John Berger, Ways of Seeing

Few books have a title that describes their content so well as John Berger’s book, Ways of Seeing, which is about… hmm… ways of seeing things around us. The emphasis is on the plural, as Berger suggests that our ways of perception are less spontaneous than generally assumed, manipulated by numerous external factors and dependent on cultural conventions. Berger questions assumptions about the traditions of European art history, and the book is not about the specific paintings that are presented in the book, but rather about the ways that we understand them now.

Berger builds some of his arguments on Walter Benjamin’s seminal book The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. Like Benjamin, Berger raises questions about hidden ideologies in visual images and explores the idea of art as commodity. He diverges from Benjamin significantly, however, in that while Work of Art is written in a style which at times is rather convoluted and inaccessible for those not initiated into the mysteries of art criticism and philosophy, the language of Ways of Seeing is conversational and easy to read.

Ways of Seeing was first broadcast by BBC in 1972, as a four-part TV series. In the series, Berger, long-haired, his shirt open at the neck, set against a blue background void of books and other symbols of knowledge, acts as the author, presenter and iconoclast. He is a charismatic speaker who talks directly to his audience, patiently explaining his ideas, mercilessly demolishing the bourgeois idea of art. The first part of the series starts with Berger cutting up Botticelli’s painting Venus and Mars, and ends with Berger speaking straight into the camera, warning: ‘But remember that I am controlling and using for my own purposes the means of reproductions needed for these programmes. The images may be like words, but there is no dialogue yet. You [pointing at the viewer] cannot reply to me. For that to become possible in the modern media of communication, access to television must be extended beyond these present narrow limits. Meanwhile, with this programme, as with all programmes. you receive images and meanings which are arranged. I hope you will consider what I arranged, but be sceptical of it.’

It has already been frequently noted that the process of adapting a work to a different medium doesn’t often succeed in taking the parameters of the new medium fully into account, flattening the carefully composed points into a mere ‘story’ deprived of the subtle context that originally surrounded them. The adaptation of WoS from TV to a book format is unusual in that it maintains the extraordinary clarity of his points even ‘in translation’.

In expanding WoS and elaborating it to fit a book format, Berger’s team successfully makes use of the limitations and conventions of print publishing. On the TV screen, Berger uses silence as an active agent of change in how we see things. In the book, the simple act of turning a page serves much the same purpose in comparing two views of a Van Gogh painting with different annotations. The authors place an uncredited black-and-white reproduction of a recognisable Van Gogh at the bottom of one page. The text above confirms our assumption that it is ‘a landscape of a cornfield with birds flying out of it’. Subsequent text tells us to ‘Look at it for a moment. Then turn the page’. When the reader does so, he finds the same picture at the top of next page, accompanied by a handwritten note that reads: ‘This is the last picture that Van Gogh painted before he killed himself’. This simple but powerful exercise illustrates Berger’s point of the impact words can have on an image.

Berger teamed up with four other partners, Sven Bloomberg (collage artist), Michael Dibb (BBC producer), Richard Hollis (graphic designer) and Chris Fox (‘critical’ friend), who are given equal credit in the book. According to Hollis, their roles were vaguely defined and left plenty of room to manoeuvre. To emphasise the notion of close collaboration, Berger insisted that royalties of the first printing be split equally five ways.

The book version, published also in 1972, extends the four-part TV series into seven numbered essays, three of which use only images. Graphic designer Hollis set the entire book in very heavy Univers 65, apparently to give the text the same ‘colour’ as the images have. The images are inserted into the running text, precisely in the positions where the images become self-explanatory, so they become part of the story, and do not break the flow of reading. There are no captions or credits accompanying the images (putting the detailed pictorial credits at the end of the book involved a battle with the copyright holders), so there is no way to speed-read the book. The only way to approach it is to read the essays (in any order) and consider the images.

Berger is known to be symphathetic to the ideas of Socialist humanism, and WoS is sometimes seen as an example of Marxist ideology. Indeed, there are numerous implicit statements that are compatible with leftist thoughts. Berger is perhaps most explicit at the end of the seventh essay: ‘Capitalism survives by forcing the majority, whom it exploits, to define their own interest as narrowly as possible. This was once achieved by extensive deprivation. Today in the developed countries it is being achieved by imposing a false standard of what is and what is not desirable. [...] Publicity is the process of manufacturing glamour.’ For multi-talented Berger, this social history and critique of western-style capitalism forms a position from which he operates. He gives examples of starkly contrasting images published in magazines, advertising for beauty products and editorial images of refugees from Pakistan on the same page. Juxtaposing advertising images which promise transformation of the consumer’s life on the one hand with documentary images of the misery and despair of the third world on the other makes the culture which presents it look cynical, disconnected and incoherent.

Even though Berger’s text is about cultural politics, I would argue that pigeonholing WoS as a Marxist book is a brutal oversimplification. Berger deals with the enormous impact of publicity, image saturation, television, reproduction, the illusion of free choice, principles of capitalism, and a discussion of gender and ethnicity. These are universal issues which, unlike the Marxist’s struggle, are still very relevant today. The book is now more than 35 years old, so it is obvious that some images of 1970’s advertising have aged, yet their meaning has not.

By the same token, one could apply the label ‘feminist’ to WoS, simply because Berger uses ‘she’ to refer to indefinite gender, or because of the author’s preoccupation with representation of women. Of course such labeling is equally superficial and limiting, and prevents us from understanding the message of the book.

More than anything else, Berger is critical of art’s aura of unassailability and mystery. Berger dismisses the cultural authorities, elitism, and the false illusion of cultivation that accompanies an interest in art. He gives examples of children looking at art and grasping more than art historians can understand with all their studies of the artist’s life, technique, and the phony religiosity surrounding his works. According to the authors of WoS, the principal aim is ‘to start a process of questioning’. If the role of the designer (or artist) is to ask critical questions about the society in which we operate, then this is a small inexpensive art book that goes beyond the appearances of things.