114 of 121 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An historical document, but still fiercely relevant.
thirty years on, 'Ways of Seeing' continues to be a major primary textbook, not just for those studying or interested in fine art, but in any of the humanities from literature to cinema. You can see the appeal for lecturers - difficult but essential theorists such as Benjamin and Barthes are explained with bite-size lucidity, even if this sometimes has the effect of...
Published on October 22, 2001 by darragh o'donoghue
185 of 205 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A classic that's becoming outdated
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...
Published on November 26, 1999 by lexo-2
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114 of 121 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An historical document, but still fiercely relevant.,
thirty years on, 'Ways of Seeing' continues to be a major primary textbook, not just for those studying or interested in fine art, but in any of the humanities from literature to cinema. You can see the appeal for lecturers - difficult but essential theorists such as Benjamin and Barthes are explained with bite-size lucidity, even if this sometimes has the effect of caricaturing their work. As Geoff Dyer has noted, much of the impetus given to Cultural Studies, the critical/academic form of post-modernism, can be traced to Berger's TV series and this book: many of the questions raised and areas for study pinponted have generated a whole academic industry.
In seven chapters, Berger assaults the traditional bastions of art 'appreciation', with its obfuscating jargon, elitist interests and, most damagingly, its insistence on timeless, non-'historical' values. three of these essays are text-free, image-based, and Berger claims all the essays can be read independently and in any order, as part of the process of 'deconstructing' the apparatus of art criticism that includes laying bare the mechanics, manipulations and limitations of his arguments, and undermining the very idea of coherent authorship by suggesting the name 'John Berger' signifies a five-piece collective.
contrary to Berger's claim, the image-essays can only be properly understood in connection with the textual ones. these are four now-classic pieces of critical iconoclasm. the first synopsises Benjamin's famous essay 'the Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction', and discusses how art, and the culture it embodies, has lost its old rarefied authority in a demystifying age of image overload. chapter three analyses the classic tradition of nude paintings, and the misogynistic/patriarchal worldview it upheld. A related chapter, five, shows how oil painting, far from ennobling the viewer's soul, was used to celebrate and confirm property, unequal social relations, even slavery. The final chapter discusses the legacy of this tradition in modern advertising and publicity.
Most of Berger's ideas hold up remarkably well three decades later, sturdy enough not to need the linguistic acrobatics of his successors. As is appropriate, though, for a book pleading the return of history to the criticism or art, 'Ways of Seeing' is itself an historical document. Not just in the sense of a pioneer work being a little dated in its language, a little exposed in its own ideological assumptions. unlike his followers, Berger still seems to love some art, even if his 'exceptions' seem to lack method. Some of his very personal discussions about 'love-making' strike me as being a bit embarrassing, but I'm probably repressed. His Marxist beliefs might have been expected to be the most obsolete element of the book, but the clarity and passion of his ideas are refreshing in these ideologically compromised times.
No, what I mean is, when Berger wrote this book, he was very much the rebellious outsider kicking against the cultural institutions and assumptions propping up various social inequalities. While politically little has changed, the culture industry has been made over in Berger's image. Every work of criticism on literature, cinema, art, even history is now shaped in some way by the ideas formulated here. it is ironic and sad that a book dedicated to opening minds and new ways of seeing (and thinking), should have merely replaced one monolithic worldview with another.
70 of 73 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Art as tool,
WAYS OF SEEING is a collection of seven essays. Three are pictorial; four are textual. All are about art, how art is seen, how it is valued, how it is used, and what we can learn from looking at art.
Of the textual essays, the first is about the mystification of art and history by its associations with assumptions and values that are not necessarily inherent in the work itself, but in its rarity, uniqueness, and commercial demand. He discusses art as being seen as an almost religious icon, and how the reproduction of images has contributed to the mystification of the original image.
The second textual essay is a study of women and how they are seen, who sees them, and how they see themselves being seen by others. It is Berger's critique of the Nude as an art form, and he argues that they place women as objects to be seen and desired and overpowered by men, the subject.
The third essay is about the tradition of oil paintings in Europe between 1500 and 1900. Berger explains the connections between the content of these paintings and the ownership of them as a symbol of affluence, as products of capitalism and the maintenance of the status quo.
The fourth essay has to do with publicity, or advertisement, and the reference that such images make to oil paintings, sexual attractiveness, and dissatisfaction with the current state of life (the promise of a better future, given that you buy something).
I'm not an art historian, and I don't know much about theories of art. But WAYS OF SEEING is a book that pierces into the comfortable notions of art as belonging to the elite and cultured, and reveals its role as used to maintain power structures. Who commissioned the work, who is meant to look at it, what is it putting on display, what are its political motives? These are questions that should be asked of any work of art, and Berger aims to ask these questions. By doing so, he also enlightens the reader.
185 of 205 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A classic that's becoming outdated,
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.
32 of 35 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Remains a classic popular intro to many issues in art,
Barely showing its age after thirty years, John Berger's WAYS OF SEEING remains one of the best popular presentations of academic and scholarly thought in recent decades. There are actually very few original ideas in Berger's book. Just about the entire content can be found in a variety of thinkers either inspiring, belonging to, or influenced by the Frankfort school, for instance, Meyer Schapiro, Adorno, and especially Walter Benjamin. None of these thinkers are household names in the English speaking world, even though Schapiro may well be the greatest art critic America has produced, and despite Benjamin's possibly being the greatest cultural critic of the 20th century. One reason their ideas have not become more widely known is the fact that all of these thinkers were deeply influenced by Marxism, though none of them were Communists. As a result, while many of the ideas that Berger presents in his work are well known in literary and scholarly circles, they remain unknown to most casual visitors to art museums.
Berger is intent to challenge ways of looking at art and other images that ignore the status of works of art as commodities. We not only live in a capitalistic society, but one in which virtually all its inhabitants are consumers. Consumers purchase commodities. Berger wants to raise the consciousness of viewers of these paintings that they are not merely "masterpieces," but commodities. Or, in the case of oil painting, visual representations of commodities.
These central assumptions are brought out in a series of essays. The first is a straightforward presentation of the main ideas in Walter Benjamin's seminal essay "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," a fact that Berger acknowledges at the end of the essay. (This essay can be easily obtained in Benjamin's great collection ILLUMINATIONS, which also includes classic essays on Proust, Kafka, and Baudelaire, as well as his astonishing "Theses on the Philosophy of History.") He goes on to write about such subjects as the significance of nudity (as opposed to nakedness) in painting and the ideological use to which oil painting has been put. He ends with a marvelous discussion of the real point in advertising (which inevitably arose with the shift of all European and American nations to consumer societies).
The great virtue of this book is that Berger has a positive genius for what many of the most pertinent insights of the Frankfort school has been, and a genuine knack for presenting these ideas in a readily graspable form. The book still reads marvelously after several decades. I do think the book would benefit from a second edition with a complete revamping of the photographs. While the content of the book holds up well, the photographs often smack too much of the sixties, making the book feel more like a fragment from the past than it ought. Still, WAYS OF SEEING remains one of the finest popularizations of the past few decades, though I would hasten to add that any academic would also enjoy reading it.
29 of 32 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An excellent study of the power of visual discourse.,
By A Customer
I must agree that this is an excellent book. It is not only a wonderful series of essays on art, but a landmark study of the ideological function of visual discourse. Berger "shows" how the framing of visual images shapes the viewer's perception of those images and of what they attempt to represent. Chapters two and three, on "ways of seeing women", are especially powerful illustrations of how particular attitudes are reflected in visual representations and of how those attitudes are reaffirmed for the viewer. Berger's argument is that discourse -- visual in this case -- is never purely objective, but is always reflective of a particular way of seeing the world. This is not to say that we should attempt to overcome our particular ways of seeing -- which cannot be done. It is instead a call to be aware of the ways of seeing to which we have become accustomed, and which we reproduce in our own lives.
28 of 31 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Not as out of date as some would have you believe,
Several other reviewers say this book is out of date. In some ways, yes. But some of the most important points of this book still seem valid.
1.) Art is an artificial market whose value is talked up by art historians and gallery owners.
2.) The depiction of the female nude in art has always contained a exploitative voyeuristic overtone.
3.) The measure of man's power lies in who they can have power over.
4.) The measure of woman's power lies in who can have power over them.
It's small surprise his opinions were buried by academia and the art establishment. These were never popular opinions, but taken in the context of art history and the art market they provide a great counterpoint.
Even now, this book is a great way to demystify the art market for the art student.
38 of 44 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Interesting ideas, but without thoughtful coherent expansion,
This book had some insights, but overall, I found myself quite disappointed by it. Dedicated to attacking the viewpoint of the privileged élite creators of high-art standards of correctness with very little basis for such attacks, ways of seeing seems to be filled with implicit assumptions that are neither inherently obvious nor easily divined from the context of the text.
For example, in the first essay, Ways of Seeing attacks art history, quoting pages of an art history book on Frans Hals, saying that it demonstrates mystification by focusing on technical aspects such as contrast and texture. Yet Berger does not make clear why the privileged perspective of Hals work that focuses more on the nature of the painting itself than the message it conveys is less correct than some other way of interpreting Hals work. While he claims such methods of interpretation and analysis of art are tools of the privileged ruling class to enforce their privilege, this fact does not make such methods of interpretation and analysis less correct than methods that are not used as tools for enforcing ruling class hegemony.
His attacks on the baselessness and vacuousness of art history are especially grating given the glibness of his own analysis of art: in the middle of essay 5, Berger asserts, after handily dismissing mythological paintings as vacuous, that paintings of the poor "assert two things: that the poor are happy, and that the better off are a source of hope for the world," based on the evidence that the poor people in painting are smiling. In the end of essay 5, he says that an early painting by Rembrandt "as a whole remains an advertisement for the sitter's good fortune. (in this case Rembrandt's own.) And like all such advertisements it is heartless." What more evidence does Berger have in claiming that pictures of the poor are intended to convey the happiness of the poor and the hope supplied by the privileged classes or that Rembrandt intended the painting as an advertisement of his good fortune than Seymour Slive, the author of the Frans Hals work, has in asserting that Hals did not paint his portrait of the governors and governesses of the alms house in a spirit of bitterness? Even assuming that Berger has a superior ability to interpret paintings that makes his statement that Rembrandt's self-portrait was intended as an advertisement of himself more valid than Slive's statement that Hals' portrait wasn't painted in a spirit of bitterness, why is such an advertisement of one's good fortune heartless? John Berger doesn't explain why. If it is because self-advertisement is a tool of the ruling class to maintain dominance, and because such tools to maintain the dominance of the ruling class put function first and artistic merit second, and because art which puts function first and artistic merit second is heartless, then Berger never makes such a connection clear.
Similarly, in the same essay, he discusses originals of works of famous art, calling the religiosity that surrounds art of high market value "bogus." Once again, one wonders whether he even asked himself, "if people attach great value to the originality of a work of art, what makes the value attached to the originality less valid than the value attached to the image conveyed?" Berger apparently believes that art has some form of objective value independent of the spectator of the art, but he fails to explain what that value is.
I also found the second essay on nudes is also frustrating in its glibness and dogmatism. For example, starting out, Berger asserts that "a man's presence is dependent on the promise of power which he embodies," whereas "a woman's presence expresses her own attitude to herself." It is notable that the previous two quotes do not concern the portrayal of men and women in art, but the actual social presence of real life, flesh-and-blood men and women. While Berger could make the case that men and women's presences were determined by gender by their power and view of self, respectively, to persuade most people -- who, I would guess, would say that anyone's social presence is determined by a variety of factors, including gender, the circumstances of the situation, power, and view of self -- he must address other, more common ways of looking at social presence, which he does not.
In my view, the element of the book which I found most interesting and plausible was the last essay, that on publicity. This one, I found fairly clearly written, although I did not always agree with it, relative to the others. The last essay is at least coherent and thought provoking.
17 of 18 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars It's a treasure!,
This little book is about the dialetics of seeing. In a highly distilled and sweeping fashion, this book touches on the many issues that one should know about when it comes to looking at works of art:
(1) The relationship between what we see and what we know
(2) The ideas of establishing relationships between things and ourselves
(3) The notion of seeing and be seen
(4) Assumptions and Mystification - the idea that our (and some art historian's) interpretations could sometimes mislead us and the need to objectify.
(5) Reproduction of what we see in paintings and photographs
(6) Our fetish with "nudes" in artistic work
(7) Objects and our possession of objects
(8) Social images like advertising and their allusions as well as their effects on our psyche
This book is deceivingly short and easy to read. However, every paragraph could probably serve as a major synopsis for any lengthy research paper! Enjoy!
26 of 30 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The history of oligarichical damage via European painting,
This is an interesting little book. It is based on a BBC television series of the same name, which I have never seen. I read this book for a writing class while I was a freshman in college in 1985. I remembered liking it (but couldn't remember why), so I picked up a copy at a used bookstore this year and reread it a few times. Now I remember why I liked it. In Ways of Seeing, John Berger chronicles how oligarchical social structures have been perpetuated in western society via the Western European painting tradition (mostly Renaissance oil paintings of the 1500s-1600s). He briefly tries to deconstruct oligarchical myths (perpetuated via painting) such as "true art can only be appreciated by the elite few" and "women's selfhood/bodies must always be constructed to please the patriarchal version of men's gaze." In addition, he attempts to show that European oil painting was often a vacuous object used by the European elite to reinforce their views of superiority over the poor, nature, and material items. He also shows how many of the oligarchial images in Western European painting are now used by capitalism/consumerism to perpetuate this "power for the few" structure through the creation of mass envy via advertising. Although this book was published in 1972 and the images are definitely dated, I think it is very forward-thinking philosophically and certainly very relavant to my own perspective on our current "global domination capitalism." I definitely agree with Berger's assessment in the last essay that the imagery of publicity is built upon convincing consumers that capitalism equals freedom, but in the end this imagery often reinforces the oligarchical structure it's supposed to be against. This is the tragedy of, in Rianne Eisler's words, "domination paradigms." A few criticisms: I find Berger's writing style paradoxically both clear and abstruse. I say this because I have read the book several times (most recently just before writing this review), but I often have a hard time remebering its content after I read it. And, at 150 pages, it is by no means a comprehensive analysis of oligarchical structures in European painting. However, overall, I find Ways of Seeing an interesting read and definitely worth going back to again and again.
24 of 30 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars On art and society,
If in the anti-elitist atmosphere of the 1960s still anyone believed in the idea of the artist as a genius it was Andy Warhol who thoroughly disabused them: in his latest act of devotion and surrender to America's mass culture he develops a process that enables him to photographically transfer tabloid and advertisement pictures directly on to a silkscreen, allowing not only the infinite production of the original work but also the elimination of any apparent sign of the artist's involvement. To make his point clear he then rocks the art markets by declaring (and later retracting) that some of his work was actually executed by assistants. With some delay also art historians started to shift their attention from the retualized celebration of the artist towards the role of spectators and buyers in defining the status and value of art. It is this context in which "Ways of Seeing" has been written.
The multitude of approaches to art suggested by the book's title is also reflected in its composition - if that is the word. Although consisting of numbered essays (both verbal as well as entirely pictorial) Berger explicitly advises the reader (the text begins in a whimsical and refreshing way already on the book's jacket) to go through them in whatever order he pleases, his principal aim merely being "to raise questions". This rather capricious approach somewhat obscures the unifying - and certainly unsettling - theme of the work: instead of examining what art does to us it asks about what we - as spectators, critics, patrons, owners and buyers - are doing to art. It is about the ways in which art serves to legitimize, sustain and conceal social inequality. The central aspects are: class, gender and consumerism.
To set the stage for his study, that tellingly is confined to representational art, Berger first dismisses the traditional approach of art history as mystification. Concepts of aesthetics - and in particular those of composition - he argues, have inserted themselves between spectators and paintings to obscure and obstruct any immediate perception of the social content of pictures. In this way, terms as, for example, "spatial division", "rhythmical arrangement" and "colour contrast" are introduced in an attempt to account for the intensity and emotional charge of a picture whereas any disinterested inspection would reveal these rather to lie in the social discrepancies between the people depicted, or between their world and that of the spectator.
Once the film of scholarly mystification is removed, clarity, precision, solidity, lustre and verisimilitude reveal the main characteristic of European oil painting: the representation of material wealth. Following the ideas of Levi-Strauss, Berger explains the development of this particular art technique and art form and its phenomenal rise in the 15th century by the need of an emerging class of mercantile capitalists, and later the landed gentry, to confirm their sense of ownership and the importance of riches.
Set within a conceptual framework that charts the trajectory of European oil painting as the attempt to perfect the illusion of tangibility it is no surprise that "Ways of Seeing" gives particular attention to the depiction of women. Although the eventual observation - that it was primarily arranged to appeal to the spectator's/commissioner's sexuality - must have seemed commonplace even at the time of writing Berger, in the process of his examination, introduces some interesting ideas on the difference between "nakedness" (to be without disguise, to be oneself) and "nudity" (to be put on display in a conventualized way, to be an object) in European art.
Far less contentious than in the case of oil painting "Ways of Seeing" identifies the idea of ownership also as central to the understanding of modern advertisement. There, buying is presented as the transformation of one's self into a better, a "richer" way of living. By buying the proposed product we become the cheer- and successful people depicted and the envy of others. In this respect advertisement dwells on and stimulates the discontent with the present to hold out the future. Of course (and here "Ways of Seeing" picks up on its political theme), this hope only addresses the personal life of the individual and thereby diverts attention from the need for social change.
With the inclusion of modern advertisement "Ways of Seeing" - which after all is a very thin book - deals with five hundred years of art: its styles, techniques, genres, subjects and artists. This gives any expert sufficient room to find exceptions, omissions, contradictions and opposites and shred the book into pieces. However, "Ways of Seeing" is not written for the professional pinpointer but for the (literally speaking) wide-eyed. In a field in which increasingly more specialized books (on books on pictures) abound this is the ever noteworthy appeal to come back to our senses.
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Modern Classics Ways Of Seeing by John Berger (Mass Market Paperback - October 28, 2008)
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