book-reviews

Ways of Seeing

by John Berger

Rating: ★★

Here are some reductive summaries of the seven chapters in this book.

Chapter 1: Art galleries are dumb, memes are the future. Chapter 2: Tits! Chapter 3: Men like looking at women, and pretending women are to blame for it. Chapter 4: Uh, art? I really don't know, there were runs of themes but nothing across everything. Chapter 5: Turns out they were all oil paintings. Apparently oil paintings are about owning things, where 'things' can be anything. Chapter 6: Different kinds of people. And horses. And dogs. No idea. Chapter 7: Adverts are a bit like oil paintings because they're about stuff.

Okay, it might be apparent that I didn't really like this. Part of this is down to Berger's style, which seems to involve making weird and unsubstantiated claims, and then expanding airily on those claims. There are a bunch of points Berger does this in the text, but they are particularly galling when he does it with regard to the illustrations. Some examples:

  1. Regentesses of the Old Men's Alms House by Frans Hals: Berger instructs that we 'judge for yourself' about whether Hals painted some criticism of the Governesses. Well, I did, and I can't see anything to suggest that, and neither do I come away thinking that I 'know the personality traits and even habits' of the subjects, as both he and the author he quotes suggest I should.

  2. La Grande Odalisque by Ingres: Berger says the two women have similar expressions. No, the one looks sleepy or perhaps embarrassed and the other flirtatious.

  3. The Ambassadors by Holbein: Berger says that 'every square inch' of the painting appeals to the sense of touch. It doesn't. I couldn't even tell that anything was meant to be metal until I read Berger's description. My first impression was that the two subjects look staggeringly similar, and the distorted skull is weird and looks like a rendering issue.

  4. Mr and Mrs Andrews by Gainsborough: Berger says that the landowners' 'proprietary attitude towards what surrounds them' is evident in their stance and expressions. I can't see anything of the sort, they just look sort of squinty.

Maybe I'm just not good at the sort of interpretation Berger likes to imagine for art. I certainly didn't get any sense of narrative in the three purely visual chapters, and struggled to even see any kind of point in any of the portfolios.

My issues with Berger are larger than simply not being able to see what he sees in art, though. The title of the book is 'Ways of Seeing', and it is hard for me to escape the impression that what this refers to more than anything is the ability of art critics to see their own politics in art, regardless of anything actually visible in the piece itself. This is demonstrated by his own example. Aside from the first chapter, which presented the most convincing thesis (about shifts in the value of art), his textual chapters read like a 70's liberal hit list: he sees as important about art the objectification of women, 'possessions', and capitalism. There is no mention of realism/fabulism or anything important in different schools of art, and throughout it all he adopts a critical tone about the hegemony of European art -- despite including very few and primitive examples from any other source.

I thought with the nudes he had a glimmer of a point -- the women are being objectified, and sometimes they are even being contorted so that they can be nude to the viewer. But this is almost a foundational premise of that whole class of art, and it's hardly shocking to learn that pictures of naked ladies are mostly for the pleasure of men. And, you know, for all that Berger lectures about issues with the nude, he sure seems to include a lot of them in his book. And I don't just mean in the chapters discussing nudes. Every single chapter has multiple nudes in it, though they are rarely central to anything he discusses. I wonder whether Berger himself considers his reader to be male?

Regarding oil paintings and ownership, his argument seems highly contorted and bizarre, and he seems to stretch very hard to bring in snippets like "if a man stole a potato he risked a public whipping" which reinforce his narrative of wealth and possession and oppression without actually having anything to do with any art. Why is it that oil paintings in particular are about 'owning' the pictured thing, when that 'thing' can be anything from a landscape to people to a story to an ideal? After reading Berger, I still don't know why he thinks this, and really I grow more suspicious that he just wanted to make some appropriately communist noises. His analysis of advertising is less objectionable -- who doesn't find adverts annoying? -- but seems somewhat unstable when balanced on top of his wobbly oil painting thesis. He makes a series of assertions about what advertising images are, but again fails to substantiate most of these.

I think the idea, really, is that you have to enter the book either 1) already agreeing with John Berger about everything, possibly because you're a liberal university student in the '70s or 2) willing to let John Berger just make sweeping statements which you will accept. The ideas in the first chapter are the most interesting, and I think the most well-argued of them all. No doubt the rest is useful as a possible perspective for thinking about art, but there is no real information being communicated here that isn't already communicated by the politics of half a century ago.