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Ways of Seeing by John Berger

1972, BBC, Penguin Books Ltd

Looking through some old college papers recently, I found a photocopied excerpt of this book about the relationship between seeing and words. I bought a copy; it's a slim volume, 7 chapters, somemade up of just images.


It was compiled by five writers based on a BBC TV show by one of them, John Berger (see video below), whose name I will refer to as the writer.


What I found most interesting was chapter 5's discussion of oil painting before the invention of the camera (1400s - 1900s). Berger theorizes that rather than being appreciated intrinsically, for the talent required or the idea rendered, oil paintings represented the status and wealth of the owner.


This relationship between ownership and the way of seeing a painting was first noted by anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss (and generally ignored by historians); it can be seen in the many oil paintings of objects, but also in the way subjects are portrayed looking out at the owner/spectator, as if existing for their sole pleasure rather than as an expression of the artist's personal observations.


Even works of genius, which are rare, can reveal this way of seeing a painting (p. 108). Compare this early work of Rembrandt and his young wife, with a later self portrait.


Self-portrait with Saskia
Self-portrait

Self portrait with Saskia portrays the couple's happiness in the "conventional" way, says Berger, representing mainly their good fortune, prestige and wealth, rather than any real sentiment. In contrast, in Autoportrait, the Rembrandt of later years, having lost his wife and youth long ago, paints from his heart and seems to be questioning something, perhaps existence itself. (ch. 5)

The last chapter, the one from my college class (Marketing? Philosophy? Economics?), deals with advertising and its political influence. Berger says that "art tends to serve the ideological interests of the dominant class," (p.89); advertising only recognizes buying power. No other type of hope, satisfaction or pleasure can exist in the culture of capitalism." (p 156) In this short video from 2011 Berger discusses art, story-telling and what he learned from reading Marx.





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