Ways Of Seeing by John Berger

Waysofseeingcvr Ways Of Seeing was by most accounts an extraordinary affair. A BBC documentary series that looked at art and advertising, it tried to explain in four programmes the values that were imbued in the paintings, drawings and photographs on show, and tease out how these – and the prevailing attitudes towards them – shaped the prism through which we, the viewer, then saw and interpreted them. The series has never been made available on DVD, apparently for reasons of copyright: getting clearance for this plethora of images has made it impossibly expensive. Pity. Instead of four episodes, the book is arranged in seven essays – four with pictures and words and three with just pictures. The latter are the least successful: even though they are designed to elicit questions, some guidance would be useful. But parts of the other four are revelatory. Talking about the way oil paintings, for example, were socio-economic statements of the status of their subjects seems so obvious today – yet at the time (1972) no-one was really taking this as a starting point. There are faults: the bold typeface screams at the reader, as does the text at times: ‘Capitalism survives by forcing the majority, whom it exploits, to define their own interests as narrowly as possible,’ John Berger intones. So didactic is this approach that at times you expect him and his collaborators to start banging on about seizing control of the means of production and storming the Winter Palace.’ To save everyone’s embarrassment, they don’t. But if you can get past all that you are often rewarded with real insight. What about this, talking about the way an advert is designed to make a female feel: ‘The publicity image steals her love of herself as she is, and offers it back to her for the price of the product.’ The image presented to young women in particular in advertising of their bodies (thin is good, fat is not and so on) – even though this is not what Berger was specifically talking about – has never been expressed so starkly or succinctly. At times Ways Of Seeing reads like the ramblings of a silly old Marxist. But a silly old Marxist who is intelligent and worth listening to.

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