Trevor's Reviews > Ways of Seeing

Ways of Seeing by John Berger
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Sep 28, 14

it was amazing
bookshelves: art, photography
Recommended to Trevor by: Lindig Harris

This book is based on a television series which can be viewed on YouTube here:

This is a really remarkable series and a remarkable, although annoying, book. The book is annoying because it should have been a coffee table book with large colour photographs and large font – instead it is a Penguin paperback with a font tending towards the unreadable and grey scale reproductions of the paintings that make them almost impossible to view. This is agonising, as really all you will want to do is studying and think about these images for hours.

There is something we sort of know, even if I suspect we are completely wrong in our intuition. We have been, as humans, looking at pictures for a lot longer than we have been reading books. For the vast majority of us, literacy is a disturbingly recent invention – perhaps a hundred , maybe a hundred and fifty years for people in the first world. Churches told their Biblical stories as much in images as in words. For a long time even here the words were spoken in a language that was not understood by those listening. Learning how to read images, something so many of us assume isn’t something we need to learn, but rather is somehow immediate, takes an entire culture and also takes perhaps as long as to learn how to read. To understand how images work on us – how we are manipulated by them – that takes at least as long as it takes to learn the same things about how words work on and manipulate us.

So, on one level this book is an exploration of the history of oil painting and what such paintings ‘mean’ – mean to us now in comparison to what they meant to earlier generations of people in Western societies. Because the Western tradition of painting is quite a separate thing from any other ‘world art’ traditions.

He starts by saying that paintings are both still and silent. This is an interesting thing to say, because how we generally experience paintings today – or at least, learn about them – is through shows like Sister Wendy’s World Tour of Art or Simon Schama’s Power of Art. Don’t for a second get me wrong here – I loved both. But the art works displayed are anything but still or silent. There is a voice track and there is a panning and a zooming-in that turns these still and silent works into something approaching a cartoon. I had never considered the implications of this before. The painting stops being what it is, in fact, cannot remain what it is on the screen, it stops being an object that the artist created so as to speak for itself, and now requires someone to mediate between it and us, to either speak over it (explain it) or to orchestrate it (quite literally, with music) so that we are taught the proper way to read this painting.

I’ve been thinking a lot about how we ‘read’ paintings and images, particularly after reading a book called Reading Images: the grammar of visual design. It is interesting that in that book it is clear that linguistic grammar has been used as a way to structure our response to the grammar of images – quite effectively, I think – but this is almost counter-intuitive. If we have had a more immediate relationship with images than with written text, why is it that we need to use the organising principles associated with written texts so as to seek to understand images? Why doesn’t that work the other way around? I know in part this is because language has been formally codified, but this, again, raises the question of why images are so resistant to such codification. Why would it be daft to explain what a verb is by reference to Mona Lisa’s eyebrows?

The relationship between being naked (being without clothes) and being nude is presented here in what I take to be feminist art criticism. A nude is not merely someone without clothes – it is almost invariably a female and she is also on display, an object. In many ways she is not really the protagonist of the painting, even when she is the only person in the painting – the other person that is always present is the anonymous male viewer towards whom she is on display. He shows image after image of nude women, and even while being embraced, they are turned to the viewer, turned to their true lover, their fantasy lover, for not only are they the screen on which we project our lust, but also the reason for our weaknesses – they are, in the end, to be lusted over and to blame. No wonder they are invariably passive and languid. After corrupting the whole of male humanity, how could they not look exhausted?

And that is actually the point – it is only today that a painting can be seen by quite so many people. They were never intended to be seen other than by the very few. Today paintings are pretty much what Plato said of them, representations of representations – but as such they are a demonstration of just how wealthy the owner really was. Paintings put on display the wealth of their owners – and that was a large part of what had been their purpose. Here’s me, and here’s the missus, and we are standing in front of our house, this is our bedroom, these are the oranges we have shipped in from Spain, this is our cow and, despite the late summer sun setting, these are our furs.

The last program in the series looks at advertising and how it uses and distorts the language of paintings, to which it is the last dying breathe of a tradition spanning back 500 years. In oil painting we are looking at the current wealth of the owners – there is a now-ness about these paintings – this is what I look like now, this is what I own now – the fact that it is always ‘then’ in images is something everyone has become more aware of now we have cameras and something Barthes explains beautifully in his Camera Lucida. Time stops in the image, and as such all images are images of death. Life immediately marches away from them, leaving them as pure memory. So, paintings are always about the present and, as such, thus also immediately about the past – the present being just the past in waiting.

But marketing images are always about the future, never about the present. Selling something is about creating a desire and that desire is not here and now, it is sometime soon. In many ways advertising doesn’t sell products – it sells envy and desire. As he points out, the rich people in oil paintings are not glamorous – glamour is beside the point. To be glamorous the viewer needs to want to emulate the people they see in the images – but the people who own paintings see themselves – so, there is no need for glamour. To sell product you need to sell a fantasy and that fantasy needs to be just out of reach, but obtainable though an exchange not actually part of the image, an exchange of money for a good, but that exchange is the point of the image. That capitalism needs such constant exchanges and that advertising creates the desires that fuel these exchanges is the open secret of our society. That said, I’d never considered the relationship with time that this creates before – how, to be economically valid units, we need to be constantly living in a fantasy future, while also being prepared to put up with just about any boredom in our all too prosaic present. No wonder advertisement is uninterested in now, it needs to be – it needs to negate now for what is to come.

The book also draws a distinction between how we advertise to the working class (the promised transformation is based on Cinderella) and the middle class (the promised transformation is based on The Enchanted Palace) – for the working class buying this one product will be enough to transform you into the princess, for the middleclass investing in this bank will bring you all of the good things in life, which are, of necessity, an ensemble.

There is so much to think about in this tiny book and this short series of films. I watch shows like this and I think, imagine what television could have been – but, of course, it could never have been anything of the kind. This is very much the exception that proves the rule. So, to see what television could never have been allowed to be, watch this and then go back to reading books.
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Comments (showing 1-18 of 18) (18 new)

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message 1: by Monte (new)

Monte If the book is annoying, why the 5 stars?

Trevor Because I suspect that everything annoying about the book is due to Penguin, rather than the author. If you are bored one winter afternoon watch the first and second episodes, you'll be hooked, promise.

Bettie☯ Trevor, you are right about the penguin version. I was lucky to catch hold of the original h/b: Published June 1st 1972 by Peter Smith Publisher (first published 1972) and got a better deal regards colour plates.

Like you, I still would have liked a coffee table sized thumper to paw over/stroke.

The content IMHO is worth the 5* as it made me look at things in a completely different way

Trevor Yes, the black and white images are so disappointing - and almost funny, given the content of the book, you know, we live in an age of cheap and colour reproductions of art and this has changed the way we view art. But the ideas here are worth five stars and more.

Trevor Oh, minimum price for a used copy of the Peter Smith version is $300 AU - hmm. The Penguin version isn't looking nearly so bad.

Bettie☯ Trevor wrote: "Oh, minimum price for a used copy of the Peter Smith version is $300 AU - hmm. The Penguin version isn't looking nearly so bad."

sheesh! I'll take care of my copy, may need it with the way the EU is going.


Lindig SO glad you liked it!

Trevor Oh, I more than just liked it - thank you so much for recommending it.

Riku Sayuj i will give your review one star over the book rating!

Trevor I'm not sure what you mean, Riku. This has come in really useful, though. I'm working on an article about how schools promote themselves and his comparison between Cinderella and Enchanted Castle has really made things clear in ways I hadn't ever thought about before. Ah, the power of a good fairytale...

message 11: by Riku (last edited Jun 25, 2012 10:42PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Riku Sayuj Trevor wrote: "I'm not sure what you mean, Riku. This has come in really useful, though. I'm working on an article about how schools promote themselves and his comparison between Cinderella and Enchanted Castle..."

Could you elaborate the analogy? Can't quite link the two in my mind. I don't think that is touched upon in the book.

message 12: by Trevor (last edited Jun 26, 2012 12:49AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Trevor Very briefly in the last chapter (page 139) and with a fantastic photo of a woman just getting out of a bath and suddenly having been transported into another world - he says that marketing is different for products directed at the working class to those directed to the middle class. My reading of it is that both groups are promised heaven, but heaven with slightly different meanings. If you are starting from nothing paradise must come with a relatively small step - buy this perfume and the prince will be yours. If you have quite a bit already then it is about you needing to add to what is an entire environment - a 'this goes with that goes with this'. The middle class need to create a 'show', rather than be kissed and thus transformed.

The images I've been looking at from school promotional material does much the same thing. Middle class private schools show smiling kids - none of them doing any actual school work. It is enough to be in the enchanted castle. Working class government schools have white kids working studiously - the normative student - and non-white kids either being shown by white kids or looking directly into the camera (that is, not doing school work). The exception has been a middle class government school which has an Asian girl on the cover. But an Asian girl in a middle class suburb means something quite different from one in a working class suburb. One means studiousness, the other means boat people.

message 13: by Riku (new) - rated it 4 stars

Riku Sayuj Trevor wrote: "Very briefly in the last chapter (page 139) and with a fantastic photo of a woman just getting out of a bath and suddenly having been transported into another world - he says that marketing is diff..."

Wow. Brilliant leap. Thanks you so much for sharing a bit of it here!

Trevor Oh no, a pleasure. I've been thinking about it for ages and have finally got a bit of time to try to pull it all together.

message 15: by Jeff (new)

Jeff A classic book well worth the read. Thanks for the you tube link it puts the book into context.

Trevor A pleasure

message 17: by Ed (new)

Ed Ward Terrific review, Trevor. Ways of Seeing was a mandatory read during my freshman year of art school in 1980. I was seeking it out again and found the original BBC broadcast on youtube, the book itself in pdf (scanned), and your review. I read your review first. The others will follow shortly. If I were a time traveling thief I'd grab your review and take it back to 1980 where I'd blow the minds of my professors and fellow students. Kudos.

message 18: by Dave (new) - added it

Dave Whittaker Haha.

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