Ways of seeing-chapter 1. John Berger

As an introduction to this powerful piece the dominance of  vision in our lives is suggested by the fact that seeing comes before words- both in the infant, and as we make sense of the world through seeing and thinking (Berger, 1972: 7). Of course what we see informs what we think, but what we think changes the way we see too. We do not simply mechanically see, we choose what to see by moving our eyes (Berger, 1972: 8).  If we see we can also be seen, and this reciprocal nature is more fundamental than that of speaking/dialogue (Berger, 1972:9).

The author gives one idea for the definition of an image

An image is a sight which has been recreated or reproduced. It is an appearance, or a set of appearances, which has been detached from the place and time in which it first made its appearance….

(Berger, 1972:9-10)

Berger believes that photos are not a mechanical record we are aware that the image taker has selected the image from many different variations (Berger, 1972:10). This is less ambivalent than Walter Benjamin’s view, and accords to a greater extent with my own (see above). His choice of subjects reflects his way of seeing, as do the brushstrokes of a painter reflect his (Berger, 1972:10).  I find this analogy a little imprecise. Surely this compares apples and pears? Both artist and photographer choose subjects similarly, but whilst an artist uses an artist’s techniques – brushstrokes, choice of colours, and other technical processes, a photographer uses technical knowledge of exposure, colour filters, light levels etc.  to make the image real.

How we see a photo is dependent both on how the photographer sees and how we see (Berger, 1972:10)– but this is true of all art forms I think. Originally images were used to conjure up invisible entities- this use corresponding to the ritual which Benjamin describes (Benjamin, 1999:76). Images developed to include people and how they looked, and the consciousness that it was an image of how one person felt another looked. This was due to an increasing sense of individuality and of history.  Berger states that the image is the most direct communicator of history, compared to text for example, and that it is ‘therefore ‘more precise and richer than literature’ (Berger, 1972:10). It may be richer and more direct, but the philosopher Roland Barthes asserts that the image is less precise than text, in a complex article ‘Rhetoric of the image’ (Barthes, 1999: 33).

When we view images of the past we bring with us assumptions  and ideas which include beauty, form, status, and  genius  (Berger, 1972:11).   Berger  argues that these ideas are not really relevant to the world today and they  mystify the past. This makes artworks both more remote, and importantly it reduces the chance of  us learning from them (which he describes as  offering  ‘us fewer conclusions to complete in action’ )(Berger, 1972:11). To understand the past we need to place ourselves within it, and the past is mystified by a ‘priveliged minority’ in order to validate  a historical role for the ruling classes literature’ (Berger, 1972:11). This article is powerfully political and subversive and very refreshing because of it.

The author now criticises an unnamed art historian over his analysis of  two Frans Haals paintings- Regents of the old men’s alms house, and it’s sister painting  Regentesses of the old men’s alms house.  The analysis ‘transfers the emotion provoked by the object from the plane of lived experience, to that of disinterested ‘art appreciation’ (Berger, 1972:13). I think the critic deserves his relative anonymity here, as he  seems to describe the paintings using a fairly standard ‘artistic elements’ approach. Berger suggests that rather than dismiss our own thoughts about how the figures were painted- and the personalities and relationships which emerge, we must use this as the only evidence available. He also says that bringing in various historical facts and figures cannot change the reality of what we see (Berger, 1972:14). Mystification is not about the  vocabulary used, but about ignoring what is evident (Berger, 1972:15).

There now follows a rather rambling, sometimes repetitive   section where we are counselled how to avoid this type of mystification, taking the example of perspective. From Renaissance times perspective was a way of ordering things so that the viewer was at the centre of things (Berger, 1972:16). With the development of the  camera what was seen is dependent on the photographers position in time and space.  This meant that images did not have to look like all the old paintings (Berger, 1972:17). I think of the way the photograph may have influenced the Cubists- their altered perspective, their lack of traditional perspective, and their incorporation of several views in one image.  ‘The visible came to mean something different to them. This was immediately reflected in painting’ (Berger, 1972:18). These are well argued points but its not immediately clear how this discussion is an example of demystification. The author does not make clear how this lengthy example fulfils his criteria.

There then follows a restatement of Benjamin’s idea- that photography reproducing a painting destroys some aura (a place, a history) and gives the new image a different meaning, or many meanings (Berger, 1972:19). When a TV programme transmits the image of a painting, each viewer has  their own context, and their own meaning (Berger, 1972:19).

In the age of  mechanical reproduction, viewing an original now tells us first and foremost that it is an original, not what it’s message is. These days the value of an object is due to its rarity, not its message, and that this rarity has assumed a bogus religiosity and mystification in an era of religious scepticism. Before a work of art we feel that due to its authenticity, it is beautiful, and it is art. (Berger, 1972:21).  This suits the artisitic elites who run galleries and the arts. They are far more interested and concerned with research and scholarship that establishes authenticity, and much less bothered about the message! (Berger, 1972:22).

Berger’s next artistic example is Leanardo’s cartoon ‘The Virgin and Child with St Anne and St John the Baptist’. He suggests that it has become impressive due to its market value.  Berger argues that this ‘bogus religiosity’ takes the place of what was lost when paintings became reproducible, and claims that the art establishment makes  the original mysteriously authentic, which is undemocratic .  (Berger, 1972:23).

Art galleries are visited by fewer uneducated than educated people and people think of art as belonging to the world of the rich (Berger, 1972:24) due to connotation with market value I presume. The original meaning is lost and new meanings are created in the age of reproduction of images. These can be achieved by i. isolation of a single part (Berger, 1972:25),  ii. The splitting of a painting up into parts which are arranged in order to tell a story (such as a  filmmakers message) .  (Berger, 1972:26),  iii. Addition of text (Berger, 1972:27), and iv. The  addition of other images around it (Berger, 1972:29).

His next point is very powerful, and is perhaps the central statement of this text, that because of the ways we can change the meaning of art, anyone and everyone should be able to use art. But in the modern world art is still mostly used in a way that justifies the old view of art and its importance to hierarchical  structures like the Church, The aristocracy, and the powerful(Berger, 1972:29). This does beg the question of what examples can be imagined of more democratic uses of art, and can I think of any that are being used in the present day and world?

The author cites an example of a board used by a person to pin up personal memorabilia. These may include images, and all are usually strongly connected  to the person; ‘logically these boards should replace museums’.  (Berger, 1972:30). Originals do not become useless – they have an immediacy – in the paint, the brushwork, but it’s what we do with our experience which can be different now (Berger, 1972:31). Nor does he believe that old art must be easy to understand as if difficulties can simply be personalised away. We need to have a view of art which relates it ‘to every aspect of experience’, and applied  to our own life, not one which is dominated and led by artistic elites and antidemocratic thinking which the art establishment believes in (Berger, 1972:32). Berger describes how art has always been isolated, originally in places connected with magic, and later in churches, castles and Palaces, dominated by the elite. But reproduction has freed art from this elite culture! .  (Berger, 1972:32). He reiterates that the use of art still does not empower people- it still works for elites, but we can gain power by using art  in a more personal way, using it to understand ourselves, and history (Berger, 1972:32). In fact ‘The entire art of the past has now become a political issue’ (Berger, 1972:32).

This is a very Marxist view of art, and it’s is interesting to wonder whether art has become more democratic, personal, and applicable in the forty years since this article was written (both how we view and use old art, and what we view and use as new art). It  is also massively illuminating when I think about my reaction to modern art. Although I have increasingly broadened and democratised my opinion of modern and contemporary art, I still frequently work against an inner voice which says ‘A child could do that’, or ‘that does not take skill’. Berger’s view of art tells us that if we have this view, then we need to remember that art must be personally empowering, and political, and has no need to look like the art of the past. In fact it should not. It should be whatever is relevant to each of us in society and should include everyone.

BLOG questions

Do you find his case convincing?

Berger believes that art’s elite nature is a mystification of art. Mystification has to an extent always been part of art, through it’s rituals of magic and religion. We now live in a world where magic, and religion no longer dominate and where  technical  reproduction has the  potential for the democratisation of art. However, Berger believes that the elites still control art through their concentration on an approach to art which is dominated by a bogus aura; an obsession with rarity, value, research and scholarship. This ignores what’s most important-what art can mean to individual people, and how individuals can act on the conclusions they make from their experiences of art. In order to redress the balance he believes that we should look at what the art tells us, act on our conclusions, allow the art to affect how we live our lives. We should reduce our dependence on academic scholarship and the provenance of artworks. We should be open to new ways of personalising our experience of art. His Marxist view is that the powerful art elite (the superstructure) are maintaining this hierarchy, and I suspect that he would like a significant change made in the art establishment (new appointments and de-appointments).

Do you think that a work of art removed from its original site grows or diminishes in meaning?

On the one hand removing a work of art from its original site may diminish it’s aura. This reduces the aspect of ritual connected to the art, because it’s original site is lost. However, the history, age and authenticity of the art does not completely evaporate by the move, and the artwork can be re-energised by it’s repositioning. To be controversial, and play the devil’s advocate- when I visited Rome, I did not go to the Vatican to see Michelangelo’s painting on the ceiling of the Cistine chapel- I was told that the queues entailed hours of waiting. If the ceiling were removed and broken up, and distributed to sites all over the world, would this be a bad thing? Yes the painting has broken up, and some small loss of aura has occurred. But if the peoples of many countries had a small piece to  look at and learn from, the power of Michelangelo’s artistic message may  have been increased compared to it’s original setting.

Does familiarity breed contempt?

In the case of reproductions of rare masterpieces I don’t think so. It has to be a good thing for these reproduction images to be democratised; to be used in adverts, on postcards, in TV programmes, for comedy… and any other way which we can usefully engage with them in the context of our present time.

Any sense that we are treating the images with contempt, or any sense that we are not respecting their history because we are interacting differently with them should be quashed. I agree with Berger’s argument for the democratisation of artistic images. We no longer live life in reverence to magic and religion, and yet we are still allowing ourselves to be imprisoned by artistic elites who continue to alienate the masses by maintaining the bogus aura of a work’s history and uniqueness.

The overwhelmingly important aspect of our relationship with old ‘authentic’ art, is that we are touched and learn from it. Mechanical reproduction allows this art into new aspects of our lives, and if we remain open to it’s powers, we should be able to change our lives through it. We need to reduce our obsession with how things were for others- concentrating on how things are for us, when we approach a historical artefact. This is a wonderfully democratic idea, and strongly revolutionary.

Has Benjamin’s aura been removed by the postcard? See above!


Barthes, R (1999) ‘Rhetoric of the image’ In visual culture: a reader. Evans, J and Hall, S (eds.). London. SAGE Publications.      p. 33-41

Benjamin, W.(1999) ‘The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction’ in In visual culture: a reader. Evans, J and Hall, S (eds.). London. SAGE Publications.      p. 72-8

Berger, J (1972) ‘Chapter 1’ in Ways of Seeing. Great Britain, Penguin.   p.  7-34


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