Ways of Seeing
by John Berger
This is a legendary book, but will not be to everyone’s taste. It is written by a committed socialist, and that adds a particular veneer to his views. Some will find it esoteric, rarefied in its language, and so, perhaps, difficult to read. And the illustrations of the paintings referred to are, quite frankly, very poor, black and white copies (how I wish there was a reprint with all the paintings enlarged and in colour!). But in contrast, the author provides a fresh, stimulating and insightful interpretation of ‘high art’ – oil paintings from 1400 to 1900 – which, if you can persevere, will not only prob ably change the way you see such paintings, but also encourage you to reflect on your own views on gender, manipulation, context, reputation, power, identity, and your own continuous and conditioned ‘ways of seeing’. At times the book can be hard work, but, in my view, is completely worth the effort.
& here are the key takeaways...
The way in which each sees the other confirms his own view of himself
The book contains 3 chapters represented by pictures of oil paintings or more recent allied advertisements, which no words, analysis of commentary of any kind. It’s for the reader/viewer to draw their own conclusions. This is a very powerful (and at the time innovative) approach, since the absence of commentary in itself demonstrates how we reliant we may have become on ‘another’s view’. And of course, when these works of art were painted, purchased and displayed, they had no running commentary alongside, with interpretive museum text panels alongside…
A radical view
The book is a polemic; it is written by a socialist activist, and there is no pretence of any balance or alternative perspective – and its honesty on that score is to the author’s credit. But as a result, the argument is one sided, with no reference to alternative views – though of course, the very title of the book already implies that such views must exist. But the author is knowledgeable and passionate, with a clear mission to demystify the ‘taken for granted’ identity and meaning given both to and from ‘high art’, so that its meaning – then and now – is rarely challenged, and may for many have simply become ‘inevitable’
High (traditional) art makes inequality seem noble and hierarchies seem thrilling
Context and meaning
Berger makes clear the importance of context. Not only the context represented within the painting itself, but also the context of the time in which it was produced; and the relationship between painter and purchaser. But just as important, he shows how the ‘original’ paintings, which in a way ‘stood on their own’ to simply be interpreted by the viewer alone, now often stand alongside other images, words or products that convey additional meaning. He gives as an example a painting by Van Gogh of a cornfield with birds flying above. On the next page, he shows the same painting, with the words ‘this is the last picture that Van Gogh painted before he killed himself’. It’s difficult to deny that those additional words change the meaning and power of the picture, and in that sense, change its context…
Expectation versus aspiration
In a powerful concluding chapter, Berger brings traditional art into the context of the contemporary publicity-rich world – and offers telling insights on how the two worlds interact. He makes this key and insightful point about the viewer: “The oil painting showed what the owner was already enjoying among his possessions and his way of life…the purpose of publicity (adverts) is to make the spectator marginally dissatisfied with his present way of life”. It a clear contrast between the expectations of the traditional wealthy, present in the here and now, as represented by high art, and the aspirations of most of the modern day public, who lacking such ostentatious wealth, can only crave it – which modern advertisements take full advantage of. In crude terms – they had it; we want it…
The role of gender in high art
Why, in traditional art, are almost all nudes women; and why are almost all men fully clothed? Chapter 2 focuses on the gender disparities that dominate all traditional oil painting. Put simply – women are displayed in nude form on paintings for the voyeuristic pleasure of the owner/spectator, who would almost always be a man. For example, Berger makes a convincing case that almost all nudes have their bodies turned outwards towards the viewer, rather than towards anyone else who might be present in the picture itself.
The publicity image steals her love of herself as she is, and offers it back to her for the price of the product
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