Discussing “Ways of Seeing”

To discuss John Berger’s Ways of Seeing, the 1972 book adaptation of a four-part BBC series, it may be best to look at his essays, grouped in correspondence with the television episodes, somewhat separately.  Although the book certainly builds up to the final segment on advertising, there are sufficient points of emphasis and distinct thought in each part to provide room for a dialogue between Berger, the history of theory and the place of his ideas in today’s academic society. To close, however, undoubtedly there will need to be some consideration of the text as a whole; if for nothing else than to attempt to understand why Berger’s words are still taught in art, history, criticism and visual studies courses around the world.

The opening essay of the text addresses, the delectably phrased, ‘bogus religiosity’ of art in modern society. Through issues of academia, photographic reproduction and monetary value, Berger proposes that the true meaning of images has been distorted: obscured, if you will. In arguments that closely relate to the structuralist theories of Ferdinand de Saussure (most significantly his work, A Course in General Linguistics 1906-1911) the whole culture of art is opened and analysed. There are ‘learnt assumptions’ about an artwork as ‘the way we see things is affected by what we know or what we believe’. Conceiving an artwork as something intrinsically similar to Saussure’s linguistic ‘Sign’, it is both the ‘significant’ (the image itself) and the ‘signified’ (the culturally prescribed meaning) – becoming far more than an art object but a representation of money and a hierarchical indicator of cultural education. This is then complicated as works are reproduced and thus, arguably, some of the “value” of the original is destroyed, most notably its uniqueness, meanwhile conversely some “value” is gained, its price. This, somewhat confusing point, is stressed by Berger as a way of suggesting art within our society is about far more than image and representation; whilst also, in many ways, he is attempting to debunk the mythical “cult of the art and the artist”.

A cult which is extremely topical today as Damien Hirst’s huge 2012 exhibition (part of London cultural event scheme to correspond with the Olympics) is receiving much critical attention. Articles surrounding this event of a show are, as one would expect, varied but importantly most of the pages written surround the issue of money value versus originality and, high concept “artistic value” within Hirst’s works.  The poster-boy for the modern day iconic art, Hirst is both instantly recognisable and hugely collectable and thus can be used as perfect modern day examples of Berger’s discussion. The Tate Modern sells thousands of postcards depicting Hirst’s dot works and Away from the Flock, 1994, every year – reproductions that adorn many a London art student’s wall, each reproduction adding to the cultural and thus monetary value of the original. His pieces are art works that appear in galleries around the world, but have multiple cultural meanings: they on a base level are a universal sign representation of the ‘Young British Artist’ (appearing on several popular reference art book covers of this title); for some they represent contemporary art and conceptual expression; and for many it would appear they express nothing more than excessive monetary value[1]. Indeed the only thing that appears to unify articles on the subject of Hirst are the critics cultural backgrounds – if nothing else his works can be seen as representative of Berger’s point that ‘every image embodies a way of seeing, our perception or appreciation of an image depends also upon our own way of seeing’.

Again in terms reminiscent to other major critical works, Berger next reveals to the reader how the nude in western art has systematically objectified women, and the continuation of this tradition through photography. Berger explores a woman firstly as a cultural construct: ‘her presence is manifest in her gestures, voice, opinions, expressions, clothes…’ something that Judith Butler (whose theories and academic essays have been popular from the 1960’s) would later call ‘performative gender’ (Performative Acts and Gender Constitution, 1988). For Berger, woman ‘turns herself into an object – and most importantly an object of vision: a sight’ in art. This is a highly important contextual point of discussion as this ‘to-be-looked-at-ness’ (Laura Mulvey, Visual Pleasure in Narrative Cinema, 1975) was being identified in academic looks at multiple contemporary art forms – from music to cinema. The ‘Spectator-owner’ looking at the picture becomes comparable with the ‘gaze’ (Mulvey, 1975) identified by many feminist writers of the day – Simone de Beauvoir writing many articles on the subject throughout the 1960s and 1970s.

Contextually this article is also important as it underlines many of social issues of the early 1970s England. In 1972, the same year of the release of Ways of Seeing, The Longford Report was published. The end product of a long parliamentary committee into what constitutes pornography it attempted to understand the issues of ‘sexual provocation’ that Berger here looks at in terms of the female nude. He aligns many of the great European nude paintings with notions of voyeuristic wanting and sexual enjoyment – something that The Longford Report was condemning in contemporary society. Berger magnificently takes the highly prized artworks from England’s galleries and tars them with the same brush as Longford’s popular culture complaints. This article, one of the more readable and arguably most culturally valuable today unites an issue that is still on many critic’s tongues, that of, female subjugation and the commodity of the female flesh and sexuality.

Essays 4 and 5 aim to show that oil painting’s realism make it a powerful representation of ownership and the buying power of money. Through a historically based argument Berger implies the rise in oil paint coincides with the hay-day of the English upper-classes in which ‘everything became exchangeable because everything became a commodity’. Still life painting, portraiture and landscapes all come under the microscope as art transcended its purpose as object to something that signified the ‘Spectator-owner’ and his economic worth. No longer looking at what the artworks themselves depict (the ‘significant’ if we again look to the relationship to Saussure) he makes the viewer look at the ‘signified’, the owner. This is probably Berger’s most historical piece in the complete book; it is grounded in historical context over modern society. This is not to say the text is un-compelling – the argument is strong and illuminates many issues surrounding “objects d’art” but it can appear the most dry to read. Perhaps issues that are hinted at but under-expressed, such as colonialism and its place in this specific owner-orientated art history, would add a more engaging look, something on a more similar tone to his previous feminist readings.

In the final two essays Berger most Marxist tone develops (something that underlines the majority of the book’s essays) and it becomes his clearest look on the contemporary world: linking ownership and art by critically looking at modern consumerist society as represented by advertising. Making the ‘Spectator-owner’ now the ‘Spectator-buyer’ he marks a shift in the purpose of representation. Berger’s pieces act as a culmination of what has gone before them – suggesting notions of ownership and envy that have permeated artwork through the ages have now been turned in on the self: ‘the image then makes himself envious of himself as he might be’. Taking a critical stance on consumerism there is a tone of derision for the ‘The Free World’ masquerade of capitalism’s imagery. He asks the reader to consider how women selling objects through their sexualisation can be seen alongside their objectification as the nude in renaissance art – Berger wants us to understand that in an aim to sell advertising and imagery is still using the basics learnt from art history. Ultimately the whole text leads to its close – the image of ‘imposing a false standard of what is and what is not desirable’. This is a nod back to the images of art as money from his first essay and the depiction of women explored in essays 2 and 3 where ‘those who are not judged beautiful are not beautiful’. Marketing, for Berger, celebrates the power of money, something that his whole work has gone to great lengths to prove.

However for its many strengths, one can’t help but feel that Berger’s work is dating. The key textual quote, ‘what matters now is who uses that language and for what purpose’ is a point that is hugely stressed and largely understood in academia today. The idea that ‘in the end, the art of the past is being mystified because a privileged minority is striving to invent a history which can retrospectively justify the role of the ruling classes’  is openly discussed in many works and Berger has been up-streamed by an avalanche of texts on feminist theory, minority studies, colonialist and post-colonialist studies and his beloved Marxism. In a very similar vein, the tone of text comes across as a base “how to do advertising”, a genre which has filtered into public consciousness almost completely: for example, the Christmas 2011 book listings in major British papers almost universally included Brutal Simplicity of Thought, a reproduction of the Saatchi and Saatchi training guide for its employees. Berger’s text is unquestionably seminal in its field but it is also basic and no longer shocking – its issues important but more thoroughly discussed and competently expanded in the many works that followed it.

Another issue that hinders readers is, sadly, that of the image essays which leave a little to be desired. When read alongside the television series they make perfect sense, visual reminders of the programing and its themes, contrasts that flow and explain themselves, however this programme is rather hard to come across (the BBC showing re-runs in 2008 do nothing for the audience today). In the book it feels as though in an attempt to follow through on the note that ‘the words have changed the image… the image now illustrates the sentence’ all verbal communication has been removed, but this leaves a void. Whilst essay 2 for example (on women) has an obvious point for the others the reader must look to the following essay for clarification, somewhat undermining the point altogether.

This is to be picky however as, to put it simply, Berger deals with the enormous impact of publicity, image saturation, television, reproduction, the illusion of free choice, principles of capitalism, and a discussion of gender and ethnicity: what in this list is can be said to no longer be relevant to us today?


[1] For an explicit representation of this see: http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/2011/nov/21/damien-hirst-tate-modern – in which the jewelled For the Love of God is first named then given a selling price £50 million.

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One comment

  1. Pingback: Speaking Of Art – September 2013 » THE PAINTER'S TONGUE

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