cultural worth in TV art programmes. The language of oil painting, capitalism, property and profit continue to saturate the way white Europeans see the world. It is part of their culture.
Ways of Seeing is still a go-to art history text. It has inspired and challenged academics of many different disciplines such as visual cultural studies, feminist, and post-colonial perspectives and continues to do so.
A general search on the Internet will reveal many academic publications that use Berger's ideas as a "jumping-off point" for constructing new arguments on the themes he discusses. Even though these do not always agree with Berger's initial ideas, they often use his terminology to expand and explore the arguments further.
Berger's approach feels surprisingly contemporary. The spread of digital media has brought renewed freshness to the debate, and Berger's principal message remains as powerful as ever. Unfortunately, however, Ways of Seeing has been absorbed so thoroughly into the current intellectual climate that it can be overlooked at just how prophetic Berger's vision was.
One area where Berger's core ideas continue to have relevance is the Internet. This platform has contributed to the mass reproduction of images to people across the globe. Instead of being passive spectators, people today are directly involved in creating and disseminating ideas through blogs, Facebook, Instagram, What's App and Tik Tok.
Although Ways of Seeing includes many revelations, it is perhaps best known for introducing the now widely known concept of the male gaze. Looking at female nudes, Berger argues that only a handful of pictures in the western canon — 20 or 30 — depict their subjects as themselves. In all other cases, their physical appearance and place within the composition transform them from human beings into objects of desire. These paintings were made to be looked at and owned.
John Berger never regarded Ways of Seeing as his most profound work. Yet, in some ways, it eclipses many other essays and books he wrote in his long life.
Berger's interests were never restricted to art history in his later years.
He was a passionate supporter of the rights of the Palestinian people. Few others would have combined the Intifada and flowers and stones in the same article. He was a campaigner for the rights of migrants and the rural poor.
Visit his Wikipedia entry for more details of his life, publications and additional sources of information.
John Berger on Ways of Seeing, Being an artist and Marxism (2011)
Click above for online version of Ways of Seeing
Berger on Artists
Portraits is presented as chronological art history in 74 chapters. It opens with paintings scratched into the Chauvet caves. It concludes 30,000 years later with Palestinian Randa Mdah, born in 1983, whose relief installation Puppet Theatre prophesied the Gaza Strip its sculptural mastery is comparable, Berger proposes, to Lorenzo Ghiberti’s bronze doors of the Florence baptistery.
In Titian’s last masterpiece, The Flaying of Marsyas, a satyr is strung up and tortured to death for having aspired to the joy of making music.
John Berger begins his discussion of this gloomy picture standing in a suburban Paris market among young couples in jeans “holding hands, pushing prams, teasing in argot, each one with their thin, crooked-toothed dodge for a happiness”.
He wonders how they would react to the story because “everyone lives legends”. Then he closes in on the tormentors with their knives, alert to both the painting’s brutal naturalism — “I have seen peasants skin goats with the same gestures” — and the foreshadowing of modern terror.
Berger’s gift was always to make wild, enlightening connections, darting between centuries and genres, anchoring aesthetic response within his own experiences of urban and rural life.
Berger interprets Mark Rothko as a migrant, “seeking, as only emigrants do, the unfindable place of origin, the moment before everything began”.
He contrasts Egyptian necropolis portraits with today’s internet overload of faces. And people come to depend on this impersonal noise as proof of being alive!”
Berger, Photography & Peasants
Pig Earth marked John Berger’s first return to television after Ways of Seeing. The film, boldly using mostly still photographs, is based on his book of the same name, which was both a work of fiction as well as a history of French Peasant experience, as told by Berger ‘the story teller’, as if in the peasant’s own voices.
All of which was given brilliant visual expression in the film through a series of beautifully edited sequences, each constructed from vivid and moving photographs of peasants and their lives, in black and white and colour, by
Berger's friend and long-time collaborator, the Swiss photographer Jean Mohr.