Phew, what a read; I think I read each paragraph, on average, three times or as many times as it took for me to comprehend what was on the page. You see, when it comes to art, I don’t know my stuff. The book is attributed to John Berger as author but inside its making is credited to five individuals, none of whom I have heard of, except for John Berger.
John Berger, I know, was an intellectual. I have watched a couple of videos of him including one of him in conversation with American intellectual giant Susan Sontag and I recently finished another of his books, Confabulations (see previous review).
Published in 1972, Ways of Seeing is written by an intellectual in an intellectual style. But at a time when there were only 2 or 3 TV channels and AJP Tayor could command a huge prime-time TV audience just by standing infant of a camera and speaking, off the cuff, about history for half an hour. Our population at that time had not yet been subject to the dumbed-down, celebrity led culture which began in earnest in the 1980s. Before then, when miners formed their own poetry groups, people could read this kind of stuff and understand it. I often struggled but even though I feel like I read this book three or more times in one go, I kind of got it. In fact, part way through I visited Manchester’s Whitworth Art Gallery and the knowledge I gained from both this book and the recently read Keeping an Eye Open by Julia Barnes helped me enjoy a much more tangible experience with art.
John Berger was a committed Marxist and saw art as the province of the ruling classes. He makes many references to capitalism, ownership, class and the objectivity of women in art. Many of his political points are supported by the inclusion of a gallery of paintings depicted in black and white thought the book. Published in 1971 it is the earliest example in a book I know of which covers the subject of sexism by the objectification of women in culture and art in the centuries of patriarchal society. Berger describes a painting of a nude woman by Memling (1435-1494). An attractive woman painted in full frontal nudity, is holding a mirror and thus the painting is called Vanity. The mirror is a device simply used to disparage the woman and detract from the real intention of the commissioner or buyer of the painting to provide sexual titillation, a form of 15th century pornography.
The final chapter brings art up to date (or as up to date as it could have been in 1971) by both focussing on publicity and drawing on the parallels between painting in oil and advertising. I took from this chapter the line, “Publicity is the culture of the consumer society.” Where art was once commissioned by men of property to project their status, now, publicity is used to fill the space caused by the deficit in democracy in our age of consumerism by projecting the image of our future selves which, as much as we envy it, is never attainable always deferred.
If, like me, you’ve been to a gallery and felt intimidated by the sheer volume of art on display without having a real understanding of whether it’s any good or not, you will gain a great deal of insight from this book and books like it. I read it through over three days but feel like I read it three or four times it was that much of a challenge. It was first published in 1972 at a time when miners formed poetry groups at colliery meetings and austere historian AJP Taylor could command an enormous prime-time TV audience just from standing before a camera and speaking, unscripted, for thirty minutes on a topic from history. It’s a reminder of just how dumbed-down our culture has become over the past three decades but this book remains accessible if challenging and the reward for reading it is immense. Read it and then visit a gallery. I was pleased to note that some of the art on display at The Whitworth was crap but other was sublime – that will be Francis N Souza.