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].
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. Continue reading “John Berger on how to see”