John Berger - Ways of Seeing

Art critic John Berger's recent death has left a huge void in the world of art appreciation. While his career prompted numerous controversies and instances of outrage and public condemnation, Berger's attacks on what sometimes amounts to the condescending and elitist attitude of his own profession helped popularize the appreciation of art. His 1972 BBC documentary series Ways of Seeing, as well as its subsequent eponymous book, helped bring the world of thoughtful art appreciation to an entire generation of people who may have otherwise never gotten interested in the fine arts. Unlike conventional forms of art criticism and appreciation—which tend to focus primarily on concepts such as form, function, craft, materials, beauty, the sublime, or on the history of various schools of art—Berger tended to provide a more humanistic, sociological and philosophical introduction to how to decipher the ideology hiding behind the surface of the canvas. Though it has been used for centuries to promote the interests of those in power, Berger believes that art's true function is one of liberation.

The first episode of Ways of Seeing—based on philosopher and cultural critic Walter Benjamin's classic work, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction—explores the impact of photography on our aesthetic experience of works from the past. On the one hand, new technological means of reproduction have helped to democratize the appreciation of works of art that had previously only been accessible to wealthy elites. On the other, it has also severed the work of great artists from their historical context, thereby changing their original meanings. To look at a photograph of a painting at home or on a screen is a fundamentally different experience from that of looking at the painting housed in a church, the home of a wealthy aristocrat, or in a museum, and the difference matters.

The second episode—an exploration of The Male Gaze, a concept originally posited by film theorist Laura Mulvey in her groundbreaking article Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema—starts with the following intriguing (and now famous) observation:
Men dream of women. Women dream of themselves being dreamt of. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. [This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves.] 
Combining aspects of Marxist, feminist and phenomenological theories, Berger makes a distinction between a naked and a nude, and shows how much of the female nude in the European tradition perpetuates certain misogynistic paradoxes through which women are simultaneously revered and reviled, sexualized and denied their own sexuality, made the objects of desire, but denied the possibility of being autonomous subjects of experience, and in all cases, dehumanized, scorned, shamed, belittled. The discussion that follows at the end provides a powerful demonstration of the effects that this tradition has had not only on the place and role that women have played in society, but even on their own self-understanding.

The third episode explores the way in which oil painting enabled an unprecedented degree of realism in European art. Along with this realism, however, and the physicality and texture such paintings were able to convey, oil paintings also helped to promote an economic ideology that celebrated the wealth and status of the individuals who commissioned such works of art, while simultaneously concealing the exploitation and dehumanization on which such wealth was often based.

Finally, the last episode attempts to demonstrate the ways in which advertising, particularly through the medium of photography, represents an extension of the artistic tradition, though one that reverses the context: instead of portraying the reality of wealthy individuals and their possessions, advertising conveys an imagined and idealized reality that preys on our fears and insecurities, and attempts to turns us into consumers.

Rest in peace, John Berger.

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