Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

In 1969, the well-known British art critic and historian Sir Kenneth Clark hosted a television series which became the basis of his book Civilization. John Berger’s Ways of Seeing originated in a four-part television program of the same title which was a direct response to Clark and to the conception of art history embodied in Clark’s book and programs. By raising questions about the social and economic functions of art, Berger challenged the idea that Western art history could be presented as the work of a series of towering artistic geniuses. A team of five coworkers put the volume together, although Berger’s is the dominant authorial presence and Ways of Seeing is identified in the contemporary art milieu as “his” book.

The form of Ways of Seeing is integral to its content. It comprises seven numbered essays, four of which consist of written texts interspersed with photographic images, while the other three consist solely of images. The text is printed in a bold typeface with the margins left unjustified, contributing to the book’s unorthodox look. The essays themselves can be read in any sequence; those that are purely pictorial are intended to generate as many questions as the verbal ones. Thus, the book’s form challenges the reader to question the typical linear fashion in which a book is read and the (usually unstated) notion that an argument must be constructed primarily if not exclusively of words.

Ways of Seeing is an argumentative, polemical book. Its challenge to traditional art history is part of a broader questioning of the relationship between past and present in capitalist society. Berger demonstrates in a variety of ways his thesis that techniques for the reproduction of images in twentieth century capitalist society obscure, often to the point of erasing, any meaningful relationship between what reproduced images depict and their historical and social source. The book’s title is both ironic—ways of seeing are ways of forgetting—and hopeful: There could be alternative ways of seeing, ones which would embed human beings in a living past with viable connections to the present. Ways of Seeing, although primarily critical in its...

(The entire section is 915 words.)


(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

Berger, John. Permanent Red: Essays in Seeing, 1960.

Berger, John. “The Work of Art,” in The Sense of Sight: Writings by John Berger, 1985. Edited by Lloyd Spencer.

Fuller, Peter. Seeing Berger: A Revaluation of “Ways of Seeing,” 1981.

Inglis, Fred. “John Berger: Membership, Mannerism, Exile,” in Radical Earnestness: English Social Theory, 1880-1980, 1982.

Wolff, Janet. “Art as Ideology,” in The Social Production of Art, 1981.