Berger day

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.



3 thoughts on “Berger day

  1. The fact that photography has continued the tradition of objectifying the female form in line with the artists before them is a fascinating one, yet also puzzling given an over-sensitive politically-correct nation we have become. It is very surprising that photography and media have circumnavigated this and continue the tradition with the male as observer, and female as observed. I’ve just done a quick google on the subject and am astounded how many academic papers discuss the merits of feminism and politics in the arts/photography etc. As you are questioning the masculine aspect to this, I too am questioning the role of women, how little it has evolved but also in view of my current work Her Eyes On and whether I am exacerbating this notion or if not, what? I need to read up on this more…

  2. Part [no, a great deal of it] of the attraction to G&M was the notion of the body. As I’ve said elsewhere I am very concerned about my institutional response to both the nude as an artform/genre and the female body as an object. Whether I can overcome these issues will be interesting, but I want to be able to discuss these issues objectively. I am about to launch headfirst into a long research period on this subject, with recommended reading and other texts on the subject. And of course I fully appreciate how it chimes with my personal project. Time will tell.
    As for Her Eyes On, I think it tests the institutionalised reaction to the form, which may of course exacerbate the argument or at least fuel it – and if it does nothing else I think you should be encouraged that it does provoke debate; it has in my mind.

  3. Look forward to hearing your recommendations on the reading list with regards this subject John which I guess you’ll post on here. Are these tutor-led recommendations? Your views on an ‘institutionalised response’ is an interesting one…given the nature/nurture argument…how much is societal and us all being a product of our times and how much is evolutionary programmed…and how much we can change or instead embrace these responses. Men still predominate in all aspects of the art-world so I guess until we see changes throughout, the culture will be difficult to shift…Anyway, good luck with the reading!

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