ON JOHN BERGER'S WAYS OF SEEING

Notes on a lecture given to University of South Australia students 10/05/2000

© Donald Richardson 2000



Ways of seeing
is a small book (Penguin, 1972) of a 1972 BBC blockbuster TV series. It was a follow up to and, in part, a reaction to Kenneth Clark's earlier, pioneering Civilisation series of 1969.

The book is poorly illustrated, but the TV series is lavish and very 'visual'.
Berger's thesis is an early example of post-modern (sic) criticism - i.e., he 'deconstructs' naive assumptions about visual communications (photography, advertising etc), but it is marred by many unsupported assertions and personal, emotive, psychological 'arguments'. This, however, allows us to analyze the thesis critically (our opinion is no less valid than Berger's: he has - and had, in 1972 - no great claim to authority on the matter).
The script of the series was written quite quickly, and actually with little revision, Berger has admitted, and screened late at night in the UK because the BBC was not sure how it would be received or who would be its audience. Few realized in 1972 where advertising was going (we know now!)
(read quote from Good Weekend).
Berger's thesis actually makes only four simple points, which he makes by visual means rather than words, but he overstates them seriously (the analogy with advertising itself is striking!). Many of them are things we are all aware of now (or at least we should be! However, it may be that they are so omnipresent now that we do not notice.).
Like Walter Benjamin's 1936 essay, The Work of Art in an Age of Mechanical Reproduction - on which it is based - it is an over-enthusiastic marxist reaction to 'admass' culture. In the 1970s, intellectuals were just beginning to make a serious study of advertising, entertainment and mass culture (what has now become 'cultural studies').
The history of popular visual culture began with the invention of photography in 1839. Photography was the ultimate derivation from the detached, proto-scientific attitude of the painters of the Italian Renaissance - Masaccio, Leonardo da Vinci et al - which analyzed vision and representation through the 'laws' of perspective (see Leon Baptista Alberti's treatise on painting, Della Pittura (1436)).
(Cf paintings of the Middle Ages, which were symbolic rather than realistic.)

The camera is a machine which makes it possible for everyone - not only artists - to record and represent what they see. (Of course, since the 19th century art has had other aims than representing reality visually, although this still persists.)
The nude Berger devotes a good deal of space to the discussion of the nude. To understand Berger's discussion, we need to realize that pictures of naked people (not only attractive women) - nudes (pronounced 'nyood', not 'nood') - are a form of art (see Kenneth Clark's The Nude (1955)). Other forms of art (painting only) are landscape, history painting (narrative pictures of historical events or bible stories), portraiture, abstract and still-life. Whereas some nudes in art are intended to titillate, most are not. For example, Michelangelo's slave sculptures and David are visual metaphors for human struggle, dignity and virtue.
The nude is not pornography (which represents usually partially covered - not naked - bodies, and only for titillation).
From about the 14th century, Italian Renaissance painters were imbued with humanism - the ancient Greek philosophy which asserts the inherent worth of humans (a reaction to the mediaeval belief in exclusively spiritual values). This was passed down to them (after having been out of fashion throughout the middle ages) via Roman sculpture, much of which was nude - or partly so. (Much of the Roman sculpture that has come down to us is copies of Greek originals.)
Berger's four points
1.
(Chapter 1) Photography has changed the way we look at the world - and at art (NB - a world without photography is unknown to people born since the First World War, so it is difficult for us to assess the validity of this statement). This thesis Berger derives from Benjamin (who was of the age-group that witnessed the change).
[This seems somewhat over-stated, however. (See Fuller, p.7).]
2. (Chapter 3) The nude in art is a woman (a commodity) available to a male owner.
[Actually, this is only rarely true (see Michelangelo's slaves).]
3. (Chapter 5) The possession of a painting of something is akin to possessing that thing. The period 1500-1900 was the era of capitalism. Oil paintings serve the need of capitalists to have valuable possessions and - thus - to celebrate their wealth. Only oil paintings can have material value (watercolours can have spiritual value - e.g., William Blake).
History painting reinforces noble values (and so do 'low-life' genre paintings - presumably by implication). 'Not so much an open window [a phrase used commonly to describe Renaissance paintings, especially landscape views from an interior] as an open safe' (p.109)
[This is specious non-argument. It ignores sculpture, for example, and other items of demonstrable capitalist wealth - e.g., stamps, antiques, land. It is true that history paintings portrayed the conservative values of the establishment (see David's Oath of the Horatii), but they were also those of the church, royalty and the nobility as well as capitalists.]
4. (Chapter 7) Publicity (advertising) photographs are an extension of history painting, except that they aim to stimulate purchasing.
[This point relies on the former, i.e., that possessing a painting of a thing is akin to possessing the thing itself, and is far from established. It is true that photography in advertising (and, more recently, on TV) aims to stimulate an impulse to purchase the things illustrated but it is a leap of logic to try to connect this with history painting.]


Follows more detailed analysis, chapter by chapter.


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