Course Books Reviewed

Ways Of Seeing

The book is written by John Berger (an art critic) and four others and is offered as seven essays, four textural and three pictorial.

The topics of the untitled essays are –
1.  The essay describes how art has been mystified by imagery and description in order to satisfy the elite and not to be judged by its inherent qualities or uniqueness. It discusses how the mystery intensifies by virtue of its monetary value. Also the essay discusses how photography changed art and the way we perceive it.

2.  Medieval and modern pictures of mostly naked women, perhaps trying to demonstrate the evolution, of how women have been portrayed over the ages.

3.  How men and women in particular are perceived by themselves and by society. The perceptions of female nudity in art. How men and women are portrayed differently in art and why. Men in pictures are shown in a powerful or action stance whilst women merely appear. Men are generally the observer of a picture of a woman and often the procurer of the picture.

4.  Some more nakedness, some still life and some portraits and no indication of what these images are meant to portray and little realised from looking at them.

5.  The creation and possession of traditional European art from about 1500 to about 1900. The chapter explores the reason for paintings and suggests that they were to display wealth either in the imagery or by the possession of the item. It suggests that traditional oil painting in that period established norms which still form many of our cultural assumptions. It also suggests that traditional oil paintings are really just about the monetary element, ie. the investment?

6.  See 4 though with less nakedness and again with no evident message.

7.  “Publicity is usually explained and justified as a competitive medium which ultimately benefits the public/consumer and the most efficient manufacturer.” A confusing essay which posits that the essence of publicity or advertising is to make you feel inadequate or inefficient or generally lacking in self esteem. Buy the product and your live will be transformed and you will be very attractive to the opposite sex. Much of the text is out of date. The industry has moved on. The chapter somewhat bizarrely relates itself to oil paintings and stretches the meanings of words to fit, see 11 and 12 below.

A curious book for a number of reasons –
1.  The presentation. The book is poorly printed in a bold type and in an unusual and unattractive layout of text. The photographs of paintings coupled with the poorly reproduced photographs have been reduced to such a size to make any detail indistinguishable. If the authors were trying to be radical in presentation they failed and the amateur appearance detracts from any credibility the authors might have.

2.  In the Notes to the Reader the authors posit the statement  “Our principal aim has been to start a process of questioning. Their writing style is not particularly questioning though maybe it is trying to stimulate thought. However as many of the ideologies introduced are received as personal without substantiation it is difficult to be provoked into lingering with the theory and arguments put forward.

3. Much of the thinking is out of date since the book was published in 1972.

4.  There is much anti-capitalist propaganda represented with an obvious resentment by the authors of those with wealth which rankles. The book suggests that European art was the plaything of the rich who used it to station their place in life over those perceived to be beneath them, ie. everybody else.. Perhaps the authors were in sympathy with the Communist propaganda of the day.

Those on the right may say if it were not for the rich there would be no art insofar that virtually until modern times all art was commissioned and not undertaken speculatively.

5.  The authors have drawn much of their positioning from other peoples work and this element negates any “freshness” of their own thoughts. For myself the logic of some of the questions asked or arguments made does not stand up and so was dismissed as “interesting” but not worthy of further thought.

In summation there are some worthy points, often made in a few words but these could mostly have been made in a single essay which would have been quite interesting. I think for a newcomer to art the authors have a few stimulating thoughts to offer which might alter the reader’s own initial or naive thinking but these points would have been more valuable had they not been muddled in with nebulous political contentions and extreme personal opinions. However generally interesting and stimulating in places and I learned a little.

Some muses, some slightly modified, extracted from the book which might provoke thought.
1.  “The way we see or perceive things is affected by what we know or believe”.

2.  “To touch something is to situate oneself in relation to it.”

3.  “We never look at just one thing – we are always looking at the relation between things and ourselves.”

4.  “Images were first made to recreate the appearance of something that was absent. As an image could outlast the object the image became a record of that object. The image allows us to share the artists experience of the visible. “Images are more precise and richer than literature.”

5.  “Mystification is the process of explaining away what might otherwise be evident.”

6.  “The photographers way of seeing is reflected in his choice of subject. The painters way of seeing is reconstituted by the marks he makes on the canvas or paper.”

7.  “The past is a well of conclusions from which we draw in order to act.”

8.  “When we see a landscape we situate ourselves in it.”

9.  “A man’s presence is dependent upon the promise of power which he embodies. If the promise is large and credible his presence is striking. If it is small or incredible he is found to have little presence etc.

By contrast, a woman’s presence expresses her own attitude to herself and defines what can and cannot be done to her.”

10.  Kenneth Clark – “to be naked is simply to be without clothes whereas the nude is a form of art.” To be naked is to be oneself. To be nude is to be seen naked by others.”

11. “The spectator buyer is meant to envy herself as she will become if she buys the product. She is meant to imagine herself transformed by the product into an object of envy for others, an envy which will then justify her loving herself.`

One could put this another way; the publicity image steals her love of herself as she is and offers it back to her for the price of the product.”

12.  “Any work of art “quoted” by publicity serves two purposes. Art is a sign of affluence; it belongs to the good life; it is part of the furnishing which the world gives to the rich and the beautiful.”

13. “Capitalism survives by forcing the majority, whom it exploits, to define their own interests as narrowly as possible. This was once achieved by extensive deprivation. Today in the developed countries it is being achieved by imposing a false standard of what is and what is not desirable.”