Ways of Seeing Essay - Critical Context

John Berger

Critical Context

A powerful influence on the argument of Ways of Seeing was the famous essay by the German thinker Walter Benjamin, “Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner Reproduzierbarkeit” (“The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”). Peter Fuller has argued that Benjamin’s influence was indeed too pervasive on Berger and that the contradiction in Ways of Seeing stems from contradictions in Benjamin’s own thought. That may well be the case. Nevertheless, Benjamin’s work also strengthened Berger’s commitment to a radical engagement in the critique of twentieth century bourgeois culture. This task links his work with that of others such as the French critic Roland Barthes, whose provocative early essays on bourgeois culture collected as Mythologies (1957) were published in English translation in the same year as Ways of Seeing. Berger’s work also has deep affinities with that of other British Marxist critics whose work began to appear in the 1950’s and 1960’s, such as the literary scholar Raymond Williams and the historian E.P. Thompson.

Ways of Seeing marks a crucial point in Berger’s own multifaceted career as art critic, screenwriter, novelist, and documentary writer. In a series of books written in collaboration with the photographer Jean Mohr, he continued the experiment with books composed of images and texts begun with Ways of Seeing. In 1973, Berger went to live in a French village; since then, his work has increasingly focused on a critique of the modern world mediated through an evocation of the peasant experience from village to metropolis. A Seventh Man (1975), Another Way of Telling (1982), and his two collections of stories, Pig Earth (1979) and Once in Europa (1987), are all parts of that project.

If there is one theme which runs throughout all Berger’s diverse writings, it is best captured in the 1979 preface to the reissue of his book of art criticism Permanent Red: Essays in Seeing (1960). Referring to the title of that collection, he wrote that it was meant “to claim that I would never compromise my opposition to bourgeois culture and society.”