It’s been a Berger day, awake early and reading “Ways of seeing”, watching the series on Youtube and considering the text that was written forty years ago, a lifetime or more I suspect for some students on this course, which might make it seem an ancient text – a scroll of withered papyrus, illustrated in a hieroglyph that at first might seem impenetrable.
Not so for this reader, seeped in years a full quarter of a century less than the author, I found it challenging pertinent and prescient. And I wonder why the book isn’t on the reading list – a question I will ask my tutor.
Berger’s Marxism is clear from the outset, how the development of, essentially European art, has been motivated by the ruling class as a means of separation from the masses that could neither afford not comprehend these “works of art”. Hals’ “Regents” and “Regentesses” that was worked again in Visual Culture by Howells and Negreiros”. It’s telling here doesn’t alter what I felt about Hals’ supposed feelings – they are supposed and the rest is conjecture. Berger’s view on the contextualization of how the viewer views art is still worth considering, and perhaps amplified a little. When the television programme was first broadcast there were only three television channels in the UK – BBC1, BBC2 and ITV; this limited the available sources of “Art” for the masses and unless you were privileged enough to own some or you frequented art galleries that was about it. As Berger mentions “… This was the invention, about fifteen years ago, of cheap colour photography. Such photography can reproduce the colour and texture and tangibility of abjects as only oil paint had been able to before.” Ways of Seeing – Berger pp140. This relatively new technology coupled with limited access to visual media meant that we – and I include myself as a witness – saw paintings in a singular dimension and through the eye of the television cameraman. The editor/director presented the painting on the screen for us – for the “viewers” edification, thus amplifying the premise of the title – “Ways of seeing”. The viewers, most of whom hadn’t had read Classics at Oxbridge – perhaps not even understanding what “Classics” meant, had this “Art” delivered pre-masticated, pre-edited and pre-visualised. Berger was right about how this affected the viewer’s reading of an image, Breughal’s “Procession to Calvary” ibid pp28 was diced up into bite (screen) sized chunks which radically alters the way in which the reader might comprehend the painting – again the editor provides the leash to lead the viewer on. I wonder what Berger would make of the ability of the viewer to download and view, using a mouse, to wander over the image at will – akin to the gallery experience, I’m not sure. I was reminded of the recent study visit to the Saatchi Gallery to view the “Prix Pictet” where Gareth asked the question on image scale and perhaps the very large Luc Delahaye images, where the viewer needed to “work” the image over with their eyes to assemble a single notion of narrative.
In the final paragraphs of the first section Berger asks “The real question is: to whom does the meaning of the art of the past properly belong? To those who can apply it to their own lives, or to a cultural hierarchy of relic specialists?” ibid pp32.
The depiction of the female form occupies a large part of the book, and is added to in the video with a conversation with five women who put their perspectives of the representation of women, and in particular the nude, it is worth watching Ways of seeing youtube I found the mention of photography as easier to connect themselves with the image interesting and maybe of it’s time– “It is by photographs that I’ve been encouraged to think of myself..” I found it uncomfortable – as a male – how I feel complicit in the way women have been subjugated over about four centuries of “Art” and that my voice is now emasculated by the generations of repression. It maybe that Berger brought together women who were not only able to describe their feelings lucidly but were perhaps already “on-message” with regard to what Berger wanted to express. Probably both, but no less powerful for it. The interesting part for me is that this debate, forty years ago, hasn’t moved that much further on – as I wrote about Geoff Dyer’s “On-going moment” where Dyer has a ‘moment’ where he wants Steiglitz to show us more of Georgia O’Keefe’s ‘pussy’ and crafts it as a “nudge, nudge, wink, wink, say no more!” moment. Wanting Steiglitz to do as Berger suggests Charles II does in portraying Nell Gwynne, as painted by Lely, for parading to his mates ibid pp52.
This whole area of the nude, objectification is one that I fear will hold a lot of concern for me – but Berger’s treatment of it has left me with a lot to think about.
The other two sections, one on property and landscape the other on publicity (we would now call marketing I’m sure) are as informative today as they were pertinent when written. The prescience of Berger’s statement early in the book “ (in decline [the ruling classes], not before the proletariat, but before the new power of the corporation and the state)”. Ibid pp32 is only half right. The state has now sublimated before the corporation.