Ways of Seeing – John Berger (1972)

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Ways of Seeing is a collection of short essays on the reading of images. A surprisingly short but dense read which looks to bring a sense of clarity to the understanding of art criticism. Asboth a guide for understanding the criticism and reading of images as well as a middle finger to the established conventions of art appreciation Ways of Seeing carries a theme of de-mystification.

Berger has collected seven essays, three entirely visual and four written. The visual essays are unfortunately harder to find useful in the small black and white reproductions of my modern Penguin paper back copy of the book but the written essays are useful in their directness.

Berger begins with a short analysis of what it means to see an image, what the purpose of earlier images was and the questions of the image as original and reproduction. These topics are only briefly covered and are open to much wider direction but Berger isn’t looking to provide, at least in this work, a comprehensive and definitive explanation of the concepts more to highlight what he considered the key points of each.

In the 3rd essay Berger writes of the genderisation of the oil paintings of the 1500-1900’s. By this I mean the objectification of the female form to satisfy the male dominated art collectors world. He points out how the conceptual and compositional aspects of images presented the nude as a seductive and submissive figure who posed for, or focussed their attention on, the ‘male’ spectator. He also speaks of how the subject matter of these images, typically mythical, where designed to reflect the spectators interest in history, the bible and literature but in effect where actually bought as self validating artefacts, the proof of the owners prowess.

This is furthered in the 5th essay where the ideas setup in the previous sections are extended to the ownership, validation and proof of the spectators experiences and belongings. Images of library shells of prestigious books in a personal library, portraits under a tree overlooking vast swathes of landings and paintings of the art collections housed in the grand homes all memorials to pass down the generations as proof of the economic and educated supremacy of the family lineage. Berger adds to this the genre images of the poor and working classes. These images proving that the gentry through hardworking and honesty will succeed whilst the lower classes are lacking the civility to progress, even highlighting their cooperative nature in this setup often showing the poor with smiling happy ingratiating smiles whilst themselves are pictured with dour disapproving looks.

The final essay is on the development of the marketing and advertising image. Berger ties in the aspirations of the gentry, seeking record of their accomplishments as self validation, to that of the goal of the marketeer to use the same style of imagery but this time to inspire a sense of desire and envy within the target audience. Whereas the gentry paid to record their achievements the capitalist corporation pays to show their products in much the same way, often taking cues from the oil paintings, but this time instead of a record of what has been achieved, as a prophecy of what you could achieve with this product.

Essentially what Berger is telling us is that the vast amount of historic painting was done on commission of the ruling classes to create artworks which they could flash around to their peers and pass on to their family proving their self-worth and achievements. These commissioners where, as expected for the time, typically male and looking to assert their dominance, power and sexuality in these images, at least that is what sold best. This resulted in a plethora of seemingly empty images lacking soul and meaning, Berger highlights this as purposeful and useful for the trade. These images have been adopted en masse into museums and galleries worldwide purely for the fact they survived for so long and not for their artistic or conceptual merit resulting in an art appreciation based in the same principles that the commissioners followed when originally purchasing the paintings. This has resulted in an environment of deification of those principles and need to justify the preservation of vapid and commercial examples of the period. Where we might expect emotional connection, critique of the period or enlightenment of the artist we see the financial achievements of the subjects and the success of the artist brought as the measure of the value of the artwork.

Berger highlights the beginnings of the traditions of the oil painting as the beginnings of the incomplete democracy and capitalistic structure which we experience today. Were we now see the immortalisation of the founders and CEO’s of large corporations as genius and exemplar, it is a reflection of the landed gentry of the past where the image, be it oil portrait or instagram account, is used to highlight the importance and success of the figure over the masses.

I can see how Berger is considered controversial, he in essence dismisses the art world as self-satisfying and vapid. That their insular complex and exuberant dissection of works aims to create a sense of mysticism around artwork and Berger aims to cut right through that to cull the commercial from the conceptual. I appreciate the forwardness and can understand the frustration at misplaced reverence. I would rather appreciate an artwork for what I can see and feel about what I can see rather than marvel over the curriculum vitae of the artist. His points are strong regarding the value of art being determined by the elite few who can afford to own or commission it. This power is part of the structural problems with capitalism.

But, I do also feel that to separate one from the other would result in a lesser field. Without the commissions very few would make a living to be able to work on the more challenging and complex masterpieces. Without the knowledge of the lineage of works and the artists one may miss the finer details of the works and without the drive to commodify and monetise art we wouldn’t have access to it now as non-elites. I feel we are at a junction where the balance of ethics is going to stay for a long time. Without the need to show off wealth we wouldn’t ave the museums and galleries we have now. Most if not all art would be categorised and archived for increases in value. But we also have access to almost the entirety of reproductions through the internet and other mediums.

I do however feel that the access to being part of the creative field of art is becoming more and more limited to those of wealth means. As more and more working and middle class people become dependant on the day to day struggle fewer will have the financial stability to solely concentrate on breaking into the more formal art world.

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