Ways of Seeing (John Berger)

Ways of Seeing is a modern critical classic in which Berger proceeds from ideas expressed in Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” to discuss the history of painting, oil painting, and publicity (advertising) as a extensions of one another and as bound up completely in object- and social-relations. The book is a compelling, quasi-Marxist critique aimed at a general reader. The feminist essay on the artistic nude painting is especially clever and concise.

Berger’s fundamental point is an ideological critique and is framed in response to an attack on the ideas expressed in the book (this is possible because Berger’s ideas were first expressed in a BBC series):

We are accused of being obsessed by property. The truth is the other way round. It is the society and the culture in question which is so obsessed. Yet to an obsessive his obsession always seems to be of the nature of things and so is not recognized for what it is. The relation between property and art in European culture appears natural to that culture, and consequently if somebody demonstrates the extent of the property interest in a given cultural field, it is said to be a demonstration of his obsession. (109)

And later:

… we accept the total system of publicity images as we accept an element of climate. (130)

— Jonathan Ball

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