John Berger’s ‘Ways of Seeing’ exploded a discipline. But his greatest legacy might be a quieter project of re-enchantment
At the start of the first TV episode of Ways of Seeing, John Berger takes a scalpel to Botticelli’s Venus and Mars. The opening beat of the programme is the audio of the incision – the blade’s rough abrasion on canvas – before the soundtrack settles into voiceover. ‘This is the first of four programmes,’ Berger says, ‘in which I want to question some of the assumptions usually made about the tradition of European painting. That tradition which was born about 1400, died about 1900.’
Ways of Seeing first aired on Sunday evenings on BBC2 at the start of 1972. It attracted few initial viewers but, through rebroadcasts and word of mouth, the show gathered steam. By the end of 1972, it had gone viral. People in London and New York argued about Berger’s ideas. When Penguin commissioned a paperback adaptation, the first two print runs sold out in months. Regularly assigned in art schools and introductory art history courses, Berger’s project has never really waned in popularity. That first episode now has close to 1.4 million views on YouTube, and the paperback regularly sits atop Amazon’s Media Studies bestseller list.
For decades, Berger’s name has been shorthand for the series, which has been shorthand for a certain style of combative, materialist art criticism. Often presented as a riposte to Sir Kenneth Clark’s TV series Civilisation(1969) – Berger himself spoke of it as a ‘partial, polemical reply’ – the show attacked Clark’s school of connoisseurship ‘with a razor’. Suave, moneyed, knighted at 35, Clark was the embodiment of the high-cultural mandarin: art existed for the pleasures it afforded those refined enough to feel them. Berger was a self-styled outsider: he had run away from boarding school as a teenager, and left England for France in his 30s. Art was best, he said, when it was born of struggle and inspired belief. At its worst, it was little more than a luxury good. The difference extended to the very mode of aesthetic response – appreciation or critique? This is the significance behind the act of vandalism that opens Ways of Seeing. Viewers soon learn that the painting Berger cut was a facsimile, but the metaphor of the scalpel is plain: to question is to dissect. It is to cut past the scrim of beauty, and reveal more fundamental anatomies: capitalism, colonialism, patriarchy, mimetic desire.
It is a move that has only grown in ubiquity ever since. The feminist art historian Griselda Pollock remembers the ‘moment’ of Berger’s appearance – 1972 – as a kind of methodological primal scene: after the show, the humanities began to turn away from connoisseurship toward what Pollock has called the ‘analysis of power and the deconstruction of classed, raced, and gendered meanings’. Ways of Seeing became an urtext of critique, a work that captured young imaginations, and changed the way that people saw and understood the world. Close to 50 years on, Pollock’s description still applies to most of the work done by humanities scholars and, more and more, mainstream cultural journalism too. From the arts and culture pages of The Guardian or The New York Times to the latest hot takes on Twitter, what criticism has come to mean is what Berger pioneered. In an age of open media, the implications are vast. If the internet has made all of us critics, that means we are all now foot soldiers in a culture war: self-armed semioticians and practiced deconstructors of political signification.
As is the case with most viral content, nobody expected Ways of Seeing to travel so widely, least of all its authors. Kept to a tight budget, the show was filmed in a rented electrical goods warehouse in Ealing, a west London suburb. Berger worked on his voiceover at his parents’ apartment on Hallam Street, in the imposing shadow of the BBC’s Broadcasting House. After the series aired, the arrangement of the book was anything but streamlined. Berger worked with his creative partners (Mike Dibb, Richard Hollis and Sven Blomberg) in a manner more closely resembling the bricolage of a zine than the strategic making of a bestseller. It was a principled if madcap route to fame, part of a broader revolutionary mood. Later that same year, on receiving the Booker Prize for his novel G. (1972) – a sexual bildungsroman set in prewar Europe – Berger announced on stage that he was sharing half the prize money with the London-based Black Panthers. Of course, fame can be secretly coveted only for the privilege to cast it off afterwards. But the one-two punch of Ways of Seeing and the Booker scandal were decisive. Taken together, they turned Berger into a star.
Like beauty, provocation can hide as much as it reveals. Time brings new colour to old materials, and what makes Ways of Seeing so enduring might not be the same as what made it so electrically influential when it first appeared. We are now more aware of the fissures in the show, in its slight hesitations and indecisions, and in the hedges to what was otherwise such a freight train of an argument. The pictorial tradition of the female nude, Berger argues throughout the second episode, was not a celebration of humanist virtue but a fantasy of the acquisitive ‘male gaze’ (the term was coined a year later by Laura Mulvey). But then, as if in a footnote, he adds a hushed caveat, noting the ‘few exceptional nudes’ that were expressions of the painter’s love. There are similar equivocations at the end of nearly every episode. What of the masters of the tradition? What of its rebels? What of the mystery – beyond the ideology – of art? What of those anonymous works not held in any museum but exchanged between friends and partners? And what of the most modern art form of all – the art that comes to us on a screen?
In retrospect, Ways of Seeing was not only about painting but also television. More specifically, it was about painting-as-seen-on-television, which is to say it was about the transition from one medium to another, one tradition to another, maybe even one epoch to another. In short, it was about the severing of roots. Just after Berger cuts out the head of Venus from the Botticelli, we see her cropped portrait run through an industrial printer, multiplied ad infinitum and set in motion along the circuits of mass exchange. The movement finds its outward echo in the following shot: the silhouette of a television monitor against a blue screen.
From the oil painting to the printing press to the cathode-ray tube of TV: beyond the simple aggression of a razor, the opening of Ways of Seeingpresents a filmic reenactment of the argument of Walter Benjamin’s essay‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ (1936). (One of the chief legacies of the show was helping to launch Benjamin to the front of the critical canon.) Writing during the terrifying onrush of fascism, Benjamin saw the crisis of European liberalism as, in part, a result of the emergence of new media. The advent of photography, the phonograph and other machines of automated replication had produced a more disturbing change in social consciousness than others had recognised. The CliffsNotes version of the essay focuses on Benjamin’s notion of the aura, the idea that reproduction severs artworks from their anchors in space and time, that facsimiles lack something that originals possess. But this was only half of his argument. Benjamin was just as interested in the entire network of mass mediation (as a replacement of art) and the new, seemingly unanchored artform of film. These, he believed, were part of a broader shift that meant nothing less than ‘the shattering of tradition’ and the ‘liquidation of the value of tradition in the cultural heritage’. As new forms of technological culture replaced the old – and the argument will be familiar to anyone who has paid attention in the past several years to discussion of the internet – civilisation moved into a halfway house of mediation, susceptible to new modes of political adventurism and mass behaviour.
Benjamin’s essential concept of remediation has come to denote the process by which an older medium is represented in, or mimicked by, a newer one (as well as the inverse). The yellow sticky notes on your laptop or the painting app on your phone are common examples. Ways of Seeing was itself one of the most ambitious, self-reflexive projects of remediation of the entire postwar period. Building on André Malraux’s concept of a ‘museum without walls’, Berger built a museum of the airwaves. He presented at an often dizzying pace: Botticelli, Leonardo, van Eyck, Bruegel, Rembrandt, Van Gogh, Caravaggio, Goya, Hals (all in the first episode). Berger was bringing painting into what Raymond Williams called ‘an irresponsible flow of images’ characteristic of television. It was an early harbinger of the waterfall scroll of Instagram or Google Images.
Remediation has been theorised by contemporary scholars in relation to adaptation, translation, perspective, realism, transparency, sampling, recyclage and the user interface. For Berger, it was always connected to something more fundamentally human: the experience of migration.[…]
Continue reading: John Berger’s ‘Ways of Seeing’ and his search for home | Aeon Essays
Edited bySam Haselby