In January 2017, Britain lost the eminent intellectual John Berger, an individual peerless for his perceptive cultural contributions. Reading his revolutionary book Ways of Seeing, first published in 1972, I am still struck by its sharp modernist angles, the refreshing moral grit, and its sagacious study of our social psyche through visual culture. Berger is strikingly original, balancing academic gravitas with a delightful playfulness; we become enamoured with his rare way of seeing the world.
Berger fulfils the roles of a philosopher, listener, and somewhat of a magician as he makes tantalising worlds appear, and illusions vanish. Unravelling the title, he explains the difference between looking and seeing: our eyes naturally look, but seeing assumes an idea, an understanding of the subject. An artist’s subjectivity requires him to see the painting before he dabs pigment onto canvas, just as the observer sees a unique impression of a painting. Art is a symbiotic relationship in which both image and observer generate meaning. Film director Dziga Vertov once said, “I’m an eye. A Mechanical eye … the creation of a fresh perception of the world. Thus I explain in a new way the world unknown to you”. As Berger delves into distinctions between optics and perspectives, we see how our private conscience resembles mechanical eyes by selecting what our lens chooses to focus on and what to neglect. He emphasizes our duty to self-scrutinise throughout, asserting: “Our principal aim has been to start a process of questioning”. Berger helps us sharpen our critical mechanical eye – a skill that is becoming essential in a brave new world of image obsession and publicity.
The book is organised into seven essays, some pictorial and textual, others solely pictorial – an essay about Renaissance history is equally profound as Manet’s painting of a dead bullfighter juxtaposed with an image of swollen meat carcasses. His essay on post-Renaissance nudes is a triumphant marriage of humanity and scholarship. Berger writes with hyper-sensitivity about the power of the nude, applying its value to the present. Rather than severing ourselves from its primitiveness, nudity serves a revelatory purpose; raising our consciousness as sensual beings in the fragile filament of the body. Rembrandt’s exquisite ‘Danae’ captures Berger’s incisive approach; the soft light cascades onto Danae’s cream body, making us feel merciful towards not only the body of another but also our own. He asks, “What does this sight of the other mean to us, how does it, at that instant of total disclosure, affect our desire?” Such a question appeals to the architecture of nerves, organs, and sinews we all have in common – disarming the vulgarity associated with nudity. Instead of seeing the body as an object, Berger treats it as unveiling the whole individual person.
Berger’s kindness, however, also challenges – stretching our mind to think outside our personal periphery and into the imperative of universal justice. He reminds us that our faculty to value pieces like Holbein’s ‘The Ambassadors’ is a social gift. We have an appreciation for art because of socio-economic preconditions tilted in our favour. Berger presents data revealing the indisputable relationship between museum visitors and their level of education. This statistic has been enabled largely by art’s ideological function in European history as justifying power hierarchies; colonisers and aristocrats employed art as status symbols. Today there is the hierarchy of lucrative art businesses and underprivileged social classes to whom art seems inaccessible behind an academic-economic veneer. Berger feels the injustice of this theft passionately, stating that “such a justification can no longer make sense in modern terms”. In the past an artist was commissioned to paint those who paid to be remembered in history, but we no longer live in this economy. Furthermore, the possibilities of technology can facilitate the cultural osmosis needed to open art to a wider social stratum. Art reproduction and removing art from its original preserve raises other concerns, however, discussed at length by Jacob Pagano.
Ways of Seeing was originally controversial for condoning the affluent for inculcating a monetary attitude towards art. Berger explores how, from the commercial collectability of oil paintings during the Renaissance onwards, art developed a social currency; a visual representation of the luxuries one could afford. Berger writes in objection to this socio-economic gulf that capital has created and art permitted. Indeed, the monetisation of art is prevalent everywhere today in the media; recently Jay Z rapped his modernist “Picasso Baby” flaunting grandiose statements spangled with art references: “Leonardo Da Vinci flows/ Riccardo Tisci Givenchy clothes … House like the Louvre or the Tate Modern”. The thrust of Jay Z’s lyrics introduces the socio-economic climate art circulates in, where art now promotes extortionate materialism. It is in this arena where we must contend for art’s justice, authentic beauty, and its salient purpose: to support universal human flourishing.
For Berger, the success of his book might not be measured so much by the answers we produce to his questions but instead in the silence we inhabit to formulate the answer. In this space of meditative engagement with our unique perception, we participate in the art of seeing. The graceful spirit of the book makes Berger feel very close to us – his contributions are not just academically meritorious but enriching to life. Now each time I see, I am reminded of him.
‘Ways of Seeing’ is published by Penguin Classics, RRP £8.99.