John Berger's Ways of seeing relevance has been made even more poignant since its original publication in 1972 in light of the recent record-shattering auction price for a painting in November 2017: Leonardo da Vinci's Salvator Mundi. Purchased for $450m at the auction house Christie's and now owned by the Louvre Abu Dhabi, the buyer completely undeterred even when the painting had been shadowed by doubts of its originality.
Ways of seeing is a critical and unconventional text (some essays are textual some image-based) about the loss of innocence towards the social apparatus behind advertising, photography, feminism and composition in European oil painting. A true testament for our collective loss with the passing of John Berger in January 2017 for his precious de-fragmentations of the mechanical act of seeing, his didactic notions on the intellectual exercise of pictorial art analysis and his deracinations of the surreptitious tricks that advertisement and media impose on our notions of sexuality and self-realization.
The purpose of publicity is to make the spectator marginally dissatisfied with his present way of life
The spectator-buyer is meant to envy herself as she will become if she buys the product. She is meant to imagine herself transformed by the product into an object of envy for others, an envy which will then justify her loving herself.
Virgin of the Rocks
Leonardo da Vinci
What is the value of an original work of art and what is the difference between observing a real one and a copy? and on what capacity is that more real than a reproduction? What is the percentage of people that know how to appreciate art and how did they learn those values? Those questions are the ones answered by this book.
In its wide-ranging and deep analysis it unmasks the seemingly innocent ideas embedded in the practices of European oil painting from the 1500s to the invention of photography and cinematics in the early XXth century. (1) From their compositions, methods of representation (perspectival advancements) to their main themes: the depiction of objects of wealth and the objectification of women: the ideology of 'appropriate femininity' in patriarchal societies.
From simply depicting the ownership of many other paintings ( Archduke Leopold Wilhelm in his gallery, Teniers) to expensive food (Still life with a lobster), land (Mr. and Mrs. Andrews, Gainsborough) animals (Lincolnshire Ox, Stubbs), or status (the Ambassadors, Hans Holbein) oil painting was always an artificial and boastful medium, and according to this thesis, it ultimately derived in the contemporary advertising industry with the creation of its promised glamour.
In a forceful critique of capitalism and materialism John Berger points at uncovering the narratives that benefit the ruling class in industrialized developed Western countries: what today is referred as the one percent class. They, as the owners of wealth and all media are the controllers of a modern type of story-telling completely embedded in Neoliberal capitalism (free-market). The reason museums and auction houses are spending huge budgets on ensuring the originality of their works of art is to control the acculturation of our heritage and to preserve status in an era where images are being reproduced and distributed in interminable and incalculable ways.
Ways of seeing disassociates the notions of art being a practice for the well-learned and affluent but rather a product from the affluent.
The art of any period tends to serve the ideological interests of the ruling class
The tradition (oil painting), however, still forms many of our cultural assumptions. It defines what we mean by pictorial likeness. Its norms still affect the way we see such subjects as landscape, women, food dignitaries, mythology. It supplies us with our archetypes of 'artistic genius'
Oil painting did to appearances what capital did to social relations. It reduced everything to the equality of objects. Everything became exchangeable because everything became a commodity. All reality was mechanically measured by its materiality.
A people or a class which is cut off from its own past is far less free to choose and to act as a people or class than one that has been able to situate itself in history. This is why - and this is the only reason why - the entire art of the past has now become a political issue
On the futility of any artist in trying to change the status quo and the constant objectification of women (their sublimation in paintings where are often portrayed as objects of sexual desire, looking out at the observer in a role of complete submission) Berger says the following:
Women are there to feed an appetite, not to have any of their own
Thus she turns herself into an object - and most particularly an object of vision: a sight -
Each time a painter realized that he was dissatisfied with the limited role of painting as a celebration of material property and of the status that accompanied it, he inevitably found himself struggling with the very language of his own art understood by the tradition of his calling.
On the topic of advertisement, John Berger spells for us why we can be completely self absorbed and blind to the many atrocities that beset other human beings: the eternal hunger crisis in Africa, the humanitarian crisis in Yemen, the refugee crisis in Syria. The general lack of empathy that overflows our modern societies is created by consumerism and its blinding effects on our desires and collective dreams, as well as our aspirations for the sublime. Berger has it clear:
Publicity has another important social function. Publicity turns consumption into a substitute for democracy. The choice of what one eats (or wears or drives) takes the place of significant political choice. Publicity helps to mask and compensate for all that is undemocratic within society. And it also masks what is happening in the rest of the world
Publicity is the life of this culture - in so far as without publicity capitalism could not survive - and at the same time publicity is its dream
Capitalism survives by forcing the majority, whom it exploits, to define their own interests as narrowly as possible. This was once achieved by extensive deprivation. Today in the developed countries it is being achieved by imposing a false standard of what is and what is not desirable.
The most poignant critique of the modern media apparatus is embedded in this brilliant revolutionary paragraph, this is Ways of seeing at its best:
Glamour cannot exist without personal social envy being a common and widespread emotion. The industrial society which has moved towards democracy and then stopped half way is the ideal society for generating such an emotion. The pursuit of individual happiness has been acknowledged as a universal right. Yet the existing social conditions make the individual feel powerless. He lives in the contradiction between what he is and what he would like to be. Either he then becomes fully conscious of the contradiction and its causes, and so joins the political struggle for a full democracy which entails, amongst other things, the overthrow of capitalism; or else he lives, continually subject to an envy which compounded with his sense of powerlessness, dissolves into recurrent day-dreams
1. The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, Walter Benjamin