Revisiting: JOHN BERGER'S 'WAYS OF SEEING'

by Tasha Nuthall

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John Berger in Ways of Seeing, BBC (1972)

In 1972, amid the social and political chaos occurring in Britain, one softly-spoken man with an affinity for loud shirts transformed the very way that we looked at art. 

 

John Berger, a renowned writer, presented a series of short films on art in an attempt to challenge perspectives on art, drawing in on the multi-faceted functions of mediums such as oil paint and colour photography, as well as the visual conceptualisation of the body. Indeed, Berger achieved what had seldom been attempted by art historians: he made art accessible. Suddenly, people no longer only saw Michelangelo’s ‘David’ as a big chunk of stone with a face carved into it, but an expression of anticipation, a figure of hope. Yes, art became a new and exciting thing, no longer an entity of the past that was only understandable with the appropriate cultural capital, but an ever-present and tangible interest. 

 

Throughout the series, Berger remarked upon the influence of the camera in bringing art to the forefront of society. He saw it as a method of revolutionising the visibility of art: no longer merely seen in expensive galleries, art was now everywhere: on street posters, album covers, even tea towels. It has become a feature of our reality, or, as Berger eloquently puts it, ‘you are seeing [artworks] in the context of your own life.’ His theory on the camera is perhaps more prominent in the advent of social media. At the risk of sounding like an pseudo-philosophical outsider commenting on the perils of phone-wielding mortals, can we not see a comparison with the way in which our personal lives have become artistic commodities on platforms such as Instagram? 

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It was Berger's critique of the portrayal of the female form in art that led to analysis of the 'male gaze', Ways of Seeing, BBC 1972 [VIDEO STILL]

The second episode of the series is arguably the most well-known, focusing on the female nude. Berger introduced the concept of the ‘male gaze’, later explored by Laura Mulvey in her essay on film theory, ‘Female Pleasures and Narrative Cinema’. Berger explored the way in which the position of women within a visual image is that of the observed, while the viewer - the man - watches her. Comparing two images from a 19th century painting and a ‘girlie magazine’, Berger argued: ‘Is not the expression remarkably similar in each case? It is the expression of a woman responding with calculated charm to the man whom she imagines looking at her.’

 

Berger furthered the exploration of this sentiment through a discussion with several women on the subject of the portrayal of femininity. Offering an empathetic response to the continued portrayal of women in a position of surveillance, one of the participants argued that within the visible world, ‘availability implies passivity’. While in retrospect, the encounter was somewhat exclusive - the participants are all middle-class white women - Berger challenged the notion of the male perspective being definitive through his inclusion and encouragement of female voices, a feat rarely attempted by many discussion panels today.

 

Berger challenged the monolithic perception of art harboured by the social elite, and transformed it into a radical new way of thinking. No idea was ever definitive, with Berger bidding the viewer to question everything. To him, art was constantly changing.