Ways of Seeing Essay - Critical Essays

John Berger


Throughout Ways of Seeing Berger challenges received assumptions about the meaning of artworks and such attendant notions as beauty, truth, and genius. He argues that photographic techniques for reproducing images have altered the way in which the art of the past is seen. Images of artworks are caught up in the much larger flow of reproduced images which are basic to the cultural life of fully developed capitalist societies. A young woman wearing a T-shirt with an image of Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa is one of a number of examples in Ways of Seeing. Berger suggests that such duplication of images severs art from its past, thereby destroying the authority works of art once had.

He provides another example of such cultural mystification in his critique of Seymour Slive’s analysis of Frans Hals’s last two paintings, of the regents and regentesses of the Alms House in the seventeenth century Dutch city of Haarlem. When the art historian emphasizes Hals’s personal vision as one which reveals an unchanging human condition, Berger calls this mystification. In contrast to Slive, he thinks that Hals was the first artist to depict the social relations, expressions, and characters created by capitalism. The art historian’s language thus severs the paintings from their historical situation. In Berger’s opinion, this is a high-cultural instance of the inability of contemporary people to “see” the art of the past and thus to situate themselves in history. This in turn raises a critical question: “To whom does the meaning of the art of the past properly belong? To those who can apply it to their own lives, or to a cultural hierarchy of relic specialists?”

In answering his questions Berger formulates his view of the class function of oil painting. His argument here has two parts. In chapters 3 and 5, Berger relates the development of oil painting to the rise of the bourgeoisie since the fifteenth century. The ways in which oil-painting techniques could be employed to depict the belongings of bourgeois property owners bear constant witness to oil paint’s “original propensity to procure the tangible for the immediate pleasure of the owner.” According to art critic Peter Fuller, this argument, that from the Renaissance to the nineteenth century there was a special relationship between art and property, has not been refuted and is “established beyond question.”

There is a second part to Berger’s argument, however, one which appears most clearly...

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