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John Berger's Way(s) of Seeing is more relevant today than ever

Durga M Sengupta | Updated on: 4 January 2017, 0:21 IST

"What I've shown, and what I've said... must be judged against your own experience."-- John Berger

The problem with how academicians impart knowledge is that most of them tend to make it elite, inaccessible, or just plain hard to understand. This, of course, undoes the basic effort of teaching, and creates a general notion that academics isn't for everyone.

But Booker-prize-winner and writer John Berger managed to comfortably educate over two generations about visual arts - the most inaccessible of all arts - through his writing and a 1972 BBC television series Ways of Seeing, later reproduced as a book under the same title. Berger's simple goal of making his viewers and readers question made him possibly a better educator than most academicians, and that too in his inimitable style.

Berger, the man, died aged 90 on 2 January, but his ideas live on.

Berger, the man, died aged 90 on 2 January, but his ideas live on. His observations of capitalism, gender, technology and art are more relevant today than ever before. A simple demonstration of that can be done by reading into Ways of Seeing while observing similar patterns in our world today, for Berger alone can explain why his teachings continue to make sense.

In his TV show, a four-part series of 30-minute segments that Berger co-produced with Mike Dibb, he discusses Marxist-feminist concerns within popular culture. In a measured but arresting voice, Berger guides the viewer through four episodes that delve into: 1) photographs vs paintings, 2) representation of women in art, 3) purchase and ownership of art, and 4) publicity.

Technology changes art

Based on a 1936 essay by Walter Benjamin, Berger's first episode talks about how the invention of the camera affects the perspective with which art is consumed.

In 1972, the camera was a major technological threat to art. Today, it would probably be the digital mindscape. Berger explains that Victorian art, when created, was meant to feature as a part of the space it inhabited. Art on a chapel wall, for instance, came with the experience of its surroundings, including the sights, smells, movements, and, rather importantly, sounds.

This stopped being a reality with the advent of the camera which could reproduce the art, or parts of the art, and relocate it to whatever surrounding the owner of the picture inhabits.

"The camera has multiplied the possibility of meaning and destroyed the unique original meaning," says Berger.

For example, a Monet wallpaper on my laptop - say Water Lilies - would get punctured by the icons on it, framed by the unseemly laptop hardware including the keyboard under it, and would be thoroughly out of place next to my steaming hot multi-coloured mug full of green tea. And yet, it would carry a whole new meaning within the space it inhabits.

First of, it could be considered a marker for individualism, of a certain interest in art, or beauty. But more significantly, like the millions of other Water Lilies wallpapers out there, the art would adapt to its surrounding, increasingly reducing the relevance of the original sitting in The Louvre. This erosion of the original is technology's gift to humankind.

The women are all the same

Berger's contribution to feminist teachings has been immense. In the second episode, he discusses how the woman in European art is a sight to be looked at.

"Men dream of women. Women dream of themselves being dreamt of. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at."

She is never naked, only nude, Berger observes. Nudes show how women were seen as objects, and not how they were as people. "To be naked is to be oneself. To be nude is to be seen naked and not recognised for oneself. A nude has to be seen as an object," he says.

Berger further talks of the "male hypocrisy" in objectifying a woman, putting a mirror in her hand and then dismissing her for her "Vanity" - a popular trope in the oil paintings he refers to.

"You painted a naked woman because you enjoyed looking at her, put a mirror in her hand and you called the painting "Vanity," thus morally condemning the woman whose nakedness you had depicted for your own pleasure..."

The women in nudes, Berger says, are always looking at the person consuming her. They are passive; not in control of their bodies; are hairless, for hair would include her sexuality; their bodies are twisted to show all sexual parts, even if the posture makes little sense.

Quite simply a description that perfectly fits the representation of women in magazines, advertisements, or pornography today. This sexualisation of women's bodies to the extent of robbing her of personhood has resulted in a severe sense of inadequacy in most women today. But what's startling is that men, and high-brow artists at that, in 19th century Europe didn't consume women any differently than they do in a 21st century globalised world.

But who owns these bodies?

While the artist captures his ideal nude woman in his painting, it is the purchaser who gets to flaunt her in his sitting room for generations to come.

In episode 3, Berger delves into what makes visual art relevant. And his realistic answer would disappoint romantics.

Money, purchasing power and status makes art available to the owner. This makes art a commodity worth striving for. Its worth increases with time, but unlike wine, which is also a status symbol, art doesn't perish with consumption.

Taking on the economics of why visual art thrives as such a coveted commodity, Berger explains, "If you buy a painting, you also buy the look of the thing it represents."

Which means that visual art, unlike "music or poems" provides a setting to the physical background of the owner. "A patron cannot be surrounded by music or poems as he is by his pictures."

The painting elevates the person, and therefore, becomes a priceless commodity.

And what of those who can't purchase?

The final episode of John Berger's Ways of Seeing directly looks into the future i.e. the time we inhabit. He hacks open the sham that publicity is, that the media and all that we consume today is.

We see images around ourselves every day. We notice them as we go along, they stay in our subconscious and revisit us in our dreams. The relevance of these images is that they don't represent us.

These images, Berger says, are "of people who have apparently been transformed and are, as a result, enviable." This state of envy, he says, can be identified as "glamour".

When Berger talks of images selling an enviable life though, it's of static pictures in magazine ads or billboards. For the year is 1972.

Today, we have social media. The images hit us instantly, constantly. We sell dreams as much as we consume them.

The more consumerism penetrates into society, the more this form of "personal envy" will flourish. Berger explains that in older times the oil paintings may not have caused a sense of inadequacy because everybody's place in society was "predetermined". Therefore, there was no room for aspiration, and absolutely none to feed off that aspiration.

These images, he says, sell two completely different dreams on opposite ends of the spectrum. These dreams, in a consumerist world, make us who we think we are. On one hand, there's the perfect one needs to achieve, and on the other is the grotesque, which is what we can never be.

The latter, Berger explains, happens to the Other. "What happens out there happens to strangers whose fate is meant to be different from ours," he says.

This is true for Aleppo. For while we constantly watched their world being destroyed, their houses razed, their families killed, we found comfort in the third person plural. For 'they' can never be 'us' and the images help us fuel that publicity dream.

First published: 4 January 2017, 0:21 IST
Durga M Sengupta @the_bongrel

Feminist and culturally displaced, Durga tries her best to live up to her overpowering name. She speaks four languages, by default, and has an unhealthy love for cheesy foods. Assistant Editor at Catch, Durga hopes to bring in a focus on gender politics and the role it plays in all our interactions.