by John Berger
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.