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 focus, was clearly intended by Berger to be a first step toward such an alternative.
The written essays are the first, third, fifth, and seventh in the book. Placed between them are the three pictorial essays. In the first essay, Berger argues that the twentieth century proliferation of reproduced images of all kinds generates what he calls cultural mystification. He argues that the uniqueness of artworks is destroyed when they can be photographically reproduced and that such techniques obscure art’s social and political sources. This in turns cuts people off from their past, making it difficult if not impossible for them to situate themselves in history. Thus, “the entire art of the past has now become a political issue.”
In the third and fifth essays, Berger turns his critical attention to the tradition of oil painting as it developed in European art from the Renaissance until the end of the nineteenth century. He is especially concerned to show that oil painting as an art form peculiarly fitted the needs of an emerging bourgeoisie during these centuries. In the third essay, he focuses on a particular genre within painting, the female nude, and demonstrates the ways in which women are depicted and seen differently from men in Western painting. Women are painted to be seen by a spectator who is assumed to be a man; it is a passive role in comparison to the active one given to the male viewer. The female nude in Western painting...
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is a person depicted naked in order to be seen by someone else. Berger concludes that the tradition of oil painting reduces women to being the passive visual property of men.
Similarly, in the fifth essay Berger argues that oil painting is an art form especially adaptable to a society wholly committed to forms of private property. He focuses on the totality of the oil-painting tradition, not merely on the pictures by acknowledged masters but also on the thousands and thousands of canvases which constitute the corpus of Western oil painting. It is an art form intrinsically bound to private property, not only in terms of what oil paintings depict, and who owns them, but also in the extraordinary capacity of oils to capture the look of things.
In the final essay of the book, Berger turns his attention to advertising and to the ways in which images from the tradition of oil painting are used in the generation of publicity to sell products in capitalist society. Such publicity depends on the visual language of oil painting for much of its repertoire of images, but the viewers of advertising images are now potential spectator-buyers rather than actual spectator-owners of individual paintings. By appropriating images from the tradition of oil painting, Berger suggests, advertising preserves the core values of that tradition but in a moribund form.
Many of the ideas in the last three of the written essays are first broached in the pictorial essays, which are placed second, fourth, and sixth in Ways of Seeing, that is, before their written counterparts. This organization reinforces the book’s opening invocation: “Seeing comes before words.” The book’s experimental character and its concern to involve its readers in the ongoing process of analyzing image production and ways of seeing are captured by its final words: “To be continued by the reader.”
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.