Looking back on John Berger’s ‘Ways of Seeing’

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This year began with the sad passing of influential art critic and broadcaster, John Berger on the 2nd of January 2017. His seminal television work Ways of Seeing (1972) and its accompanying text was not only a critique of western visual culture, but also of the arts documentary tradition itself. As Randy Kennedy remarks in the New York Times:

Mr. Berger’s intention was to upend what he saw as centuries of elitist critical tradition that evaluated artworks mostly formally, ignoring their social and political context, and the series came to be seen as an assault on the historian Kenneth Clark’s lofty “Civilisation,” the landmark 1969 BBC series about the glories of Western art.

Indeed, broadcast only three years after Clark’s Civilisation, Ways of Seeing could not escape comparisons to BBC Two’s most popular arts and culture series. However, as alluded to by the writer above, there were a number of fundamental differences between Ways of Seeing and Civilisation in regards to both their style and ideologies.

In contrast to Clark’s celebratory traditionalist approach to Western culture, Berger provides a far more radical critique of art. This is an analysis situated within the social conditions in which the art was produced and in many ways reflected Berger’s own Marxist political leanings.

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Berger’s underlying focus throughout the series centres on the ways in which the medium of television as a form of reproduction inherently alters the reception of art. In the first episode, clips taken from Dziga Vertov’s influential Man With a Movie Camera are used to illustrate this idea of a constructed reality presented through the medium of film. As Berger states in his companion book to the series:

When a painting is reproduced by a film camera it inevitably becomes material for the film-makers argument. A film which reproduces images of a painting leads the spectator, through the painting, to the film-makers own conclusions. The painting lends authority to the film-maker. (1972: 26)

To illustrate this, the  series takes an overtly self-reflexive approach, consistently making the audience aware that they are watching something constructed rather than viewing reality through the window of the television screen. During the first episode the camera cuts to a long shot of the studio to include the other cameras, lights and crew, reminding the viewer that the means of production are always inherently intertwined with the images and ideas produced.

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Marking the 40th anniversary of Ways of Seeing in 2012, Sukhdev Sandhu asserted that the series is ‘now regarded not only as a landmark work of British arts broadcasting, but as a key moment in the democratisation of art education’.

Whereas it has often been argued that Civilisation brought art to the ‘masses’, Ways of Seeing opened up these works for critique and debate. Perhaps the clearest articulation of this is presented by Berger in the introduction to the before mentioned book:

The relation between what we see and what we know is never settled. Each evening we see the sun set. We know that the earth is turning away from it. Yet the knowledge, the explanation, never quite fits the sight. (1972: 7)

By promoting this relativist approach Ways of Seeing not only prompted us to challenge prescribed interpretations of the arts, it also served as a more pertinent lesson in the nature of media and visual culture more broadly.

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Today the media landscape is undeniably more complex than it was in 1972. As we enter 2017 reports of ‘fake news’ and modern day political propaganda have dominated the conversation on a global scale. This is a time in which the need to question the way we see the world through our television, computer screens and mobile phones has arguably never been greater.

 

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