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John Berger

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Ways of Seeing (1972) John Berger
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As Geoff Dyer has noted, much of the impetus given to Cultural Studies, the critical/academic form of postmodernism, can be traced to Berger's TV series and book Ways of Seeing (1972): many of the questions raised and areas for study pinponted have generated a whole academic industry. [Jun 2006]

"When the camera reproduces a painting, it destroys the uniqueness of its image. As a result its meaning changes. Or, more exactly, its meaning multiplies and fragments into many meanings." --Berger, 1972 p. 19


John Peter Berger (b. November 5, 1926) is an art critic, novelist, painter, and author. The best-known among his many works include the novel G., winner of the 1972 Booker Prize, and the introductory essay on art criticism Ways of Seeing, often used as a college text. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Berger [Oct 2005]

Ways of Seeing (1972) John Berger

Ways of Seeing is an influential book by John Berger, consisting of several essays about art, feminism and publicity. It is often assigned to college freshmen who are studying art history. In it, he makes inquiries in how we view art, why we view art, and possible social implication of art. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ways_of_Seeing [Oct 2005]


Imagine yourself in front of a television or at your computer terminal. Across the screen streams a series of images: Mona Lisa, Venus de Milo, a photograph of Madonna, an advertisement for Calvin Klein underwear, a still life by Picasso, a snapshot of you smiling in a T-shirt with the Mona Lisa's face on the front. Now imagine you are sitting among hundreds of other students in a darkened lecture hall as your Art 100 instructor, laser pointer directed at a ten-foot-high projection of Leonardo da Vinci's masterpiece, recounts various theories explaining the Mona Lisa's enigmatic smile. Finally, imagine yourself in the quiet of the Paris Louvre, standing before the 21"x 30" oil-on-wood original portrait of the wife of Francesco del Giocondo--the original Mona Lisa. The differences among these three experiences constitute the topic of John Berger's "Ways of Seeing."

Born in London in 1926, Berger has been an artist, poet and screenwriter as well as essayist, and is very much part of a conversation that includes writers in this volume such as Annie Dillard, Walker Percy, and Susan Sontag. As Berger himself acknowledges, however, the conversation began for him with German critic and philosopher Walter Benjamin, whose ideas deeply influenced Berger and Sontag, too. Born in 1892, Benjamin was the son of German-Jews. He fled to France in 1933 with the rise of the Nazis, but when Germany invaded France, Benjamin was forced to flee again. While attempting to cross the Franco-Spanish border in September 1940, he was ordered back to France. Benjamin committed suicide that night.

Benjamin's essay "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," to which Berger refers at the close of his own essay, reflects Benjamin's horror at the Nazi party's efforts to "aestheticize" politics, war and genocide--that is, to turn them into art. Rather than rendering politics aesthetic, Benjamin called for politicizing art. In "Ways of Seeing," Berger does just that. The age of technology, he claims, has freed art objects from the grip of the wealthy few and made them available, through reproduction, to all of us. Yet the "language of images," our experience of art, our appreciation of art, and, most important, our human history represented in art all remain in the grip of a new controlling minority of art specialists who define for the rest of us what we see. The result is to "mystify," rather than clarify, art and our relationship to it. Though thirty years old, Berger's call to liberate art--and us, its viewers--may be especially timely in the current age of computerized image-making and the World Wide Web.--http://writingprogram.hfa.umass.edu/otwb/readings/berger.html, accessed Apr 2004

Seeing [...]

"Seeing comes before words. The child looks and recognises before it can speak. But there is also another sense in which seeing comes before words. It is seeing which establishes our place in the surrounding world; we explain that world within words, but words can never undo the fact that we are surrounded by it. The relation between what we see and what we know is never settled." [John Berger, Ways of Seeing. London: BBC 1972, p. 7]

These are the first words spoken by John Berger at the start of the television series Ways of Seeing first broadcast by the BBC in 1972. That series inaugurated a thorough-going re-vision of the way in which we think about the world. It did so by putting the question of vision and the visual image at the heart of questions about culture. --Lloyd Spencer , http://www.tasc.ac.uk/depart/media/staff/ls/WSeeing/Embody.htm, accessed Mar 2004

The Male Gaze

In Ways of Seeing, a highly influential book based on a BBC television series, John Berger observed that ‘according to usage and conventions which are at last being questioned but have by no means been overcome - men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at’ (Berger 1972, 45, 47). Berger argues that in European art from the Renaissance onwards women were depicted as being ‘aware of being seen by a [male] spectator’ (ibid., 49), http://www.aber.ac.uk/media/Documents/gaze/gaze08.html, accessed Apr 2004

The Ways of Telling: The Work of John Berger (1987) - Geoff Dyer

In search of John Berger

The Ways of Telling: The Work of John Berger (1987) - Geoff Dyer [Amazon.com] [FR] [DE] [UK]

Geoff Dyer (born June 5, 1958) is an author. He lives in London. He is best known as the author of But Beautiful, which won the Somerset Maugham Award, and has been called (by Keith Jarrett, for example) the best book ever written about jazz. Other notable titles are Paris Trance, Out of Sheer Rage (a finalist for a National Book Critics Circle Award), and Yoga For People Who Can't Be Bothered To Do It. He has contributed articles to The Guardian, The Independent, the New Statesman and Esquire. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Geoff_Dyer [Jun 2006]

See also: John Berger - art criticism

Seeing Through Berger (1980) - Peter Fuller

Seeing Through Berger (1980) - Peter Fuller [Amazon.com] [FR] [DE] [UK]

Ways of Seeing was the subject of a detailed but misjudged critique in Peter Fuller's Seeing Berger (1980). The book was subsequently reissued with the title Seeing Through Berger and marked an abrupt turn against Berger by this previously loyal supporter. --http://litencyc.com/php/speople.php?rec=true&UID=380 [Jun 2006]

--http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peter Fuller [Jun 2006]

See also: John Berger - art criticism

Ways of Seeing (1972) John Berger

Ways of Seeing is the book of a groundbreaking and brilliant TV series that Berger created with Mike Dibb in the 1970s. The book isn't quite as amazing as the series, but it's acquired canonical status anyway as Berger's most frequently set text on art and art criticism. Which is a pity, because while the impressive confidence of Berger's judgments was inspiring back then (Marina Warner and Michael Ondaatje have each paid tribute to it), time has passed over the last quarter of a century and the book is in danger of looking old-fashioned. The theory of desire, which Berger manages to popularise in a single succinct chapter, has been challenged, confirmed, turned upside-down and generally elaborated upon so much since the book was written that his version of it is now inadequate. Advertising is vastly more sophisticated now than it was in 1972 - the ads reproduced in the book, while perfectly representative of their time, are almost laughable in their blatant sexism and classism. (You wouldn't get away with them now, that's for sure.) But the account of the rise of oil painting is still persuasive, even if it lacks the cheek and mischievousness of the TV version. Readers expecting to find Berger's most incisive and complex criticism should look elsewhere, though, to The Sense of Sight or About Looking, because Ways of Seeing is essentially a popularisation of theories that have since become much more complex, and Berger's lapidary, no-argument tone is hardly applicable anymore. Somebody should release the series on video, then we'd get the same ideas in a more engaging and fascinating manner. lexo-2 via amazon.com

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