John Berger raises a question in Ways of Seeing (1972) that defines much of human experience from the very beginning of history to the living moment of today. He asks: What do I see? And: Why do I see it as I do? Diving into this investigative track, Berger questions history and culture—which are shaped entirely by human perception—through visual images. Berger makes it clear that sight is not objective. The eye is a complex mechanism that observes partial components of the exterior world, through which the mind makes connections, interpretations, and assumptions in forming “composite” images. Such images carry the information we need to understand our surroundings and ourselves in relation to our surroundings. To simplify things, we can say the eye isn’t what sees. It’s the brain that sees. And this is central to Berger’s proposition.
At the very beginning of Ways of Seeing, Berger explicitly states his proposition so as “to start a process of questioning.” Here, Berger acknowledges the inherent, inextricable subjective nature of visual perception and expression. It’s something to be questioned. He also acknowledges that there’s too much to see to comprehensively cover it all in a couple essays; he’s attempting merely “to start.” Most significantly, he presents to his readers the notion that nothing in the world is truly objective; that which is deemed objective is a subjective matter with enough people in agreement that it is deemed “fact.” Nevertheless, over the course of nature, we have seen how “facts” have been disproven or have been overturned when the subjective eye and brain see things differently. In such a way, there are “ways of seeing” that vary according to the individual and to the group, of which Berger questions.
One of the essential concepts Berger questions is the image. He explains that the photographer’s way of seeing is reflected in his or her choice of subject, while the painter’s way of seeing is reconstituted by the marks he or she makes on the canvas or paper. In such a way, each created image has been manipulated, if not physically, then mentally. Due their conscious human articulation, Berger argues that, “images are more precise and richer than literature” (10). This point seems a bit exaggerated. While it is true that from an image one can read deep insights to the image’s creator and the image’s subject—perhaps insights so mystical that they cannot be expressed adequately via language—it is still difficult to assert that images are more significant than literature. Berger states: “seeing comes before words” (7), implying that words cannot be fully comprehensive since their origins are in visual perception, and elements are lost in the transitional process of what is seen to what can be expressed in language. Nevertheless, some literature has helped us understand a great number of artworks in their proper contexts, because what some writing can do that art cannot is define something’s meaning with greater exactitude. What writing does is channel the infinite amount of interpretations into something more graspable. Writing is more precise in that it is more specific, more targeted. Therefore, in qualifying Berger’s claim, it’s better to state how literature serves as a complementary aid to understanding images.
One of Berger’s main concerns is the subjective nature of humans and how we influence each other’s understandings by establishing common opinions. Berger claims that, “today we see art of the past as nobody saw it before. We actually perceive it in a different way” (16). This concept is inherently true: during the Renaissance, beauty in art was often perceived as being that which is ideally indistinguishable from real life. Now, in the modern art world, contemporary realism is a rather small group of thought, and the “beauty” of art is much more readily expressed in the vaster scope of conceptual art. Truly, if the Renaissance art collectors were to see the currently dominant conceptual art, they would not understand it as art, nor see it as desirable. Berger explains this point in talking about the perceived beauty of linear perspective during the Renaissance: it was initially thought to arrange the universe for God as a spectator. Because this method of expressing order and spatial distance was highly desirable, perspective dominated image making among the people of this time. Today, perspective is old news, and so it is not an element of most of the art of today, though much representational art still makes strong use of it.
In establishing what is desirable through common opinion, Berger shows that wealth is the sole instigator. What is deemed recognizably “superior” is most often what is most expensive. Berger illustrates this point by using Leonardo Da Vinci’s cartoon of the Virgin and Child with St. Anne and St. John the Baptist (1499) as an example. For most of its existence, only scholars knew it. However, it became famous when “an American wanted to buy it for two and a half million pounds” (23). Evidently, we notice and prioritize what holds greatest material wealth because logically, that would be most valuable. The greater complication, however, is that the monetary value of art often does not accurately reflect the quality of the image and its technique. More expensive images, which consequently become more famous, are not necessarily more significant in terms of their original, inherent context. The Virgin and Child with St. Anne and St. John the Baptist is nothing unique in Da Vinci’s or any of the Renaissance artists’ repertoire. Yet, we cannot separate their material value from their actual worth: for doesn’t a better painting deserve a better price?
Berger illustrates this point through the discussion of oil paint and its role in representing wealth. Oil painting became recognized as a higher art than previous forms of drawing and painting, and consequently the artists who worked in oil were valued higher. He explains, “Oil painting did to appearances what capital did to social relations. It reduced everything to either equality of objects. Everything became exchangeable because everything became a commodity” and “painting itself had to be able to demonstrate the desirability of what money could buy” (87, 90). Those who access its value, as much as we try to disprove it, often view art, as a commodity. The more expensive it is, the more we want it. This is a quality that will never change through the ages.
Throughout history, art has been a symbol of opulence, and with that, a symbol of power. We can look at the art adorning the pyramids of Giza, the Ara Pacis Augustae, or the portraits of European monarchs. We can look at the creation of the still life, which was surely intended as a documentary painting of a patron’s material possessions. Berger explains: “Art is a sign of affluence; it belongs to the good life; it is part of the furnishing which the world gives to the rich and beautiful. But a work of art also suggests a cultural authority, a form of dignity, even of wisdom, which is superior to any vulgar material interest; an oil painting belongs to the cultural heritage; it is a reminder of what it means to be a cultivated European” (135).
The power of money is contagious. The role of money dominates over all aspects of the world and human perception, a weighty claim that has not yet been disproven—especially within the American Capitalist society. Berger states: “Money is life […] money is the token of, and the key to, every human capacity. The power to spend money is the power to live. ” (143). It is undeniable that we see money in every approach we take to a situation in life, though it might not always be the most prominent factor. Capitalism and art’s worth, do get paired together when galleries and museums come into play.
Berger hits many of the main concerns when regarding how we perceive images, how they are manipulated by human perception and representation, how we analyze them, and how we appraise their meaning and worth. Also intriguing is his discussion of the representation of women in art and advertising, who are often depicted as sexualized objects to be viewed by the male gaze. Here, Berger’s points do hold credence about how the woman is perceived, but his points are out-of-date and can be revoked in some instances by modern standards. Certainly, in the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art’s current exhibition, The Female Gaze: Women Artists Making Their World (November 17, 2012 – April 7, 2013), the representation of more modern, assertive women in art and in society alters perceptions. In keeping with Berger’s central theme, these images of women have adjusted with the changes in society. Today, women are equated more to men. Gender distinctions, while still quite evident, may not be as pronounced as they have been in the past.
Berger’s other discussion of “publicity images” is equally intriguing, as he claims publicity images to be manipulators of social relations and conductors of social envy. We can see this holds true, but only in a more expansive light in the modern day. Today, visual advertising strikes us in all media outlets, especially social media outlets—a concept that has far surpassed what Berger could consider.
What we may walk away with when reading Berger’s Ways of Seeing is that there is an infinite amount of ways to see something. Discussion of how we see things is written about in countless textbooks and general books—Berger merely introduces the concept to us, skimming the surface of the deep exploration of visual perception. What we see is in our minds—it’s an internal mechanism—but what occurs on the outside is just as significant, as seen in the thinking of groups, societies, or cultures. Seeing is ever changing, so while many of Berger’s claims hold true, they can be updated with new information from the changing times.