John Berger’s Ways of Seeing
Ways of Seeing is a 1972 BBC four-part television series of 30 minute films created chiefly by writer John Berger and producer Mike Dibb. Berger’s scripts were adapted into a book of the same name. The series and book criticize traditional Western cultural aesthetics by raising questions about hidden ideologies in visual images. The series is partially a response to Kenneth Clark‘s Civilisation series, which represents a more traditionalist view of the Western artistic and cultural canon.
The book Ways of Seeing was made by Berger and Dibb, along with Sven Blomberg, Chris Fox, and Richard Hollis. The book consists of seven numbered essays: four using words and images; and three essays using only images. The book has contributed to feminist readings of popular culture, through essays that focus particularly on depictions of women in advertisements and oil paintings. Ways of Seeing is considered to be a seminal text for current studies of visual culture and art history.
The first part of the television series drew on ideas from Walter Benjamin‘s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” arguing that through reproduction an old master painting’s modern context is severed from that which existed at the time of its making. The second film discusses the female nude. Berger asserts that only twenty or thirty old masters depict a woman as herself rather than as a subject of male idealisation or desire. The third programme is on the use of oil paint as a means of depicting or reflecting the status of the individuals who commissioned the work of art. In the fourth programme, on publicity and advertising, Berger argues that colour photography has taken over the role of oil paint, though the context is reversed. An idealised potential for the viewer (via consumption) is considered a substitution for the actual reality depicted in old master portraits.