<<< Previous | Main | Tags | Next >>>

Recently read: Ways of Seeing

[Originally published at the now defunct group blog explananda.com]

Posted on January 27, 2009
Tags: book_reviews

John Berger.* Ways of Seeing

This book is based on a BBC television series that originally aired in 1972.** It contains seven essays, three of which are entirely pictorial. The first essay develops a few ideas about the influence of modern mechanical reproduction on visual art - ideas that, we are told (and I had to be told, since I haven’t read him yet), are due to Walter Benjamin. Other essays take up the tradition of nude painting and subject it to feminist criticism; explore the distinctive features of European oil painting; and then compare the tradition of European oil painting with modern advertising.

Berger develops these themes in interesting and provocative ways. Regarding the female nude, Berger stresses the way in which the unnatural poses so often adopted by women in paintings is related to the viewer’s gaze. The female nude twists, often unnaturally, toward the viewers gaze (and often unnaturally away from the gaze of the male subject in the painting, when she has company) in ways that would be entirely unnatural for a male subject. The supine posture of the female nude in the European tradition is not only impossible to find in depictions of men within the same tradition. As Berger points out, it is also absent in non-European traditions of depicting nakedness. All this might be obvious to you, but Berger’s discussion was very helpful at getting me to notice things I tend to miss otherwise.

The same is true of Berger’s discussion of the tradition of oil painting, which I can hardly do justice to here. Berger, developing a basically Marxist insight, is interested in the way that the tradition fits into the interests of successive ruling classes over several hundred years. He thinks that what is really distinctive about oil painting is its ability to depict objects in an exceptionally realistic and lifelike way. He suggests that in oil painting, “a way of seeing the world, which was ultimately determined by new attitudes to property and exchange, found its visual expression in the oil paintings, and could not have found it in any other visual art.” Is this true? I have no idea, but Berger at least discusses obvious counterexamples (some great paintings) and classes of counterexamples (landscape painting, for example).

I think Ways of Seeing is the first book on art that I have ever read. It turns out to have been a great place to start. My first impression of the book, however, wasn’t as favourable as my opinion when I turned the last page. Berger is given to the oracular mode, which is always annoying, but most of all when you’re being told something dubious or false. Here we are, for example, close to the very beginning of the book, and getting ready to think about ways of seeing:
To touch something is to situate oneself in relation to it. (Close your eyes, move round the room and notice how the faculty of touch is like a static, limited form of sight.

The first sentence here is a pretty mundane observation, decked out in pretentious language. The second sentence strikes me as false, silly, or trivial, depending on how exactly we load up the “like” with meaning—and Berger moves on from this point without suggesting how we might do that.

The book might rub other readers the wrong way for being unapologetically indebted to a Marxist perspective in its cultural criticism. (I’ve got no beef with this in particular. Indeed Marx seems a potentially rich source of insight on all sorts of cultural matters.) Here’s a nice example:
Glamour cannot exist without personal social envy being a common and widespread emotion. The industrial society which has moved towards democracy and then stopped half way is the ideal society for generating such an emotion. The pursuit of individual happiness has been acknowledged an individual right. Yet the existing social conditions make the individual feel powerless. He lives in the contradiction between what he is and what he would like to be. Either he then becomes fully conscious of the contradiction and its causes, and so joins the political struggle for a full democracy which entails, amongst other things, the overthrow of capitalism; or else he lives, continually subject to an envy which, compounded with his sense of powerlessness, dissolves into recurrent day-dreams.

I’m not sure whether that’s true, or what ways exactly that it’s true and false, but it’s not the sort of passage you’d expect to run across in a popular and influential book published today—especially the casual reference to the “overthrow of capitalism.”

But wait! Come back! This is really a remarkable book, both stimulating and provocative. Berger had me looking at, and thinking about looking at, visual art in ways that I never had before. This may be partly a reflection of where I’m starting from —with very little natural aptitude in this area or experience appreciating visual art—but I doubt that’s the whole story. So: recommended.

** I haven’t seen it and, sadly, it’s not on Netflix. (As of this writing, the phrase “not on Netflix” has only 1,740 occurrences on Google. “Sadly, it’s not on Netflix” has 5 hits.)


Author: DC
Date: 2009-01-28

Cool. Thanks for that. I think I’m in a roughly similar boat (probably worse) regarding art. The Marxist flavour might draw me towards this book though. (“Come for the Marxism, stay for the art!”)I also am enjoying the book reviews by the way.

“The industrial society which has moved towards democracy and then stopped half way…” Nicely put.

Author: Chris
Date: 2009-01-28

Huh. I was just wincing a moment ago as I thought about this post. It would be nice if I could succeed in accurately conveying the actual arguments in whatever book I’m writing about, but I had an especially difficult time with this one. Oh well.

Author: Nancy Vang
Date: 2009-02-17

I’m currently reading this book for my english class and I just wanted to say that you can watch the full episodes of Ways of Seeing on youtube!!

Author: Chris
Date: 2009-02-17

Wow! Thanks for letting me know.

Author: Chris
Date: 2009-02-17

You know, it figures. That should have been the first thing I checked.