Ways of Seeing, by John Berger

A collection of "essays", some of which are just sequences of pictures, about the way we look at the world and works of art. This is published by the BBC, and dates from the '70s so perhaps it went with a TV series.

Berger makes the point that when we look at images, are impression of them is coloured by many things: our expectations; the culture that we're part of; the way that the images are presented to us; their captions, etc..

Attention is drawn to the way that women are presented in formal art: ostensibly as subjects of a painting but often as objects to delight the male viewer. There's a "chapter" consisting just of pictures of women, which does seem quite powerful in the light of this thesis.

Berger also suggests that much of what painting used to be about was a means for rich people to be able to gloat over their possessions: being unable to keep all their property in one place, they comissioned paintings which they could hang all around the house in order to be able to view it whenever they wanted. He also says that although we now sometimes think of "classical paintings" as the epitome of art, in fact the ones that we are familiar with are only the tip of an iceberg, and the most of the stuff produced had little or no artistic merit.

In the last section, he looks at the way that commercialism uses images to seduce us into wanting stuff: in a sort of inversion of the way that pictures were once used to remind people of what they owed, they are now used to make us want stuff that we don't own.

There are some echoes of John Carey's book in here, because it talks about the way that "art appreciation" has historically been something enjoyed by the privileged in society, and discussed in terms which might be seen to exclude the common man.

I do wonder if perhaps some of the paintings and images presented might have been selected to bolster the ideas put forward in the book, but it was interesting and stimulating nonetheless. I got it from the library so didn't make notes in it as I was reading it, but I bought a copy for reference as I think it is something I'd like to browse through again.

Completed : 07-Mar-2007

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