John Berger is nearly 80 years old. He has spent his life writing and speaking on art. He writes the kind of books you want your friends to read, so you can share the ideas with them. His Marxism is sensuous, demanding and critical.
When we look at a work of art our ideas of it are coloured by what surrounds us, what history we have and what we’ve seen before.
Berger uses words and images to examine not just how artworks are made, but also how we are encouraged to view them. He demystifies art so that everyone has a chance of understanding it.
His best known and most influential book is Ways of Seeing, first published in 1972. This was later made into a TV series, which is now being shown as part of an exhibition of archival material at Tate Britain, in London, until August 14.
The book is composed of seven essays, three of which are purely pictorial with no words at all, apart from some picture titles.
This in itself is a challenge to how we normally read books. The images are reproduced in black and white from colour originals and we instantly read them as such. Because of this, we question their use and selection.
We compare and contrast one image with other images on the same page. By doing this we begin to see critically. This is Berger’s intention.
The other four essays use words and images together. In the first, Berger discusses how we come to see the world and ourselves in it. He says, “Soon after we can see, we are aware that we can also be seen. The eye of the other combines with our own eye to make it fully credible that we are part of the visible world.”
Pictures are made and photographs are taken of the world in order to come to terms with it.
The interpretation of paintings and photos can then become an ideological battle between those who want to use the images of the past as justification for maintaining present social conditions and those who want to use the past in order to improve on the present.
The remaining three essays show how these battles can play out. First, Berger discusses how incessantly women are presented as objects in order to flatter or arouse the male spectator. He does this by comparing the “nude” to the “naked”.
He says, “To be naked is to be oneself. To be nude is to be seen naked by others and yet not recognised for oneself. A naked body has to be seen as an object to become a nude.”
As objects women are passive and available. When they are pictured this way their oppression is reaffirmed as natural and therefore unchangeable.
Berger explores how traditional oil painting acts as a perfect medium for reinforcing notions of private property.
Berger says, “Oil painting did to appearances what capital did to social relations. It reduced everything to the equality of objects.”
Painting since the Renaissance has typically been designed to flatter the rich and patronise the poor. The rich were pictured with their property to remind themselves of their intellectual and moral superiority over the poor.
The poor were, and still are, romanticised as simple but happy with their lot. This is seen as the natural order of things.
Lastly, Berger discusses advertising, or publicity, and its relationship to the European oil painting tradition.
Both use a similar pictorial language but “the function of publicity is very different from that of oil painting.
“The spectator-buyer stands in a very different relation to the world from the spectator-owner. The oil painting showed what its owner was already enjoying among his possessions and his way of life.
“The purpose of publicity is to make the spectator marginally dissatisfied with his present way of life. Not with the way of life of society, but with his own within it.”
I have only given a flavour of this brilliant and provocative book. I strongly recommend you borrow or buy it. Try to go and see the TV series at Tate Britain and many of the other celebrations of John Berger’s ideas.
For more information go to www.johnberger.org
Ways of Seeing (£7.99) by John Berger is available from Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop. Phone 020 7637 1848 or go to www.bookmarks.uk.com