Annotation: Ways of Seeing

Originally published in 1972 as a companion follow-up to his BBC television series, John Berger’s Ways of Seeing is a remarkable and interesting book from start to finish. Even the cover is nontraditional, ignoring the standard need for a cover separate from the rest of the book. Instead, they simply took an excerpt from the book, and used that as the cover. This establishes the sort of book this is from the very get-go: challenging the current deified, over-intellectualized view of art in modern society.

Standards are meant to be a groundwork, a starting point to grow from. They are not meant to be a constraint, a restriction as to the only “proper” methodology, but that is exactly what they have become. To fall back to an art medium I’m more familiar with, in photography one of the most commonly referenced “standards” or “laws” is the law of thirds, which is a guideline for composing your image. There are plenty of reasons to use this guideline, not the least of which is our natural predisposition to “sacred geometry” which a thirds-based image tends to satisfy. That said, photographers can end up trapped by this law, and become incapable of doing anything but this. They become chained to it, and often become incapable of appreciating any image that deviates from it. It is not until these deviations, these abnormalities become accepted by the artistic elite that they become accepted as a worthwhile technique. This has been my sentiment for quite some time, and I found Berger’s essays on this subject both cogent and topical. In particular, I found the statistics provided by Pierre Bourdieu and Alain Darbel on public perceptions of museums and art particularly interesting, as well as his discussion of the historical causes of this shift.

Interestingly, some art students argue that this shift never took place, and that this was always the nature of art. These are also the same art students that declare that “art is dead” so ardently, which I personally feel is the cliché battle cry of those who are afraid to contribute to it. Once again falling back to photography, I can pretty safely argue that this shift from art for art’s sake and as a commercial entity into the deified realm restricted only to the social elite is entirely within the realm of possibility, and with historical context as referenced by Berger, seems a virtual certainty. I have been witnessing the same progression in the field of photography for most of my life, and have discussed the topic with others who have been in the field for well over 40 years. With the advent of inexpensive scanners and printers, it is easier than ever before to accurately reproduce a photographic work, with or without the consent of the photographer. This has forced professional photographers to undergo a shift of their own: they must either shift into charging for their time and creativity rather than on a per-print basis, or face financial extinction through individuals purchasing a single print and duplicating it themselves. In order for this shift to work, however, there must also be a cultural shift in mindset to view hiring a photographer as a service, not as a product: you are purchasing the photographer’s creativity, not the print. This is, in my mind, incredibly similar to the cultural shift that painters underwent when lithographs and other methods to reproduce their art became available. The artists needed a way to justify their profession, and the social elite needed a way to continue to separate themselves from the masses, hence the shift to the importance of having an “original”, and to have the name of artist mean nearly as much (or more) as the painting itself.

I think I may have talked myself into a corner here, so allow me to clarify what I mean: the art community was forced into a paradigm shift in order to survive. This is pragmatic and understandable. While it is unfortunate, I do not consider this shift necessarily a bad thing. What I do consider bad is the way the social elite took this shift and bent it towards their own purposes — namely in further stratifying themselves from the rest of society.

As you can probably guess, the first essay in Ways of Seeing really struck a chord. I’ll let it rest for now, and instead move on to the rest of the book, which decidedly also merits discussion. His second essay, which was a montage of images gathered to form a visual essay was interesting. I found it directly relevant to one of his later essays on depictions of women in art, and I found both essays to be significantly less heavy-handed and accusatory than other essays and articles I’ve read about the topic. (While the objectification of women is a damnable thing, taking an accusatory, hateful tone about it is quite possibly even less effective or useful than simply doing nothing. Demanding reparations does nothing more than encourage resentment.) In particular, the use of female sexuality in commercial art is really rather directly pointed out, and the distinctions he makes between being naked, and being nude, and it explains my own personal choice to prefer the direct earnestness and honesty of an image of someone who is naked versus a picture of a nude. That is not to say that nudes don’t have their own place, and the objectification of the human form (male or female) can be used towards great effect as a method of artistic abstraction, much in the same way that a building can be made a thing of abstract shape and form through perspective, becoming something that is no longer a building (or in the case of nudes, a person). But as far as portraits, or human expression is concerned, I would far prefer to see someone naked because that is the most primitive, honest expression of themselves, than to see someone posed and nude because someone else wishes it.

I’m going to skip over the essay on the nature of art as a method of proving your possession of something else (a ship, a piece of land, a prize animal, a spouse or child, et cetera), because I feel like I’ve already addressed this in my discussion of the first essay, and go on directly to the essay on the use of art in advertising. This brought up some interesting points both in favor and against the ways art is used to sell things other than art, as well as how “corporate art” can still be considered art. Here’s my take on it, after reading his essay: of course it’s still art, and of course the social elite brand it as “selling out”. Use of art in advertising brings art to the masses, countering the whole push to keep art as a tool of social stratification. Whether it is through direct use, or through emulation of a classic piece of art, it allows the masses to have access to works that they might otherwise never see, and never appreciate or be enriched by. There was significantly more use of art in advertising and publicity in the 60s, 70s, and 80s, at which point there was a backlash, when the notion of use of art in advertising was a form of selling out and devalued the merit of the art really gained enough momentum to be noticeable. By the late 90s to now, there has been significantly less use (though it still does happen), and I can’t help but feel that this is part of the over-intellectual stratification, an attempt to retake art as solely the purview of the elite. Looking through the images included in the essay, while dated in composition, it is obvious just how much more direct influence prior art had on advertising compared to modern day.

Frankly, I blame the academic institution at large. While there are always exceptions, I find it remarkable and frightening how many schools of “art” I have seen that do nothing more than churn out more embittered, brainwashed pseudo-intellectuals that serve to do nothing more than maintain an entirely unnecessary stratification fostered by their professors (who themselves have been ensnared in this mindset). They obscure this stratification by hiding behind muddy definitions-through-lack-of-definitions of art, trapping their students in the circle of asking “what is art?” Well, here is a definition: art is a method of expression. That is my definition, and as far as I’m concerned, that’s all a definition it needs. That, of course, is not acceptable to those who wish to deify art, because that definition intrinsically makes it accessible to anyone who wishes to express themselves. It returns art to the masses.

Mind you, I am not making a distinction between “good” art and “bad” art. That is a largely subjective arena, and can really only objectively be discussed on the merits of particular techniques, and subjectively on whether you (the individual) like it or not. Really, whether art is good or bad does not matter to the larger definition of art itself — the artist either expresses themselves well, or they don’t. They either have good technique, or they don’t. (I am well aware that nothing is truly binary, which is why I generally place things in three categories, things I like, things I don’t like, and things that I may not like but respect. But for the sake of the discussion, I’m keeping it generalized.)

John Berger has certainly raised some very interesting subjects, in a coherent fashion that are still just as relevant today as it was when it was written 30 years ago. I would gladly recommend this to anyone interested in art (and in fact already have). Considering just how topical this book remains, it really serves to prove just how hard it is to break through the established mindset. I can only hope that at some point, it ceases to be topical, and instead becomes historical.

Berger, John. Ways of Seeing. New York: Penguin Publishing, 1973.