【Reading Report: Ways of Seeing】
First made as a four-part TV programme narrated by John Berger himself, Ways of Seeing was published in 1972, and remained a vastly influential work in both fields of cultural studies and visual art. Berger divides the book into seven essays, four of which are written and three comprise purely of images that, unlike what Berger advised (p. 5), are in effect accompaniments to the written ones. I will briefly comment on notable concepts and methods of these essays in the following report.
Before proceeding to discuss the subject matter, however, I feel compelled to point out the most salient feature in Berger’s writing style. It can be safely said that Ways of Seeing, notwithstanding being inspired by theorists like Benjamin, Williams and Foucault, is not an academic work as such. Even so, Berger writes with an authoritarian, even sermonic tone that better resembles his highly persuasive TV script than essays aiming for objectivity. Berger’s intention is further affirmed by the book’s lack of chapter titles and subtitles, and the unfinished sentence “To be continued by the reader…” (p. 166) on the last page, both of which seems to reflect his wish not to write a systematic study on cultural sociology, but simply to record his musings on art and society and to freely stimulate the reader. Nonetheless, Berger’s forthright language allows him to dissect ideas with exceptional intensity and precision, and, in hindsight, also preserves the his historical position as a ‘rebellious outsider kicking against the cultural institutions and assumptions’, giving the reader a better idea towards the background of Berger’s enquiry.
It may be no groundbreaking thing to say today that art operates on a social plane. In 1972, however, John Berger’s Ways of Seeing was, as the back cover describes, a “watershed”. Claiming to carry the torch of Walter Benjamin (p. 34), Berger makes the following conclusion in his first essay, addressing the factors at work in the demise of the living force of art: “One of the aims of this essay has been to show that what is really at stake is much larger.” Berger’s dissatisfaction with the establishment’s indifference towards societal changes, which can be seen in his critique on traditional art criticism (p. 13-16), leads him to analyze what is actually embedded in what he calls ‘the language of images’ (which is in fact the same thing that Stuart Hall calls ‘regimes of representation’) and how it is related to our ways of seeing – thus, our ways of thinking.
Indeed, from the start of the book Berger argues, like Sartre’s famous quote “existence precedes essence”, “seeing precedes thinking.” Starting by clarifying an ontological viewpoint that sees our act of seeing as what enables the act of understanding and the acquisition of self-knowledge (the ‘reciprocal nature of vision’, p. 9), Berger goes on to argue that, in art, how an image is looked at is ‘affected by a whole series of learnt assumptions’ (p. 11). The argument that “An image became a record of how X had seen Y” (p. 10) is especially pertinent as it draws, accurately, from the historical development of the human psyche, whose ‘consciousness of individuality’, and subsequently whose ‘awareness of history’ – how P (precedents of X) had seen Y – is ever increasing. This explains why art can never be separated from how a group of people (the society) had seen Y, which exactly denotes the social aspect in the receiving of art, counter-affirming the same thing in the creating of art. In so doing, he establishes a way of seeing art – art as the direct manifestation of the powers of ideology, race, class, and gender – which he continues to illustrate in the second and third written essays.
The two following written essays (the third and fifth chapters) are closely connected in their exploration of oil paintings. Ultimately, both essays confirm oil painting as a major form of discourse and, thus, a source of power in the Western society since roughly 1500 (p. 84). Among the many examples Berger cited to illustrate this unifying idea, his blatant critique on Memling’s Vanity (p. 51) strikes me as being remarkably courageous, a quality that renders his words constantly relevant to the modern day society. “You painted a naked woman because you enjoyed looking at her, you put a mirror in her hand and you called the painting Vanity, thus morally condemning the woman whose nakedness you had depicted for your own pleasure.” Some may find this argument simplistic, but there is no denying its strength as a resistant reading that cruelly exposes the unequal power relationship between genders, a relationship that is a crucial part of Western high culture.
In the fifth chapter, Berger’s reading of power relationships extends beyond the issue of gender inequality and into binary oppositions including the colonizer and the colonized, and the higher and lower social classes. Here, his analysis of Holbein’s The Ambassador (p. 89-97) is a revelation: by relating this painting to De Witte’s Admiral De Ruyter in the Castle of Elmnia (p. 95), in which the black slave is subserviently upholding an oil painting of a castle that happens to be a slave trade centre, Berger makes a cogent case bringing out the subtle celebration of colonial power that can only be so clearly seen inter-textually. That Berger interprets the globe, the arithmetic book, the hymnbook and the lute in The Ambassador as symbols of colonial power (p. 95) in Foucault’s power/knowledge paradigm is no surprise. What is noteworthy is how Berger reapplies his theory on seeing (p. 9) on the colonial condition at hand (p. 96): “The way in which each sees the other confirms his own view of himself.” The ontological concept of the ‘reciprocal nature of vision’ (p. 9), or rather the ambassadors’ lack of it (p. 97), returns to consolidate how seeing implies status, wealth and ultimately power.
A particularly illuminating episode in this chapter is where, having established that the tradition of oil painting is a Eurocentric and patriarchal metanarrative that dominated European art and its way of seeing, Berger singles out two ‘exceptional’ (p. 93, p. 110) artists for commendation: William Blake and the late Rembrandt. To Berger, Blake’s paintings grew out of that tradition but defied it by making his figures ‘transparent and indeterminable one from the other’ (p. 93) – effectively cancelling out any power relationship, reaching a rarified height that ‘transcend[s] the “substantiality” of oil painting’. This appraisal is sure to find resonance among readers of Blake’s luminous poetry. With late Rembrandt, Berger compares two of his self-portraits, the first drawn in Rembrandt’s youth, firmly echoing the materialistic and power-celebrating painting tradition (p. 111); the second drawn thirty years later, when Rembrandt was 58. Berger spends relatively very few words on the second portrait, curtly describing it as addressing ‘the question of existence’, but prints it in a larger-than-usual size (p. 112), letting the portrait’s powerful sense of isolation and questioning register fully upon the viewer. The act of questioning is naturally associated with that of challenging authority or convention, and to Berger Rembrandt has, finally, entered the stage in which the artist could use the convention against itself. Blake, Berger remarks, was able to antagonize such a monolithic tradition only with ‘a deep insight into the meaning and limitations of the tradition’ (p. 93). The same, of course, goes for Rembrandt, ‘whose vision had been formed by that tradition’ and who made the effort to ‘separate it [his vision] from the usage for which it had been developed’ (p. 110) – an act of resistance in its fullest, strongest sense.
In the end, by highlighting the transformation of these two masters, Berger is also highlighting the possibility of transformation among the viewer/reader. Rembrandt and Blake committed the act of resistance and as did Berger himself by writing this book – a book that, like the two masters’ paintings, is only possible with an intimate knowledge of traditions and an unceasing attitude to question, examine and recreate. This is, I believe, one of the main messages in this book, a message of such urgency that it alerts us today as it alerted readers thirty years ago. Its examples of commercials or socialistic tendencies might have been outdated but its method of analysis remains steadfastly purposeful, and its critique on art criticism unfailingly brings art back into society, into relevance, in the hope that its living force may be restored by a discerning society. That is why every time one rereads this book something catches one’s attention as being highly relevant to current issues. I can think of no higher praise for a work of a public intellectual.