Acclaimed British artist and art critic John Berger died earlier this month. Despite being a student of art history, I had never seen his famous BBC documentary Ways of Seeing and decided to watch the four-part series over the past few days. The series was captivating and relevant to my work—and to my greater understanding of the art world. I do think it’s worth watching for everyone, no matter your interests, as Berger is able to demystify art and make it culturally relevant. The series is available on youtube and can be watched in less than 2 hours.
(If you prefer reading to watching, the scripts from the episodes are also available as a book).
Episode 1 focuses on how reproduction changes paintings by making the meaning transmittable and placing the painting within a secular—rather than the original spiritual—context. As Berger notes, pilgrimage is over—now it is the image of the painting that travels, not the pilgrim. He also talks about photography as a medium and how reproduction can change the very nature of a painting by adding movement, music, and zooming in on a painting.
Episode 2 is regarded as one of the first feminist mainstream conversations about art. Berger talks about how men look at women and women watch themselves being looked at. In European painting, a woman is first and foremost a sight to be looked at. In discussing the difference between “nude” and “naked,” Berger makes the fine distinction that a nude is an object. Nude figures have an awareness of being seen by the spectator; they are not naked as they are, but naked as you see them. Moreover, nude figures are often hairless as hair was associated with sexual passion. Women’s sexual passion needed to be minimized according to norms and their figures are depicted to feed an appetite, not to show any passion of their own.
One of Berger’s lines from the show is an oft-quoted one that I really love about male hypocrisy: “Put a mirror in her hand and you called the painting ‘Vanity,’ thus morally condemning the woman whose nakedness you had depicted for you own pleasure.”
In Episode 3, Berger asks the question, “From where does art get its value?” Art historians often raise art above life, turning it into a kind of religion—but art is not just about aesthetic beauty and is never created out of a pure love for the discipline. A lot of classical western painting was about display—these paintings celebrate private possessions and glorify consumption—the ability to buy, furnish, and own. To achieve this end, paintings needed to be realistic and depict the known and tangible.
Episode 4 centers on how oil painting and advertising work in similar manners and revolve around the idea that “you are what you have.” In terms of imagery, models have replaced goddesses in classical painting. However, advertising is aspirational while oil painting depicted the known. I found his analysis of art and advertising interesting—many art history majors go on to work in advertising and I’m sure the disconnect between the two fields is at time disconcerting.
I barely summarized the topics covered in this brief post–but I really cannot recommend watching Ways of Seeing enough!