Posts Tagged ‘oil painting’

John Berger: Ways of Seeing

July 23, 2022

     This seminal work is now half a century old, and still incredibly valid and relevant. As Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media opened our eyes to how print media actually work on us, this short book takes the lid off how works of art operate on the viewer over time, and how we see, consume, interpret pictorial/ representative art, as well as the factors in its production: nothing is innocent, particularly the interaction between viewer and object. We make assumptions, and in the case of many works, the past comes between as well.

So art, too, inevitably, is political, wherever we find it and look at it. Berger deconstructs the sexual politics of art, too, and the objectification of women in art, particularly though not exclusively, through the nude in art. Art was, and to a large extent still is, something for the wealthy to possess and give value to, more stuff for them to squirrel away with their other ill-gotten gains, and oil painting especially was capitalist art par excellence, shown by the period in which it developed, what ii represented, and what it symbolised.

In our day, art has become publicity – advertising – manufacturing glamour and promoting consumption. In exactly the same ways as in earlier days, art creates dreams: you are what you have, what you can afford to have and show off. For Berger the difference is that in the past, art was saying “This is mine, this is what I possess”, whereas now advertising is saying “This is what you can be, in fantasy if not in reality”.

This is succinct and trenchant analysis that is as relevant today as when it was written. It’s very approachable, with one serious caveat: the production of the book, through numerous editions, has become very poor quality, with the reproductions of the various works of art, in monochrome only, so small and fuzzy as to be almost useless as an adjunct to following Berger’s theses. You need the illustrations, and I found that the way to get the best from the work was in fact to watch the original four-part TV series which went with the book, and can now be accessed online.

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