Ways of Seeing

It is the weekend and I have been treating myself to some time with the paper. Usually, I buy the Saturday Guardian. On occasion I will also get The Observer on a Sunday but most weekends I don’t have the time to absorb both. Sometimes even one newspaper is too much.

Reading material on the dining table

The book review section is a particular favourite and one of the reasons I have switched away from the digital version of the paper that is served on the web. Not only does this afford the nostalgic and tactile pleasures of the paper paper, but it also releases me from the linear tether of online searches into the comradely hands of the editors, on whom I rely each week to dish up a collection of the new and the unexpected.

I am rarely disappointed, but the joy of novelty is almost invariably accompanied by sweeping feelings of helplessness amid a rising tide of “yet more stuff”. Not only does each fresh volley of book reviews bring new titles to add to my list of the unread, but the reviews invariably also refer to earlier books and authors previously unknown to me. Worse still for my self-confidence, the reviews tend to be written by people whose learning embraces whole movements and epochs of human history, and whose judgement of the achievements of humankind down through the ages rings with cast-iron assurance. Am I the only reader drowning in information who gawps at such a firm grasp of the world? So much knowledge on show makes me uneasy. It compounds my fear of being a dilettante – flitting here and there across the periphery of the world of ideas without really understanding the centre.

In truth this isn’t so serious fear because it doesn’t put me off my weekend read. I can tolerate the discomfort for the sake of the rewards. Such as last weekend, when, in Mary Beard’s review of James Stourton’s new biography of art historian Kenneth Clark, I was once again pleased and disconcerted to have my ignorance taken by surprise. Although I had thrilled at Clark’s Civilisation, his beautiful 1969 television documentary on the importance of European art, I guess I should have expected that not everyone was so impressed. The teenage Mary Beard was also delighted by it on first viewing but learned quicker than I did to mistrust the “great man” approach to history. And nor was the critic John Berger, whose own later documentary, Ways of Seeing, Beard noted in her review as a important critical response to Clark (who nevertheless still has his defenders).

I had never heard of Berger or his 1972 television series which, it turns out – why did I expect anything else? – is widely regarded as a seminal piece of work. Nevertheless, I was sufficiently intrigued to seek out Ways of Seeing online. All four of the 30 minute episodes are available on YouTube.

As was the style of the time the presentation is rather static – large chunks of each episode consist of Berger in a studio, standing in front of a plain screen, just talking. His patterned shirt and 70’s hairstyle strike a more relaxed tone than Clark’s buttoned-up tweediness, but to my ear the accent was no less posh and the story he had to tell no less riveting.

I would need to watch Civilisation again to triangulate precisely for points of opposition. Although there are clear references to Clark’s interpretation of the meaning of art and, in particular, the nude, Berger’s agenda is radically different. His aim is not history per se, but to interrogate the process of looking.

Each episode is a short essay. The first discusses the importance of context, remarking specifically on how modern reproductions of works in print and on television easily detach them from the artist’s intention. The second brings a thoughtful, feminist perspective to the nude and how such paintings reflect the power imbalance between men and women. The third discusses the development of oil painting as a particular way of representing real objects, especially possessions that denote the wealth and status of those who commissioned works of art. And the last episode shows how colour photography has largely supplanted this function of oil painting, but also altered it through widespread use in advertising to create images that, rather than showing achieved wealth and status, foment modern anxieties of aspiration.

But that is just a potted summary. I will leave you to discover for yourself. As Berger himself says in closing the documentary, everything “must be judged against your own experience.”


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