John Berger on Ways of Seeing

John Berger Ways of SeeingWays of Seeing by John Berger is a most wonderful wonderful book. Told both in words and pictures, what follows is a lopsided collection of sentences that does some violence to the whole I confess. I was particularly interested in photography, but found myself swept away into other places and didn’t mind at all. It is a book I look forward to reading many more times — and hunting down the series as well. I so wish I had been lucky enough to have been given this to read in the high school Art History class that has remained with me all through my years. Better late than never.

It is seeing which establishes our place in the surrounding world; we explain that world with words, but words can never undo the fact that we are surrounded by it. The relation between what we see and what we know is never settled. (7)

Nothing is ever settled. I love this unsettling. Love this sense of history:

The past is never there waiting to be discovered, to be recognized for exactly what it is. History always constitutes the relation between a present and its past. Consequently, fear of the present leads to mystification of the past. The past is not for living in; it is a well of conclusions from which we draw in order to act. (11)

Just a sentence and then off he goes in another direction. I want to think more about this alongside Trouillot and the erasings and the silences, but later perhaps.

Because we are off to Frans Hals, always one of my favourites:

Hals was the first portraitist to pain the new characters and expressions created by capitalism. He did in pictorial terms what Balzac did two centuries later in literature. (16)

The regentesses of Haarlem’s almshouse, such an unforgettable picture but never had I thought of it this way:

Frans Hals — Portrait of The Regentesses of the Old Men’s Almshouse Haarlem, 1640s?

And this, my favourite statement of the power that images hold, the potential they carry, a statement that makes me think of things quite differently though I have for a long time been thinking about this — like the wonderful obsessions of Otto Neurath and his isotypes:

If the new language of images were used differently, it would, through its use, confer a new kind of power. Within it we could begin to define our experiences more precisely in areas where words are inadequate. (Seeing comes before words.) Not only personal experience, but also the essential historical experience of our relation to the past: that is to say the experience of seeking to give meaning to our lives, of trying to understand the history of which we can become the active agents.

The art of the past no longer exists as it once did. Its authority is lost. In its place there is a language of images. What matters now is who uses that language for what purpose. (33)

I don’t know why Berger’s passages on oil painting struck me as they did, I think because they represent what a profoundly different way this is of understanding painting as it sits within its context — I love it.

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. … Oil painting conveyed a feeling of total exteriority. (87)

I can see this exteriority, feel the velvets and silks under my fingers in these paintings. That always struck me, the incredible details. I think there was such a love of these sumptuous textures in themselves, but yes, also this:

Works of art in earlier traditions celebrated wealth. But wealth was then a symbol of a fixed social or divine order. Oil painting celebrated a new kind of wealth — which was dynamic and which found its only sanction in the supreme buying power of money. Thus painting itself had to be able to demonstrate the desirability of what money could buy. (90)

And then there is the section on advertising, the co-optation of art (not that that was anything new, as can be seen in the quote above) and this unapologetic reading that made me happy:

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, among 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. (148)

So to end with photography, which sent me here in the first place and of which I found but little, though I did not care in the slightest.

First, something that seems so simple, and yet… before thinking about it I might have said as a reflex that photography was somehow more ‘objective’, I might still lapse into that feeling. But really,

The photographer’s way of seeing is reflected in his choice of subject.  (10)

On the other hand, I had not before thought through how the camera changes our perspective, how it differs from painting, how it decentres us from time and space:

The camera isolated momentary appearances and in so doing destroyed the idea that images were timeless. Or, to put it another way, the camera showed that the notion of time passing was inseparable from the experience of the visual (except in paintings)….

This is not to say that before the invention of the camera men believed everyone could see everything. But perspective organized the visual field as though that were indeed the ideal. Every drawing or painting that used perspective proposed to the spectator that he was the unique centre of the world. The camera — and more particularly the movie camera — demonstrated that there was no centre.

The invention of the camera changed the way that we saw. The invisible came to mean something different to them. This was immediately reflected in painting. (18)

This is something I need to think much more about. It’s interesting how this is one of the major differences between Western and non-Western art, it doesn’t surprise me at all that it is Western art of a certain period that put human beings always at the centre. It must be a good thing to destabilise that, but I’m not sure I entirely grasp how photography and film do that. Our own private viewings into the world of others.

But there is so much joy in art and pleasure in thinking about it here…

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