Thoughts on ways of seeing

Edouard_Manet_-_Luncheon_on_the_Grass_-_Google_Art_ProjectI’ve just finished reading John Berger’s Ways of Seeing, his classic book-length essay that accompanied a 1972 BBC series of the same name.

It’s a punchy, thoughtful and radical revision of the way we’re taught to view Western painting from about 1500 until 1900, a body of work that led to the mechanically reproduced images of the subsequent century. (Berger makes clear his debt to Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.”)

Although there are better places than this blog to read a gloss on Berger’s book, I’ll drop a few notes here. Much of what Berger writes will be familiar to those who’ve read Benjamin, or been exposed to the last several decades of skeptical art critiques that go beyond the hoary clichés of “art appreciation.” The very familiarity of Berger’s approach is a testament to his book’s far-reaching influence. Nonetheless, his insistence on looking at what’s in front of you is critically important and can’t be emphasized enough.

(A simple example: If you’re looking at a painting that prominently features a young, unclothed woman posed in a way that gives the viewer a good eyeful, that’s a fundamental part of the painting, something to consider before one falls to pondering the ostensible subject, whether it’s the “the penitent Magdalene,” “Venus and Mars,” “winged Victory,” or what have you.)

Berger’s final section, on the advertising industry’s exploitation of the oil painting tradition, is a powerful refresher on things we think we already know. We do, in fact, know what advertising does to us, but his words from the early 1970s bear repeating:

The purpose of publicity is to make the spectator marginally dissatisfied with his present way of life. Not with the way of life of society, but with his own within it. It suggests that if he buys what it is offering, his life will become better. It offers him an improved alternative to what he is.

Later, there’s another passage about “publicity” that I thought might be sensibly updated with a small tweak. Here it is:

Facebook has another important social function. The fact that this function has not been planned as a purpose by those who make and use Facebook in no way lessens its significance. Facebook turns consumption into a substitute for democracy. The choice of what one eats (or wears or drives) takes the place of significant political choice. Facebook helps to mask and compensate for all that is undemocratic within society. And it also masks what is happening in the rest of the world.

Facebook adds up to a kind of philosophical system. It explains everything in its own terms. It interprets the world.

Berger’s book is easy to locate and important reading for anyone who visits museums or wants to look more critically at the thousands of images that hit us every day. This multimedia essay, with its loose, discursive structure, will be useful to me as I plan a course I’m teaching in the spring, at Duke’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute.

Here’s Berger’s BBC program. I haven’t watched it yet.

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