Ways of Seeing

by John Berger

ISBN: 0140216316

This book contains seven essays about, as the title suggests, seeing things. Three are entirely about seeing, as they consist only of images. All the reproductions (ranging from Old Masters to magazine ads — unfortunately not always clearly reproduced) are black and white. The list of reproduction credits in the back is eight pages long. Given that the essays run just over a hundred and fifty pages, this gives you some idea of how many images Berger employs in his arguments.

When Berger is talking about seeing, he is talking about looking at human-generated images; he is talking about art. The overall tone of the book is more polemic than primer. Early on Berger defines mystification as “the process of explaining away what might otherwise be evident” and takes shots at art historians for engaging in it. People would know what they are looking at, he seems to be saying, if they weren’t “educated” to think otherwise.

Berger takes on the tradition of oil painting, and when he is done you will see that four hundred year old paintings have more in common with the old Sears wishbook catalog than any art teacher may have led you to believe. He considers the audience for the paintings (the original audience) and how and why they were looking at the painting, and how and why they wanted to see things. Not just beauty, but power and status were in the eye of the beholder.

He also considers the presence of women in art, and how it is different from the presence of men, and what that means. He looks at race and class as well, but neither are treated as extensively. Berger makes bold statements, uses images that fit his argument as added quick hits, all to get his reader to think about how they see.

One of the last essays is about publicity, and how we now live in a society drenched in images unlike any time that has come before now. (If you are thinking of pervasive advertising as it appears in Minority Report or Everyone in Silico, it is worth noting Berger first published this in 1972.) His politics show most clearly in this essay: “Publicity turns consumption into a substitute for democracy.”

Berger might be taken as outrageous, and he is trying to provoke people — to think. I am sure my next visit to a museum or art gallery will not be the same, but better, for having read this book. Recommended.

11 thoughts on “Ways of Seeing

  1. i hate this book, it is soooo boring. everyone i know has burned their copies, because it is sooooo boring and we have to read it for school.

  2. This book is rather boring. in fact it is extremly boring. However the fact still remains thet it is a very thought provoking piece of anyalytical literature. Although I do think that many of Berger’s thoughts were not conveyed very lucidly i do believe that that as an essay in general he got his main points across very conclussivly. I would recomend this series of essays to anyone who wishes to expand their mind on the more underlying themes of perception.

  3. Rarely have a set of art history essays been written more pretentiously; utterly over-rated and self indulgent, Berger may enlighten the reader to think about art differently but at the cost of indulging an author besotted with his own importance.

  4. I must say you all must be young. Too young to realize that this book is brilliant. Too young to realize why this book is brilliant. I say its brilliance lies in the fact that it was published in 1972 and is still used today in many art history courses at the college level – read Essay #3 and tell me what your opinion of it is. Do you think some of these ideas still hold true today? If you are a female and you said yes, you should change your opnion of how “boooooring” it is, get off your little arses and start changing the way people see women.

  5. Boring? It’s a 150 page book with a zillion illustrations in it! God forbid anyone should ever have to read an actual text someday. I’m not sure what’s so self-indulgent or pretentious about this book either. I always thought it was a pretty concise and straight-forward set of visual essays. Certainly not the last word in visual interpretation, but a ripe, juicy little fruit to enjoy.

  6. i was force to read this book of him…wat i can say, although this book is quite BORING but it tell us hw important is visual in a clever way..well, this book has it pro and cons.=) reading it slowing to gain the experience n the inner feeling of wat the author try to tell us..

  7. Yes it is on the reading list for many art history courses today. Yes it is still relevant, but I am afraid to say that this book is by no means shocking any more. Most people understand the concepts behind advertising these days and that is where I believe Berger did not take on the sooth-seeing role that he’d have Antal take, perhaps his t.v series and book had something to do with it. But my general understanding of our modern day culture is that people are now educated in the ways and means of propaganda as used in images. To combine the visual with the text is of course now fully accepted and images can and do carry powerful messages but what Berger didn’t forsee was how society would move towards a pluralism previously unheard of. Now instead of pitting the image against the text in an anti-platonic manifesto the need for argument no longer exists, both carry value. As a peice of art-criticsm, it lacks evidence; what it is good at howver is using art as a vehicle for his own political means and message. As Berger implies, evrything has a subjective value; and I’d say that these essays are more than weighted with the author’s own intent. It is a brilliant and refreshing peice of literature, truly provovative as its aim; yet I’m afraid now it has become part of that History and rather than see our History as a linear and evolutionary passage, in our pluralistic society surely it is better to isolated it from our own contemporary time and personal experience but instead to place it within its own context. As Baxandall does with the Renaissance; surely now we must do the same with Berger – put him in his own contextual box to understand him better. Over 30 years on I would like to say that his third essay no longer stands as a generality. Due or not to his starting the ball rolling (bearing in mind the fact that Marxist discourse had already been around for some time), our contemporary world is a diferent one to his, although we may still see many of these concepts as foundations to what exists now. Thus whilst we move with the times and grapple to understand our polemic plurality, Berger stays on the shelf, epitomising a discourse that is fresh, with no frills yet infact employs the very thing he seeks to crticise. It is a marvellous peice of propaganda, and a marvellous backdrop to understanding the role of Art History and Cricticsm in the Britsh 70s, however surely it was about time we looked to reading some art criticism put forward in this day and age?

  8. Hard read, yet it cleverly presents aspects of art from the camera’s reproduction changing the context of a work to the history of oil painting.

    “The uniqueness of every painting has been destroyed by the camera” John Berger

    Can anyone help this essay we are only allowed to discuss the Mona Lisa and its reproductions…


  9. OK quick summery of comments:
    1. important and excellent read for anyone whom it relates to.
    2. i agree that the points made are put across in an unnecessarily boring way and could be said much more simply.
    3. if they were written simply then everyone would have dismissed it.

    so stop moaning and read the text, you might learn something.~( and appreciate your not as dyslexic as me… reading it and writing this took ages!!!)

  10. i’m currently reading the book at present for an essay, and so far although i have found it hard to get into once i have understood the authors points i found the book thoroughly engaging and has to an extent altered my perception on art. i think chapter 3 was the most interesting for me, and as a woman myself i found most of what to be said true. i found the book inspirational and i personally believe that this theory or vanity etc within the female sex is also true and we should maybe be trying to alter that slighty

  11. As a text on its own it is hard to navigate but if it is used in conjunction with the video series of the same name, the students get a lot out of it. I wouldn’t try to do this work with students younger than Year 12 (17- 18 year old). You can watch it on YouTube these days if you don’t have the original video available to you. We use the text of the book as a back up resource that we work through and discuss AFTER we have watched the sections of the video series that are relevant to our unit of work. Before we start we do remind the girls that the video and book were produced in 1970’s and to keep that in mind. However, I do believe it still has relevance today. It needs to be used in conjunction with other material and lots of discussion. We use this particular reference as the beginning of a unit on The Representation of Gender – with a special focus on the representation of women and the differences of representation in portaits of men and women. There are many other related resources ( videos and essays) that follow our discussions that are initiated by this text. e.g a video called “Picturing the Genders” and one in the series of “Private Life of a Masterpiece “- on Velasquez’s artworks known as “The Rokeby Venus”, followed by studies of Manet’s “Olympia” and “Luncheon on the Grass”. This unit is then followed by a unit on Feminism focusing on Feminist artists like Judy Chicago, Barbara Kruger, Cindy Sherman, the Guerilla Girls etc

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