Sunday, May 7, 2017

Books I'm Reading: John Berger's Ways of Seeing

Writer, artist, critic John Berger died in January this year. I had been only dimly aware of him. His death was much in the news, however, and given the attention it received, I thought I ought to educate myself a little by reading the book he is perhaps best known for—Ways of Seeing (Viking, 1973, although I read the 1977 Pelican paperback edition), apparently a companion book to a BBC series about art and imagery Berger hosted in the early seventies in Britain. The book was created in collaboration with Sven Blomberg, Chris Fox, Michael Dibb, and Richard Hollis, although Berger is the author given on the cover.

The text is divided into seven independent essays, three of which are image essays (without words). In a note to the reader, the five authors say the image essays are meant to raise as many questions as they answer. The authors say their aim mainly is to "start a process of questioning."

The first essay considers how knowledge affects seeing. The second, an image essay, looks at how images of women nearly always objectify—at how women in imagery (both artistic and commercial) are usually acted upon rather than actors. The third essay uses words to articulate these ideas about images of women. The fourth essay is another image essay that includes many images of women as objects but also of material abundance—images of possession. The following essay articulates in words what appears to have been intended by the preceding image essay—to suggest that the subject of art, particularly European oil painting tradition, has been closely linked with status as conveyed by pictured ownership. The sixth essay, is another image essay. Most of the images in it are of people, or pets and livestock. The questions it intends to pose are less clear to me here than elsewhere, but again, the pictures seem to suggest we should ask ourselves how imagery reflects sexual power politics and class structure. The final essay focuses on modern advertising imagery, suggesting that the uses of imagery in the European oil painting tradition have not been so different from the uses of imagery in advertising—although the authors see a shift: whereas painting has been about conveying the possession of wealth and status, modern advertising is more about suggesting to potential consumers a lack of possession while offering a way to do something about that lack.

The book is now almost 45 years old. Views change in that amount of time. A lot of what Berger writes seems self-evident now, but I imagine the book was somewhat controversial when new because it so strongly emphasizes the role of capital and sexism in the way we create and consume images. Ways of Seeing therefore seemed mostly of historical interest. The text notes in passing that landscape painting is perhaps the least susceptible genre of painting to the offered class and sex-based interpretations, and the book fails to mention abstract art at all. It's hard to imagine how abstract art could be construed as class-conscious or sexist, but, by omission of the subject, the book does raise related questions. Berger is said to have been strongly influenced by Walter Benjamin's The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, a text I should get around to reading.  

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