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Ways of Seeing (1972)

af John Berger

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3,876482,278 (3.97)28
Based on the BBC television series, John Berger's Ways of Seeing is a unique look at the way we view art, published as part of the Penguin on Design series in Penguin Modern Classics.'Seeing comes before words. The child looks and recognizes before it can speak.''But there is also another sense in which seeing comes before words. It is seeing which establishes our place in the surrounding world; we explain that world with words, but word can never undo the fact that we are surrounded by it. The relation between what we see and what we know is never settled.' John Berger's Ways of Seeingis one of the most stimulating and influential books on art in any language. First published in 1972, it was based on the BBC television series about which the Sunday Timescritic commented- 'This is an eye-opener in more ways than one- by concentrating on how we look at paintings . . . he will almost certainly change the way you look at pictures.' By now he has.If you enjoyed Ways of Seeing, you might like Susan Sontag'sOn Photography, also available in Penguin Modern Classics.… (mere)
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Engelsk (43)  Spansk (2)  Hollandsk (1)  Alle sprog (46)
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Of course a classic, and I am glad I finally got around to reading it. While a lot of Berger's 1972 observations and analyses have become pretty widely accepted, the small detail that struck me as remarkable was his use of third person pronouns - he is shifting between masculine and feminine singular to be more inclusive, something most of us are still having a hard time to do. ( )
  WiebkeK | Jan 21, 2021 |
I ought to watch the special, too, I suppose. ( )
  stravinsky | Dec 28, 2020 |
Still marvelously important, and surprisingly - but rightly - angry. A joy. ( )
  therebelprince | Nov 15, 2020 |
I am not the audience for this book, mainly because I've already read and more or less digested the handful of essays and ideas on which it is based. The seven chapters break down fairly simply.

1: Benjamin's 'Work of Art'--the ability to reproduce images alters the way we encounter works of art. This seems reasonable. Nobody gets to see a Giotto without having seen a reproduction first, except someone who has no interest in the Giotto in the first place. But Berger et al* go a step further: we need to use the fact that we encounter works of art differently to undermine the ruling class's privilege and the "specialized experts who are the clerks of the nostalgia of a ruling class in decline." That's on page 32. Part of me, a large part, laments the fact that you'd never get that published today, not even on a website. Another part of me laments the stupidity of intellectuals who put their faith in the inherent goodness of The People. The People does not have a good track record when it comes to art appreciation. That's not to say that people can't learn to appreciate art, only that We are no better and no worse than the ruling class was. We need to learn, we need to be taught, you can't do that if you assume that We are inherently able to do the right thing.

2 & 3: Women are depicted differently from men, and, frankly, not in ways that are healthy for anyone, but particularly not for women. I agree. Which makes it breathtaking to see the authors get so many things wrong, either intentionally (cutting short the bible verse in which God punishes Eve *and Adam*); stupidly (non-Western art forms show women as active participants in sex, so that are isn't morally dubious); or in ways that are, ahem, temporally bound ("Hair is associated with sexual power, with passion." Seventies!).

5: Oil paintings are bourgeois and generally not morally okay. Holbein's 'Ambassadors' is read as an example of this; the incredible distorted skull in the painting is the exception which proves the rule of oil paintings rather than, you know, showing that oil paintings can be self-critical, as are most good artworks of any kind. In general, the lesson of this book is that all art is bad for you, except the pieces that the authors of this book like. They like pieces by artists who can plausibly be turned into radicals, because only radicals can be interesting (Franz Hals; William Blake). They don't discuss the 20th century at all (I know they know that twentieth century art exists; perhaps, as good Benjaminian Marxists, they don't like abstraction or difficulty). They're also very uncomfortable with religious art, and want to group, e.g., Ambrosius Benson's Mary Magdalene with the absurd and/or pornographic Magdalene of later times, rather than admitting the rather obvious differences (Benson's is rich, but not, how can I put this... naked and disheveled.) Since the authors have a hard time saying what they actually like (vs. what they suspect is oppressive), you get idiocies like this: Rembrandt's famous late portrait shows a man for whom "all has gone except a sense of the question of existence, of existence as a question." A little thought would show that this is the sort of conservative pablum Great Artists have been serving up for generations.

6 & 7: Advertizing uses art to make you think you want things you don't want and that you can get them, so you don't need to think about what you really want, e.g., more time away from the office. This is true.

In sum: I was sucked in by the idea that this was a book about understanding art. It is not. It is critical theory for high-school readers. Good for what it is, but extremely narrow in scope, and quite harmful for anyone who swallows it whole rather than taking a few minutes to worry away at its assumptions. Harmful because those who accept it will say silly things, and because those who read it and reject it out of hand (due to the rhetoric, bad arguments, or conceptual confusion) won't be challenged to, you know, care about other people.


* Humorous aspect of this book: it makes a big deal about how it was written by a group of people, because, you know, individuals are bad, and groups are good. You'll note that the book is sold as a book by John Berger. You can draw the conclusion. ( )
  stillatim | Oct 23, 2020 |
The book is much better than the tv show, in that it goes farther and more explicitly into its 'Marxism' (social relations and materialism), showing how oil painting was always about objectifying people and possessions to make demonstrations of wealth to oneself, and how contemporary advertising takes the same techniques but turns them on the broader public to generate dissatisfaction, covetousness, and - above all - envy by the fabrication of glamour. ( )
1 stem GeorgeHunter | Sep 13, 2020 |
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Based on the BBC television series, John Berger's Ways of Seeing is a unique look at the way we view art, published as part of the Penguin on Design series in Penguin Modern Classics.'Seeing comes before words. The child looks and recognizes before it can speak.''But there is also another sense in which seeing comes before words. It is seeing which establishes our place in the surrounding world; we explain that world with words, but word can never undo the fact that we are surrounded by it. The relation between what we see and what we know is never settled.' John Berger's Ways of Seeingis one of the most stimulating and influential books on art in any language. First published in 1972, it was based on the BBC television series about which the Sunday Timescritic commented- 'This is an eye-opener in more ways than one- by concentrating on how we look at paintings . . . he will almost certainly change the way you look at pictures.' By now he has.If you enjoyed Ways of Seeing, you might like Susan Sontag'sOn Photography, also available in Penguin Modern Classics.

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