About Looking – John Berger (1980)

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About looking is more a collection of reflections on individual artists and works than it is an overall statement on art as found in Ways of Seeing.

Berger here writes short essays on a multitude of artists often focussed around a singular piece of work which he selects as a defining moment in their careers, not necessarily their magnum opus but often his preferred piece from the way it highlights certain aspects or changes whiten their body of work.

Whilst in his other writing Berger has criticised the mystification of art appreciation through the academic tendency to focus on an artist curriculum vitae he does lean into that tendency here. However the overall approach is one of personal contemplation of each artist, often relating his reading of works to his own experiences and therefore explaining his conclusions about the works in a way that makes the subject matter more relatable.

My only real criticism is that for this book to have any real significance on ones thinking an intimate knowledge of the artists and works discussed seems to be essential. Several of the chapters are on subjects I have a passing familiarity with and they were the most engaging and enlightening but almost half the book I only knew artists by name or not at all. This isn’t a negative towards Berger and his points only that going into the book I was unaware of this need and I would recommend that it was used as more of a study guide than essential reading.

I do feel that it has been helpful read as even though I lack the familiarity with the specific artists I do have an understanding of the periods, genres and styles discussed and his points have given me an alternative take on those approaches. I also feel that having an insight into his thoughts on these works has also encouraged me to seek them out myself and spend that extra time discovering them, admittedly I would previously only appreciated the aesthetics and not necessarily the context of their creation.

One question that does arise is the question of Berger earlier deconstruction of academic criticism. Coming from Ways of Seeing I felt Berger was supporting a progressive and timely discover of meaning within images separate from the standards of academia and art appreciation but in About Looking he always shows how those tools can be used to develop a narrative albeit with an eye on the interpretation of those contexts as well.

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