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Beyond John Berger’s Ways of Seeing

The late critic’s seminal work was very much of its time—in ways both good and bad.

Adriaen van Utrecht, Banquet Still Life 1644, Rijksmuseum.

John Berger died on Monday, a few weeks after turning 90. Our grief has been poured out widely, in proportion to his great generosity. Berger’s career was simply so much. It spanned the second half of the long twentieth century and at least six different jobs (art historian, novelist, playwright, critic, teacher, painter). He began teaching painting in 1948, and published his last book of essays, Confabulations, only last year.

In the days since his death, Berger has been most widely eulogized for his 1972 BBC series Ways of Seeing, which was adapted into a popular book. If you were into art as a teenager, you probably read it then. I did: Holding that dog-eared copy in my hands today, the book still seems to shiver with revelatory power.

For many Berger fans, Ways of Seeing represents the first time a book trusted them to see past the appearance of things. It’s a book about art history and the media, but it’s also a magic trick. Berger takes his readers beyond the visible, towards a closer understanding of the world as it really is—the one capitalism, patriarchy, and empire try to hide from you. By the same token, however, professors assign Ways of Seeing to college freshmen because it is easy. Berger synthesizes, paraphrases, and boils down large swaths of important cultural theory into a work that is both inspiring and intuitive to understand. Revisiting the book now, you may find it reduced.

It is very short, for one thing, and it moves very quickly. In fewer than 200 pages, Berger whips the curtain back on contemporary advertising’s roots in European oil painting. He explains the difference between the painted nude—seductive, objectified—and the naked human being. He tells us that still-life painting did not depict objects qua objects, but as items to be owned. European conventions on perspective, he argues, offer the world up to the covetous viewer with a deference found in no other tradition. Berger points out that the globe hovering behind Holbein’s The Ambassadors refers to incipient empire and so to racist violence. The book concludes. There are no endnotes.

In this small work, Berger gives a basic primer on the complicity of the European art tradition from 1500 to 1900 with the politics of the same period. Gender politics, the role of the visual in abetting capitalism, colonialism’s special investment in that role: He whistle-stops past them all.

Several of the chapters in Ways of Seeing are essentially explainers for other, more complicated works. Berger’s chapter on photography’s impact upon the idea of the “original” is an accessible retelling of Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Elsewhere, he paraphrases Claude Lévi-Strauss on oil painting and possessions. He expresses surprise that anthropology might enlighten art history, as if other thinkers hadn’t been lifting ideas from that weird field all century long. Berger does not refer the reader to any feminist theorists in his chapter on the male gaze.

The great weakness of Berger’s writing comes from the same source as its success. Berger loves synopsis, and he generalizes in ways that are at times outright misleading. His statements on gender, for example, reduce reality to a set of false axioms: “Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves.”

Similarly, the grand historical narrative of modernity is key to Ways of Seeing. Berger believed that the individual was born along with the Renaissance, and that changes in philosophy, global capital, and art history occurred in perfect coordination. “European art between 1500 and 1900 served the interests of successive ruling classes,” he writes. Those classes’ “new attitudes to property and exchange” found “visual expression in the oil painting.” And so, “oil painting did to appearances what capital did to social relations. … The soul, thanks to the Cartesian system, was saved in a category apart.”

At moments like these, Berger’s brush is so broad that he obscures the history he is trying to bring to life. It’s a kind of arrogance, the voice of an artist looking back from his perch atop his high hill of supermodernity.

None of this is to say that Ways of Seeing does not remain a key text in the history of media studies and art history. Its very accessibility is what makes the book so good. One hopes, however, that Berger fans whose minds were opened by Ways of Seeing can remember that it was supposed to be a starting point, not a conclusion. “Our survey of the European oil painting,” Berger writes, “has been very brief and therefore very crude. It really amounts to no more than a project for study—to be undertaken perhaps by others.”

In 1972, the same year that Ways of Seeing aired, Berger published a piece in New Society magazine called “Photographs of Agony.” It’s short and excellent—try it. Read G, the bonkers novel that won the Booker, also in 1972. You might even dip your toe into his weird film work: I recommend 1989’s Play Me Something, featuring the great Timothy Neat.

Berger’s death invites us to consider the role of the popularizer. Often, television popularizers of complicated cultural or scientific theories are male, charming, and young. And so they get the credit of our love, because they show us worlds previously unknown to us. It may seem churlish to question Berger’s most famous achievement in the days after his passing, but it is done out of appreciation for the deeper, grittier, stranger corners of his vast career. Go back to the start, but don’t stop there.