John Berger on how to see

John Berger—essayist, novelist, poet, screenwriter, art critic—loves to help people see what is around them, teach them how to look at the world. His life’s work is dedicated to this endeavor.

One of his most celebrated achievements is the BAFTA Award–winning Ways of Seeing, a four-episode television program written and presented by Berger and originally airing in 1972 on the BBC. “A British arts broadcasting landmark” and “a key moment in the democratisation of art education,” The Guardian calls it. The script was adapted the same year into a book, a collaboration among Berger, Mike Dibb (BBC producer/director), Richard Hollis (graphic designer), Chris Fox (consultant), and Sven Blomberg (artist). It’s still in print!

Berger’s super-conversational style and his bucking against tradition no doubt contribute to his appeal. In the first episode, he establishes his aim: to get people to cut the mumbo-jumbo that always rises up around art and instead approach art directly, much like children.

Here it is:

The episode points out the ways in which photographic technology has changed the way we look at art—it has made it more accessible, but it can also manipulate. When a painting is reproduced in a textbook, for example, details may be cut out to force your focus somewhere, or arranged to form a narrative, or compared with other works, and words surround the painting that will influence your reading of it. If presented on film, camera movement and music also play a part. Berger gives examples using, among others, Pieter Bruegel’s The Procession to Calvary [14:03]; Vincent Van Gogh’s Wheatfield with Crows [16:12]; and Francisco Goya’s The Third of May 1808 [18:28].

He says,

The camera, by making the work of art transmittable, has multiplied its possible meanings and destroyed its unique original meaning. Have works of art gained anything by this? They have lost and gained.

Paintings (especially sacred ones) used to be an integral part of the buildings for which they were designed, says Berger, but now they are often experienced outside that context, rendering their meanings ambiguous. Of paintings in churches, he says, “Everything around the image is part of its meaning. Its uniqueness is part of the uniqueness of the single place where it is. Everything around it confirms and consolidates its meaning” [05:20]. He briefly addresses icons, which I know some Orthodox believers are averse to having displayed in museums, where they cannot even be touched and thus lose part of the function for which they were created.  

Extending his argument into the twenty-first century, and to stained glass, I’ll share an example. This is an image I posted on Twitter this morning:

Piper stained glass tweet

My 140 characters were pretty straightforward, giving some identifying information. If I had more space, I would have included my source for the photograph ( and a link to the “hospital” where it is installed ( Or I could have commented on its theological content.

I chose not to post this long shot of the chapel, though it would have given a bit more locational context:

St. John's Chapel, Lichfield
St. John’s Chapel, Lichfield, Staffordshire, England.

If I were posting for #WorldLionDay, I could have close-cropped the upper right mandorla with its emblematic representation of Mark the Evangelist.

On my Twitter profile page, this post appears between a retweet of a Reel Spirituality “trailer talk” on The Same Kind of Different as Me and a music video of Daniel Martin Moore performing “In the Cool of the Day.” In a follower’s feed, it could be sandwiched between #MySoulmateIn5Words and #TrumpExplainsMoviePlots (to name two of today’s trending hashtags).

I originally encountered the image on a Pinterest board of stained glass by John Piper. Loving the design, I saved it to my computer (where it lives alongside others like it in a folder called “Christ in Majesty”), captioned it with credit info in Picasa, and tagged it “tetramorph” (for easier searchability, should I ever write a post on that topic). I’ve never seen the glass in person, never worshipped in the chapel for which it was created, never even been to Lichfield.

What of the community that commissioned it—its history, its mission, its heart? What of the architecture that surrounds it? How does the glass look at 7 a.m. versus 3 p.m. versus 9 p.m.? What is it like to take Communion before it? To pray in the pews, bathed in its light, after the death of a loved one? To encounter it straight-on while singing, say, a Christmas carol? How does it look from the outside? What inspired Piper in his design? What scripture was read at its dedication?

A place of healing and hospitality, the Hospital of St. John the Baptist was built in 1135 as an Augustinian priory and a pilgrim hostel. To this was added a range of almshouses in the fifteenth century, which provided accommodation and care to impoverished men. Even today, St. John’s continues this work, hosting both single men and married couples in modernized apartments. Its chapel has been in continuous use since 1135. The Piper window was installed in 1984.

Knowing how central hospitality is to the compound’s mission, I now see Christ’s extended arms as a symbol of such, not merely of cosmic dominion. His stance is a declaration, but it’s also an invitation.

But my tweet, for better or worse, presents the image apart from all this background information, apart from what the commissioning board requested and the artist intended. It’s part of my “art and theology” program, so I’m obviously urging people to read it as both art and theology, but I want people to feel free to interpret it in light of their own experiences and seeing. One person might see in it centuries of religious oppression; others, a revelation of God’s heart, or the world’s telos. A stained glass artist might admire its technical skill, while a musician might focus in on the trumpeting angels. As Berger says, when art is reproduced, its meaning becomes more fluid.

All this cements Berger’s point: the invention of the camera has changed what we see and how we see it. With the invention and spread of the Internet, it’s changed even more. Art reproductions (in pixels) are now more transmittable than ever—art can be photographed and uploaded to social media within a matter of seconds, and can extend into multiple networks within minutes. Museums are digitizing their collections so that anyone can view them from home, and many even offer a zoom function so that viewers can choose which details to enjoy. But when art images—say, paintings—are mediated by a computer screen, what is lost? As with printed reproductions, things like surface texture, materiality, scale, environment. Sometimes even the color and lighting of the photo are so manipulated that the photo appears much brighter, or darker, than the actual work of art.

Berger points out that the two sorest losses when a painting is reproduced are the painting’s silence and its stillness [12:00]. When they’re present,

it’s as if the painting, absolutely still, soundless, becomes a corridor, connecting the moment it represents with the moment at which you are looking at it. And something travels down that corridor at a speed greater than light, throwing into question our way of measuring time itself.

A screen or a page can try to simulate silence and stillness, but it can’t.

In addition to raising awareness of the ways in which art reproduction changes things, Berger also undermines “art world” practices—in particular, how historians, curators, critics, gallerists, and auctioneers talk about and appraise art. He laments that a Virgin and Child drawing in London’s National Gallery, beautiful and mysterious in and of itself, is regarded as such today and treated with reverence not because of what it shows or what it means but because of who painted it: Leonardo da Vinci. It has survived, and it’s an authentic da Vinci, and therefore it is impressive [9:40] and to be treated like a relic, encased behind bullet-proof glass. Its meaning doesn’t factor into its market value at all.

Berger calls this “false mystery” and “false religiosity”—“a substitute for what paintings lost when the camera made them reproducible” [10:35]. Instead of inspiring spiritual awe, as they once did, sacred Renaissance paintings now inspire an awe that’s linked to their absurdly high cash value. Berger is speaking of how the art world, in general, approaches art of the past and teaches the public to approach it. Of course many people are still inspired by the content of religious paintings . . . but maybe not wholly apart from concerns of who the artist was; if he’s noncanonical, a no-name, the painting is then maybe slightly less impressive. If the gatekeepers of the Western art canon, after all, haven’t admitted a work through the gates, it makes you question whether your appreciation of it is justified.

In a few humorous examples, Berger reads from art catalogs, showing that what a reproduction makes accessible, text often makes inaccessible [8:30; 22:17]. Catalogs will go on and on for pages about the authorship of a painting, legal squabbles surrounding it, this line and that color, and then spend little to no space discussing the painting’s actual content. The result is, sometimes, the depersonalization of what might have been a very personal painting—as in the case of Frans Hals’s Regents of the Old Men’s Almshouse and Regentesses of the Old Men’s Almshouse—or the erection of a barrier that prevents everyday people from approaching paintings on their own terms.

I have a ton of appreciation for art experts—their knowledge, their research, the articles they publish and the exhibitions they mount. And I acknowledge that every field has its own specialized language that will sound unfamiliar to outsiders, and produces materials that are not intended for outsiders anyway. But I do share Berger’s concern, even forty-four years later, that art is too mystified, and the experts keep it that way. In focusing so much on who the artist is and what the piece’s formal qualities are, we neglect the question of meaning. This is even truer, I think, for contemporary art.

I recently listened to an Intelligence Squared debate hosted by the Saatchi Gallery back in 2011, titled “Museums Are Bad at Telling Us Why Art Matters.” Arguing in the affirmative, British art critic Ben Lewis says that contemporary art museums don’t distinguish between art that matters because it’s successful (fun, popular, famous) and art that matters because it’s good (meaningful, of enduring quality). In trying to legitimate the art in their collections and shows, museums make all kinds of ridiculous claims about it, all of which bypass the question, Why does it matter?

Perhaps we can recover a better way of seeing by turning to children as a model, Berger suggests. Until they’re educated out of it, children experience paintings directly, readily engaging the subject matter, which Berger demonstrates by showing a group of schoolchildren responding to a reproduction of Caravaggio’s Supper at Emmaus [25:53]. It’s so adorable watching them work out who the figures are and what they’re doing! (“That lady’s being all romantic.”)

Supper at Emmaus by Caravaggio
Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (Italian, 1571–1610), The Supper at Emmaus, 1601. Oil and tempera on canvas, 141 × 196.2 cm. National Gallery, London.

At the conclusion of the episode, Berger reminds us of the manipulation we’ve just experienced over the last half hour:

Remember that I am controlling and using for my own purposes the means of reproduction needed for these programs. . . . As with all programs, you receive images and meanings which are arranged. I hope you will consider what I arranged, but be skeptical of it.

I second this admonition to readers of this blog. Art & Theology exists for a particular purpose, which I’ve outlined on the About page. And the images I choose to highlight—and how I choose to highlight them—contribute, I hope, to that purpose. But while I pick out certain facts and significances to share, I want to remind readers that I welcome feedback in the comment fields, including pushback where you believe my interpretations are off base and the remedy of any important omissions, as well as bringing your own experiences of art to the table. Berger said in 1972 that modern mass media does not easily allow for dialogue. Well, it does now!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s