WAYS OF SEEING – JOHN BERGER

As John Berger’s book ‘Ways of Seeing’ was the first title on the “Essential Reading” list for my course I decided to read this first.  Another reason for deciding to read it now was that I have been struggling with an appreciation of much contemporary photography for a while and I hoped that learning new ways of seeing would open ‘doors of perception’ and give me some insight into how to read and appreciate these styles of work.  Sadly, I was disappointed.

One principal reason for my disappointment is that the book was written in 1972 and therefore before photographic art had taken the directions that I have difficulty with.  It was also before digital photography and the smart phone, with all the implications and changes that these innovations have introduced, were twinkles in the developmental course of photography’s eye.   The book is therefore rather dated and does little to shed light on how to read contemporary photography in the 21st Century.  Another source of disappointment was that, whereas the text made much of the power of colour in art and the influence that colour has on the viewer of works of art, and large numbers of images are included in the book presumably to convey meaning and clarity to points in the text, all the images are in monochrome and are of very poor quality of reproduction.  

On the positive side, unlike many writers of photography books, Berger’s writing is for the most part accessible and comprehensible, and whereas the quality of the images scattered liberally throughout the text are of poor quality, they do much to illustrate and exemplify the observations and arguments that Berger is making.  However, my overall response to these observations and arguments can be deduced from my annotations in the margins of the text.  Where I consider a section of text to be of great interest and relevance and something I want to return to I mark the section with two vertical lines, where it is of some interest I mark with one vertical line, where the meaning is unclear or appears to be a non-sequitur or contradictory I mark with a question mark, and where I cannot agree with the statement I mark with an exclamation mark.  In my copy of Berger’s book the  question marks and exclamation marks greatly outnumber the double and single vertical lines.  

The main thrusts of Berger’s thesis appear to be that : –

  1. the ability to mass produce reproductions of art works through photography has devalued the originals which have acquired some sort of ‘bogus religiosity’ based not on what they depict but on their market value. 
  2. the basis on which art works (principally oil paintings) have been commissioned over the last 400 years and the subjects and treatment of those subjects in the art works has been influenced almost entirely by the psychological needs of the owner of the art work and the culture and attitudes of the time rather than by the artist and that this can be verified by an informed contemplation of the art work.
  3. the depiction of the human form, particularly the naked female body, can either be a portrayal of nakedness (where the subject is being themselves without disguise) or of nudity (where the purpose of the portrayal is to be seen by others and objectified) and, in European art, the passive way in which this portrayal is presented reflects the subject’s submission to the owner / spectator and the owner’s taste and authority in ‘owning’ the subject as well as the painting.
  4. the art experts who bring commentary and criticism to bear on works of art are misguided or erroneous in their views because they fail to look beyond the immediate and obvious in the art work,  or, if they do, they fail to see it in the way that Berger does.  In his book, Berger publicly criticises several respected experts for not holding the views that he does.
  5. images used in contemporary publicity and advertising campaigns draw heavily on conventions and actual images from art practices and works of the past and their use is important to give weight, substance and authority to the messages conveyed in the publicity.
  6. the educated study of art, both paintings and photographs, from the perspectives of the culture, mores, religion, gender bias, politics and tastes (to name but a few) that were current at the time will enable a viewer to obtain a more enlightened and valuable experience of the art work in question and to engage with it in a more emotional way than a cursory viewing will provide. 

This brief synopsis misses a great deal of detail and peripheral discussion, but time constraints do not allow me to explore all the themes and avenues in any depth.  It is at any rate not my purpose to set out a detailed critique of the book but to encapsulate what I learnt from it.  The simple answer to this is that, whereas I found many areas of interest even if I did not always agree with the stated views or opinions, I did not learn a great deal.    This was because the major ideas that Berger was proposing were not new to me, and seemed to be stating the obvious.  

It seems to me that it is obvious that historically most art was commissioned (an artist has to have an income like most people) and that the commissioner would have a major say on, if not total control over, the subject and format of the painting that he was paying for and was going to display.  It was a product of a capitalist and male dominated culture and the finished work would need to reflect the standing, taste, possessions, values,  achievements, desires, purposes, etc. of the owner.  If it did not do so then it would have to be either re-worked or discarded.  It is, therefore, second nature to me to reflect on the deeper issues within a work of art and to attempt to put it in context and I did not need Berger to state that.  In more recent times when capitalism has moved on to a different state of short termism and commissions by private individuals are far less frequent, the purchase of art is more about investment concentrating on who painted it and what its current and projected market value is, rather than its content or visual appeal.  Under these circumstances, I generally struggle with the ‘heart and head felt’ appreciation of modern art works no matter how much I try to look beyond the immediate image and find different ‘ways of seeing’.  Unfortunately, Berger was of no help to me in this endeavour. 

Similarly, it is very obvious to anyone with even a passing interest in art that the use of historic art images and references is a mainstay of the advertising industry.  It is likely that when the book was first published, and when the television series on which it was based was first broadcast, much of the information and many of the views and ideas set out were not widely known amongst the non-expert public.  Indeed, Berger makes it clear throughout the book that the general public (or the masses as he refers to them!) has little knowledge of and interest in art. He rightly acknowledges that the (then) recent introduction of mass produced colour photographic images of paintings has given the general public much greater access to and awareness of the field of painting over the years.  

However, he, wrongly in my opinion, suggests that this immersion in art images has gone largely unrecognised by the public and that it has devalued the standing of the original art in their minds.  In my view, the development of the colour reproduction of art and its dissemination through increasingly accessible and attractive means with the advent of the digital image, DVDs, television and the internet has given the ordinary member of the public (as opposed to the academic or the expert) unprecedented awareness of art over the ages and a greater appreciation of it.  Berger, cynically in my view, suggests that the only reason that the general public attaches any interest or weight to a painting is because of its authority of age and more particularly because of its high market value and that this is what influences them when they gaze upon the work.  He cites Leonardo da Vinci’s Virgin and Child as being an example.  He seems to deny the possibility that the viewer can experience any emotional power and connection with the image through its subject and the way that it has been portrayed by the artist or by the awe that they might feel in the skill and perception of the artist.  I believe that this is both untrue and unfair.

In brief, what I will take away from this book that is relevant to my journey in photography is the reminder that all art, photographic or otherwise, is a product of its time and needs to be viewed in this light as much as in the light of any other consideration, be it aesthetic, philosophical, emotional or whatever.  When looking at art that I find ‘difficult’, I need to look beyond the obvious 2 dimensional image and attempt to understand and empathise with the motive and meaning of its creation and of its place in the current and the historical story of artistic development.

REFERENCE

Ways of Seeing   John Berger   Penguin Classics   ISBN  978-0-141-03579-6

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