PRINT February 1976


Ways of Seeing

John Berger, Ways Of Seeing, based on a television series with John Berger (New York: The Viking Press, 160 pages), illustrated, hardbound.

Judging from the praise accorded his criticism as well as the cries of outrage—“before John Berger manages to interpose himself again between us and the visible meaning of a good picture, may I point out . . .”1—John Berger is in danger of being condemned to a gadfly role. This would be greatly to underrate the depth and seriousness of his critical undertaking. Berger is one of the few marxist art critics in the English-speaking world (perhaps the only one published with any regularity), and the strengths of his criticism, I believe, are largely attributable to his imaginative and often innovative use of marxian method.

When Berger began writing criticism more than 20 years ago (he was, for a decade, art critic for the New Statesman), his work was deeply influenced by three marxist art historians then active in England: Arnold Hauser, Francis Klingender and Frederick Antal. From the early 1950s until after the publication of Success and Failure of Picasso in 1965, Berger focused primarily on the ways in which individual artists respond to social and historical conditions—how these conditions are subjectively translated and how they affect an artist’s work. The critical standard Berger generally applied during this period, if it were reduced to a single criterion, would probably be whether or not an artist’s work had contributed to the extension of human capacities.

In the late 1960s Berger became increasingly preoccupied with the question of the social functions of art, his interest stimulated, perhaps, by an investigation of the art of the dissident Russian sculptor Ernst Neizvestny. In his 1969 book on Neizvestny, Art and Revolution (in which he probably overestimated Neizvestny’s turgidly expressionistic work), Berger wrote: “The arranging of artists in a hierarchy of merit is an idle and essentially dilettante process. What matters are the needs which art answers.” Since the statement has been misinterpreted (perhaps deliberately), it should be observed that this is not a dismissal of artistic merit or a negation of criteria. Rather it implies the effort Berger undertook in Art and Revolution and subsequent essays to come to grips with “the needs art answers.” Ways of Seeing, Berger’s latest volume of criticism, further synthesizes and elaborates the ideas developed earlier on social function.2

Ways of Seeing was originally a BBC television series. According to a prefatory note, Berger and four associates—Sven Blomberg, Chris Fox, Michael Dibb, Richard Hollis—used the series as a “starting point.”3 The book itself consists of four brief illustrated essays (the actual text probably totals no more than 15,000 words) which alternate with three “pictorial essays” made up entirely of images.

The book’s images—mainly paintings and advertisements from glossy magazines—although poorly reproduced, are generally well chosen, echoing and anticipating ideas in the text and often provoking, as intended, further reflection. Some examples: an 1842 print showing an auction in the New Orleans Rotunda of slaves and gilt-framed paintings. An advertisement for the Scottish Amicable Life Assurance Society with a photograph of a distraught woman: “Derek died broke. And that broke his wife.” La Source du Monde, Courbet’s historically precocious essay in vaginal imagery. The contents page of the London Sunday Times for June 6, 1971: on the lower half of the page an advertisement for badedas—“Things happen after a badedas bath”—with a photograph of a towel-clad young woman gazing through a window at a young man, fully dressed, who gazes back; above the advertisement, almost covering the top half of the page, Donald McCull in’s photograph of terror—stricken Bangladesh refugees.

Berger and his associates no doubt chose these images partly for their shock value and reverberating ironies. They are not entirely typical of the selection, but indicate something of the book’s charged atmosphere.

The format of Ways of Seeing as well as the directness and sobriety that mark Berger’s style (which occasionally threatens to fall into the trap of solemnity), reflect Berger’s concern with reaching a popular rather than a specialized audience. Hitherto, I suspect, the actual audience for Berger’s critical writing has been mainly confined to the left intelligentsia. Berger’s television work, his collaborations with the photographer Jean Mohr (on A Fortunate Man and A Seventh Man) and with the filmmaker Alain Tanner (on La Salamandre and Le Milieu du Monde) in part testify to an impatience with the restrictions of traditionally privileged forms, not least their restricted audience.

Such a popularizing aim might summon up charges of “propaganda.” Berger’s critical goals, however, are political in a general sense rather than in the narrowly specific sense “propaganda” implies. In Ways of Seeing, Berger asserts what in fact has always constituted the raison d’être of marxist criticism:

The past is not for living in; it is a well of conclusions from which we draw in order to act. Cultural mystification of the past entails a double loss. Works of art are made unnecessarily remote. And the past offers us fewer conclusions to complete in action.

And again: “A people or a class which is cut off from its own past is far less free to choose and to act as a people or class than one that has been able to situate itself in history.” Since that past is communal, to object to Berger’s popularizing goals is to miss the point of his criticism from the start.

Berger’s terse, emphatic style is a further reflection of these goals. And yet, despite its disarming simplicity, it is extraordinarily controlled and full of rhetorical complexities, many of them taken over from the techniques of fiction. Berger often resorts to a method of discontinuous discourse in which the argument advances from point to point with a minimum of explanation. He also frequently attempts to suggest a totality—a situation or an outlook—through the accumulated effect of a series of assertions intermixed with descriptive contrasts. Due more to its brevity, however, than to the deliberated sparseness of Berger’s style, Ways of Seeing often evokes more than it substantiates. What Berger observes about one essay—that it is “very brief and therefore very crude”—might apply to the entire book.

Berger’s approach in Ways of Seeing is essentially paradigmatic: in order to understand the exceptional it is first necessary to assess the unexceptional or norm of experience. Most cultural and art historical criticism treats only the exceptional. Berger takes the opposite view: each of the four illustrated essays in Ways of Seeing is, in large degree, about discovering norms. These four (untitled) essays might be described as attempts to answer the following questions:

1. How are paintings and reproductions of paintings characteristically experienced today by the majority of people living in Western society?

2. What is the general significance of the tradition of the female nude in Western art since the Renaissance?

3. What is the mode of apprehending the visual world implied by the traditional representational techniques of oil painting?

4. What is the characteristic way of seeing the world embodied in advertising imagery?

Berger answers these questions, or so it appears, by drawing upon Marx’s analysis of commodities, particularly the concept of “the fetishism of commodities”—the way in which the commodity form conceals the social relations implicit in the capitalist mode of (commodity) production, so that value is conceived of as something inherent in things (commodities) rather than as something arising out of the social relations between men.

From the point of view of method, the most important essays in Ways of Seeing are the first and the third. In the first, Berger considers how most people are deprived of the potential meanings of works of art because they experience the works as exalted commodities. In the third (an illustrated reworking of an earlier essay, “The Past Seen from a Possible Future”)4 Berger traces the way in which oil painting “sees” a world filled with commodities.

This essay, written as a post mortem to the tradition of oil painting from the time of the Renaissance to circa 1900, is essentially a working out of the implications of an observation made by Claude Lévi-Strauss. In the Renaissance, painting became “an instrument of possession”:

. . . rich Italian merchants looked upon painters as agents, who allowed them to confirm their possession of all that was beautiful and desirable in the world. The pictures in a Florentine palace represented a kind of microcosm in which the proprietor, thanks to his artists, had recreated within easy reach and in as real a form as possible, all those features of the world to which he was attached.

Berger argues that because the technique of oil painting allowed the artist to embody what Berenson called “tactile values”—texture, solidity, volume, and so forth —painting almost inevitably concentrated on the tangible, defining the real as “what you can put your hands on.” Since the means employed were so well adapted to portraying “tactile values,” the typical oil painting primarily refers to the experience of the possession of material things, commodities. The mode of vision implicit in oil painting is therefore conditioned by and reflects a world in which all values have been reduced to the interchangeable money value of commodities. That the rise of oil painting coincides, historically, with the rise of capitalism is, in Berger’s view, no accident.

Berger proceeds to a discussion of the different categories of painting—religious allegory, portraiture, still-life, classical allegory, and so forth (landscape is,to some extent, made an exception)—and how the reifying vision of oil painting applies to each of the categories. Thus, to take one example, Berger contends that there was an underlying reason for the spiritual vacuousness of the average allegorical painting: “sometimes the whole mythological scene functions like a garment held out for the spectator-owner to put his arms into and wear. The fact that the scene is substantial, and yet, behind its substantiality, empty, facilitates the ‘wearing’ of it.”

Berger’s analysis evokes a number of critical problems which, unfortunately, he does not pursue. Some of these problems become apparent when he attempts to employ his analysis as a standard of critical judgment. Berger maintains that the exceptional works of the European tradition—the paintings of El Greco, Watteau, Turner, Blake and other greats of art history—resulted from a struggle against the representational norms of that tradition. These works, created in opposition to a conventionalized naturalism, offer glimpses of human possibility that transcend or undermine the ideological limitations of a society based on commodity production. Berger’s choice of art historical greats here seems a bit arbitrary. His difficulty, I suspect, lies partly in his failure to develop ways of mediating between his general analysis and the specific artist or work, and partly in the analysis itself.

Berger’s insistence upon the reifying vision of oil painting represents a frontal assault upon that marxist critical tradition (often simply an apology for Russian “socialist realism”) which placed a high premium on the “materialism” or “naturalism” of Renaissance and post-Renaissance painting. In a sense he has gone to the opposite extreme. His argument, when pushed to its logical conclusion, leads to an impasse in which the critic would be obliged to applaud almost any form of spiritual or psychological expressionism (for example, the various spiritualizing, antinaturalistic trends in mannerist painting); at the same time he would be forced to search for expressive or psychological rationales in order to make exceptions of such patently “materialist” artists as Van Eyck, Caravaggio, the Le Nains, Rubens, Chardin, Courbet (whose paintings are, if anything, celebrations of the tangible), and so forth. Such an array of artists suggests the central difficulty underlying Berger’s critical standard. Although based on a deep insight into the relationship between capitalist society and the historical phenomenon of oil painting, it provides by itself only a formal criterion for critical judgment—“tactile values.” Such a formal criterion, like any purely formal criterion, poses the danger of an ahistorical standard of judgment. When applied with sensitivity and in combination with other critical and historical methods, however, Berger’s insight is an invaluable critical tool. This is the case in the second and fourth illustrated essays, which embody further applications of the theory of seeing as a mode of possession.

In the second essay, Berger takes up the by now familiar theme of woman as object in the painting of the nude. Here he begins with an examination of conventional attitudes of women and men toward themselves and each other (this section is a revision of a passage entitled “A Situation of Women” from Berger’s recent novel G), and then describes how these attitudes are reflected in the conventions of nudity: the nude’s passivity, her submission, the “sexuality” which is not hers but rather the desire she arouses in the spectator-owner. (One extraordinary example Berger adduces is Nell Gwynne as Venus, which Charles II secretly commissioned from Lely.) As in the third essay, Berger employs the unexceptional as a standard for measuring the exceptional: Rembrandt’s Danäe, Rubens’ Hélène Fourment in a Fur Coat (the latter a not altogether successful integration of material from a 1966 essay “Nude in a Fur Coat,” published in The Moment of Cubism).

The fourth essay, like the second, deals with the social relations and the consequent array of attitudes underlying a particular category of imagery, in this case advertising (“publicity” in British). Berger traces its various modalities: how it operates on the spectator-buyer, what it implies about the values of late capitalist culture. Since advertising must suggest the experience of possessing, Berger argues for the continuity between the visual language of oil painting and the language of advertising: “oil painting, before it was anything else, was a celebration of private property. As an art-form it derived from the principle that you are what you have.” Advertising rests on parallel assumptions and thus it reproduces, especially in the form of color illustrations, not just the “tactile values” but also frequently the traditional imagery of oil painting. “It is a mistake,” Berger writes, “to think of publicity as supplanting the visual art of post-Renaissance Europe; it is the last moribund form of that art.” This is all very boldly and suggestively stated, and Berger is quick to qualify his argument with categorical distinctions between the functions of traditional oil painting, which confirmed and embellished the spectator-owner’s existing way of life, and advertising,which operates in the future tense and proposes that security-glamour-happiness can be had for the price of the advertised product.

The three essays on the tradition of oil painting, the nude and advertising describe the ideological character of certain types of painted and photographic images. In these essays, Berger is primarily concerned with revealing the ideology expressed in the images’ form and content. The first essay, however, treats ideology on an altogether different plane. Here he examines the assumptions that govern and delimit the typical experience of works of art in present-day Western society.

Of all the essays in Ways of Seeing, this one is the most fragmentary and allusive. In it, Berger tries to do a great many things: stimulate the reader to a self-conscious reappraisal of his experience of images and works of art; demonstrate the habitual mystification of art works; describe the ways in which photography and motion pictures have altered our perceptions. Berger here borrows many of his ideas from Walter Benjamin’s famous ontological essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” In the process, he provides a clarifying reading of Benjamin’s often convoluted formulations.

Berger’s discussion centers around the changed status of original works of art that resulted from the possibility of an unlimited multiplication of images. His analysis runs approximately as follows: the average person goes to museums infrequently, mainly interested in seeing works made famous through reproductions. At the museum, he experiences these works as “the original of the reproduction.” Thus the meaning of the work lies not in its form or content but in its uniqueness. This uniqueness can only be “affirmed and gauged” by the work’s often well-publicized market value—a value that is usually said to be simply the reflection of the work’s “spiritual” value. But since spirituality is not credible in the modern world, the average person encounters the original “enveloped in an atmosphere of bogus religiosity.” (Berger interpolates a poll from L’Amour de l’Art showing that art museums remind people most often of churches.)5 Ultimately this aura of “bogus religiosity” boils down to “the mystery of unaccountable wealth.”

Berger continues analyzing the reciprocal relationship between originals and reproductions. He believes that because reproductions and the “information” they contain are now universally available, they might be used as a “new language of images” to explore hitherto unknown or unrealized aspects of personal and collective experience. This would “confer a new kind of power.” As it is, reproductions and originals remain locked in a mutually reinforcing ideological bind. Despite all imaginative possibilities, “reproductions are still used to bolster the illusion that nothing has changed, that art, with its unique undiminished authority, justifies most other forms of authority, that art makes inequality seem noble and hierarchies seem thrilling.”

This essay raises a host of questions about the sociology and politics of contemporary culture—questions having to do with, among other things, the mechanisms of cultural mystification. Berger maintains that cultural mystification reflects the viewpoint of “a ruling class in decline . . . before the new power of the corporation and the state.” In this I believe he seriously underestimates the extent to which corporate and state agencies already have taken on responsibility for culture. In any event, it is not clear, from the very little Berger says, how this new ruling class might significantly alter things. Since the economic bases of capitalism remain very much the same, art continues to minister to the same broad social and ideological needs Berger outlines. A more particularized examination might reveal significant alterations and discontinuities; however, corporate sponsorship of an exhibition, for example, does not significantly change the ontological status of a painting in the exhibition—at least not on the level of Berger’s analysis.

If Ways of Seeing suffers from one pervasive flaw, it is Berger’s habit of deducing conscious motives in the behavior of classes and individuals. He implies that ideology, instead of resulting from the social pathologies of capitalism, is the product of conscious manipulations (shades of ruling-class plots):

In the end, the art of the past is being mystified because a privileged minority is striving to invent a history which can retrospectively justify the role of the ruling classes, and such a justification can no longer make sense in modern terms.

Berger expresses impatience (rightly so) with “the disingenuousness that bedevils the subject of art history.” But here again he is prone to exaggerate conscious motives: the first person the ideologist mystifies is, usually, himself. There is a like presumption of motive in Berger’s evocations of personal experience. Thus, in a discussion of traditional oil painting, he asserts that an artist who broke with the norms of that tradition

needed to recognize his vision for what it was, and then separate it from the usage for which it had been developed. Single-handed he had to contest the norms of the art that had formed him. He had to see himself as a painter in a way that denied the seeing of a painter. This meant that he saw himself doing something that nobody else could do.

Applied to any particular artist, this becomes fiction. El Greco’s paintings may represent a departure from the reified norm, but they hardly warrant the conclusion that El Greco engaged in the type of critical analysis and searching self-appraisal Berger describes.

Such defects of omission and over-generalization are probably inevitable in a brief work directed at a popular audience. In Ways of Seeing, though, Berger is primarily concerned with tracing an overall outlook—an outlook which in several ways goes beyond that of earlier marxist critics. In this respect he is successful. Yet he succeeds more through a process of suggestion than a process of specification. He appears content to leave the labor of qualification and mediation to others. This unconcern results, perhaps, from the sense of political urgency that informs much of Berger’s work.

For Berger, breaking through the present ideological cover requires political action and an effort of demystification of which written criticism is but a part. The “language of images” applied to history, for example, becomes another means for understanding (seeing) history. Thus criticism and “the language of images” can potentially work together in a complementary fashion. Ways of Seeing, with its pictorial essays and illustrated essays in which images rather than words frequently make the most telling points, is in part meant as a demonstration. In his other works, Berger has increasingly diminished the distinctions between traditional forms (journalism, criticism, fiction and so forth —his latest book, A Seventh Man,6 a study of immigrant workers, contains another essay in “the language of images”). These various enterprises are, in the end, different moments of a single political and philosophical undertaking. Berger is as much a politicized artist as a politicized critic. So, Ways of Seeing, although fragmented and half-realized as a work of criticism, has about it something of the force of an imaginative creation.

Alan Wallach teaches art history at Kean College of New Jersey.



1. Professor Lawrence Gowing, cited in Ways of Seeing p. 107, objecting to Berger’s interpretation of Gainsborough’s Mr. and Mrs. Andrews as “proud landowners.”

2. Ways of Seeing is Berger’s latest volume of criticism, although not the last published in the United States. This year Viking brought out The Look of Things, a collection of essays published in England in 1971. Ways of Seeing was originally published in England in 1972 and in the United States in 1973.

3. The television series has been made into a movie distributed as “Ways of Seeing” by Time-Life.

4. Published in The Look of Things. It first appeared in 1970 in New Society.

5. Pierre Bourdieu and Alain Darbel, L’Amour de l’Art, Editions de Minuit, Paris, 1969, appendix 4, table 8, reproduced in Ways of Seeing, p. 24.

6. Published by Viking Press.