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Visible worlds: Ways of Seeing at 50

John Berger's Ways of Seeing started life as a BBC series in 1972. It continues to challenge the way we look at art and the world around us

John Berger in ‘Ways of Seeing’
John Berger in ‘Ways of Seeing’

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For a text so suspicious of tradition, Ways Of Seeing has long been canon itself. Given the ubiquity and influence of the book, it’s curious to think that there must still be a few people today who remember experiencing it as a bolt from the blue. Picture someone, somewhere in England, switching channels on 8 January 1972. By chance, they land on the image of a man with shaggy hair in a gallery, his back to the camera, cutting out a portion of Botticelli’s Venus And Mars with a pocket knife. “This is the first of four programmes in which I want to question some of the assumptions usually made about European paintings…” he says. “Tonight, it isn’t so much the paintings themselves I want to consider, but the way we now see them…”

Ways Of Seeing was originally a four-part series on the BBC, hosted by British art critic, theorist and novelist John Berger and directed by Michael Dibb. It was adapted that same year as a pictorial book that became—and still remains —standard reading for students of the arts. Few watch the series first—or at all. Yet it offers things that the book cannot, most of all Berger himself, passionate and weirdly sexy with his open-collar shirt, his expansive gestures and his glares at the camera (David Thomson, a film critic always alert to sexual charge, described him as “a spellbinder on the screen, with a slight lisp that could seem like whispered intimacy”).

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In the first episode, Berger explains how photography fundamentally changed how we see art. The European tradition of painting used the convention of perspective, focused on the eye of a sole beholder. “Perspective makes the eye the centre of the visible world,” he says. “But the human eye can only be in one place at a time. It takes its visible world with it as it walks.” With the invention of the camera, paintings could be reproduced, could travel. Works of art—or sections of these works, like the Venus that Berger cut out of the Botticelli—now found their original meanings altered by what was around them (like a magazine spread) or what they are seen in relation to (someone switching channels). Having taken a knife to tradition at the start, Berger closes by quoting a stuffy academic book on Dutch painter Frans Hals, saying flatly, “This is mystification,” and inviting a group of children to interpret the paintings instead.

The second episode is the best-known portion of the series/book. It yielded the one bit of writing by Berger that lay readers, not just art students, are familiar with: “Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at.” We encounter the line at the beginning of the episode, where it’s preceded by “Men dream of women. Women dream of themselves being dreamt of”, a less electrifying line, excised in the print edition. “How she appears to others, and particularly how she appears to men, is of crucial importance, for it is normally thought of as the success of her life,” he says. In the book, he adds: “The ‘ideal’ spectator is always assumed to be male and the image of the woman is designed to flatter him.” Three years before film scholar Laura Mulvey coined the phrase “male gaze” in the context of cinema, Berger was arguing something similar in art.

Ways Of Seeing has a modesty about its own aims and a desire to push the viewer into engagement. “I hope you will consider what I arrange, but be sceptical of it,” Berger says at the end of the first episode. And he ends the last with: “What I’ve shown and said…must be judged against your own experience.” This refusal to present the show’s theories as gospel is an unusually democratic gesture by a critic. You can see the same openness in the second episode, when, after discussing the male surveyor and the female surveyed, Berger brings in a group of women to talk about the same ideas. He cedes the stage to them for half of the programme’s running time—a necessary passing of the mic.

In the third and fourth episodes, Berger argues that oil paintings (and the wealth, land and objects depicted therein) reflect the status of those who commission them, and that modern publicity and advertising have replaced the oil painting. “Publicity and oil painting…share many of the same ideals, all of them related to the principle that you are what you have,” he says. He overlays vapid, glossy magazine advertisements with choral music—thus testing our alertness to something he warns of in the first episode: the ability of music to transform the meaning of images. At one point, taking off from a juxtaposition of a magazine story about Bangladesh and a luxury ad next to it, he speaks with feeling about the plight of refugees. Berger’s sympathy for the working class, the refugee and the grass-roots rebel has marked all his writing; he donated half his winnings from his 1972 Booker Prize to the Black Panthers movement in England, to call attention to the Booker McConnell company’s association with West Indies plantations and slavery. 

“Those who write about art, or teach about it, often raise art above life, turning it into a kind of religion,” we are warned. Throughout Ways Of Seeing, and in his other work, Berger always gives the impression of trying to get through to the reader, even when the ideas he’s putting forth are complex. It’s the reason why I, even with a layman’s knowledge of art, find his writing so revelatory, why his sentences often seem like the best possible statement of that particular idea. The print adaptation of Ways Of Seeing is more staccato than his normal style, which is hardly surprising given that it’s an expanded TV script. It’s still the ideal introduction to Berger: visually alive, stimulating even at a remove of half a century. But watch the series first, and imagine how exciting it would have seemed in 1972.

Watch ‘Ways of Seeing’ on Internet Archive or on YouTube. You can read the book here

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