The Art Book That Changed The Way I See
There aren’t many books that inspire me to return to them over and over again, but John Berger’s Ways of Seeing is one such book.
Ways of Seeing is about art history, and yet its ramifications are so much wider. It is truly to do with images. The core message of the book is that we live in a world saturated with images, and that the images around us don’t simply describe the world but actively shape many of our ideas and values.
The female nude and possession
Berger pays particular attention to the female nude in art and role of the male gaze in structuring the relations between men and women. He writes:
“In the art-form of the European nude the painters and spectator-owners were usually men and the persons treated as objects, usually women. This unequal relationship is so deeply embedded in our culture that it still structures the consciousness of many women. They do to themselves what men do to them. They survey, like men, their own femininity.”
Elsewhere, Berger states the case even more generally, applying it to all of Western culture:
“Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at … The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed female.”
For Berger, the act of looking is synonymous with the act of possessing. Paintings of the female nude reflect the man’s status as both “the owner of both woman and painting.” It is concepts like this that make Berger’s writing so powerful.
Art and Advertising
From paintings of nude women to portraits of land owning aristocracy, works of art have the ability to represent relations of ownership:
“The oil painting showed what its owner was already enjoying among his possessions and his way of life. It consolidated his own sense of his own value.”
In taking oil painting as the forerunner to modern forms of marketing, Ways of Seeing offers some of the best analysis of the field of advertising I have ever read. Berger’s ideas may seem a little outdated today — some fifty years after they were written — yet they retain a unique clarity of insight that exposes the fundamentals of how advertising works.
Berger distils the link between oil paintings and advertisements to the shared mantra of “You are what you have.” He argues that advertising relies on encouraging the audience to feel moderately dissatisfied with their own lives in order to see the product being advertised as the solution to that dissatisfaction.
The viewer is then prompted into jealousy towards the image of his own satisfied self. Publicity offers the buyer:
“… an image of himself made glamorous by the product or opportunity it is trying to sell. The image then makes him envious of himself as he might be.”
Reproductions verses original works
Berger explores the manner in which artworks are reproduced on television and through print, and through these mediums, the ways in which details can be isolated and used to form new ideas about the meaning of the image. He argues that the manner in which we look at a work of art to a large extent shapes our interaction with it:
“For the first time ever, images of art have become ephemeral, ubiquitous, insubstantial, available, valueless, free … They have entered the mainstream of life over which they no longer, in themselves, have power.”
He argues that this process, to a large extent, has demystified art, turning it from an sacred kind of activity — not unlike religion — into something more secular.
The modern age therefore sits at an interesting crossroads of image meaning. Reproductions are almost always “put to use” in different ways — as bearers of some other purpose, as information, political or commercial, or of evidence of learning. They can be distorted, altered, zoomed-in on, inverted, overlaid with text or arranged next to any other images in a virtual gallery.
As consumers of art, a modern audience has to be aware of such distortion. Reproductions dominate our experience of art in being far more accessible and commonplace than the real things.
As such, the original artwork becomes isolated, like perfect archetypes: cut-off, cloistered, secured in a vault. Reproductions do most of the work in their place, though the intent is nearly always shifted. Such images “surround us in the same way as language surrounds us,” writes Berger. “What matters now is who uses that language for what purpose.”
Museums: the palaces of art
Berger uses the term “nostalgic” to capture the sense in which original works of art function in a world of reproductions.
Original works of art attain a unique quality by virtue of being endlessly reproduced. One of the reasons we visit museums is in order to witness the immediacy of the original works first-hand.
Another reason we visit museums is to see the original works specifically anchored to an environment in which “art” is the primary purpose. It is an environment where we are encouraged to consider objects in terms of beauty, style, genius and history. Original works are, in this way able to maintain their purported integrity, whereas digital images are prone to, and apt for, manipulation. Indeed, to visit an art gallery is to experience the altogether alien sensation of having no “control” over the images set before you.
After reading John Berger’s book, it is hard to visit any art gallery or museum and not find yourself pondering the very make-up of the display. One wonders at the choice of artworks that are hung on the walls, and one thinks about the curation of the exhibition and the role of the institution in shaping the narrative of our experience of those works.
A great book (and television series)
Ultimately, John Berger’s approach to art amounts to a choice, as he puts it:
“…between a total approach to art which attempts to relate it to every aspect of experience and the esoteric approach of a few specialised experts who are the clerks of the nostalgia of a ruling class in decline.”
Ways of Seeing in fact began as a BBC television series, first broadcast in 1972. A crucial time in the development of cultural and feminist theory, the programme and accompanying book had an enormous impact on the consequent course of the study of art. It also brought cultural theory to the mainstream. Several decades later, it has had an enormous impact on me too.
Watch the original four-part television series here: htps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0pDE4VX_9Kk
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