I can’t believe I’d never heard of John Berger‘s 1972 four-part BBC series and book “Ways of Seeing” before. Each episode–“Ways of Seeing,” “The Female Nude,” “Oil Painting,” and “Advertising“–is available on youtube, though I only managed to watch halfway through the second episode before China blocked youtube. The series, which I’m told replays on the BBC every couple of years, starts from a position very relevant to the world today: we’re awash in images, and each of those images, intentionally or not, pushes an agenda which may not readily present itself to the viewer. Berger advocates a critical engagement with all images, from contemporary advertising to the oil paintings of the European masters and beyond, and his series gives viewers the language and tools to do so.
Berger’s inquiry moves slowly and critically, dissecting images, their contexts, and what viewers themselves bring to the dialog between picture and viewer. The book, “Ways of Seeing,” has played a role in contemporary feminist thinking through its exploration of depictions of women in advertising and classical painting. The second episode of the series, “The Female Nude,” takes on the subject most directly, calling into question the whole of classical images of women. Berger’s conclusion, as well as that of those he interviews in the series, is that the paintings of nude women hanging in the great museums of Europe are nothing more than pornography. The women in the paintings are objects to be violated or consumed, and nothing more. I’ve rarely heard someone speak so forcefully against this branch of the western canon, and it’s refreshing.
The series is not without its faults. In the first episode, Berger appeals to oil painting as the highest of visual forms. Perhaps, but likely not. My timeline of photographic art history is a bit fuzzy, but this series likely appeared around the same time that photography as art was making its way into the great galleries and museums of the world. Photography now stands alongside other visual art forms as almost an equal. Berger’s reliance on his own opinions and arguments, too, presents problems. Halfway through “The Female Nude,” John Berger realizes he hasn’t had a single female critic discuss the subject; he quickly fixes the problem with an all-female discussion panel, but the anxiety he feels here runs throughout the parts of the series I’ve seen.
And yet, there’s a lot of value to the series. Speaking or writing about visual subjects is notoriously difficult. While we’re forced to watch Berger stare at paintings more than is necessary, “Ways of Seeing” adeptly weaves the visual with discussions about the visual in straightforward and jargonless language. Berger’s presents his views clearly, making careful observations about the visual without delving into art school discussion-style solipsism, tautology, ambiguity, or equivocation.