Ways of Seeing: John Berger's Marxist Arts Documentary

Knoji reviews products and up-and-coming brands we think you'll love. In certain cases, we may receive a commission from brands mentioned in our guides. Learn more.
Seeing comes before words. The child looks and recognizes before it can speak. This insistence on the fundamental nature of seeing runs throughout John Berger’s critically acclaimed project Ways of Seeing (1972).

Keywords: John Berger, Ways of Seeing, Gombrich Story of Art, Geoff Dyer, Walter Benjamin, Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, Kenneth Clark Civilisation, Breughel Procession to Calvary, Carravaggio Last Supper, Peter Fuller

‘Seeing comes before words. The child looks and recognizes before it can speak.’

This insistence on the fundamental nature of seeing runs throughout John Berger’s critically acclaimed project Ways of Seeing (1972). As these opening words suggest, Berger regarded seeing as truer to our being than language; essential to our formation as individuals, seeing helps locate us in the world and in relation to each other - processes that precede even the social conditioning involved in the acquisition of language. He recognised, however, that our way of seeing is also socially conditioned, and that with respect to visual art this takes the form of a series of ‘learned assumptions’ that mediate our experience of art-works and determine to a large extent what we see in them. According to Berger, this mediation is a bourgeois mystification intended to reinforce the oppression of the dominated groups in society. The central project of Ways of Seeing is to expose this complicity between art historical rhetoric and political domination, and to enable each of us to see both art and society clearly and for ourselves.

Appropriately, Ways of Seeing was a visual project before it was a literary one. Initially broadcast late at night, it was soon re-screened in a more privileged timeslot, whereupon its impact was immediate and enormous. The follow-up book became an essential text on the reading lists of art history courses across Britain and the USA. Even if today such reading lists offer it along with Gombrich’s The Story of Art as only one possible approach, to the legions of teachers and students for whom it constituted a breakthrough in the study of art, Ways of Seeing represented the only viable approach.

This essay examines the canonical status of Ways of Seeing, charting its impact on the discipline of art history during the 1970s. Berger’s central ideas are considered in relation to contexts such as the emergence of the ‘New Left,’ in its Marxist and feminist formations. These are not to be viewed as background to Ways of Seeing, but as processes that both helped formulate and provided a receptive audience for it. It should not be concluded, however, that Berger’s success was simply due to him being in the right place at the right time. The radical nature of his ideas and the polemical force of their expression were vital in establishing Ways of Seeing’s influence, as was Berger’s foregrounding of the visual. Instead, Ways of Seeing became the key text in the study of art because its arguments were posited at the right time and in two places at once – not just within the narrow context of academia, departments of art history, or on the 701.1 section of library shelves, but also in the most influential and far-reaching medium ever devised – television.

As early as the 1950s, Berger had been aware of the communicative power of television in contrast to visual arts such as painting, which was rendered ‘very inefficient’1 by having to hold its own against a bombardment of visual stimuli in the form of advertising. The contribution of television to Ways of Seeing’s success has been gauged by Geoff Dyer, who pointed out that most of its central ideas had been put forward earlier in Berger’s essays.2 In addition, Walter Benjamin’s essay ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,’ on which the first chapter of Ways of Seeing relies substantially, had been made available in English in 1954 – to little effect. The political climate needs to be considered here (see below), but ultimately it is true that the populist context of television gave vital impetus to these ideas. The role played by the medium can scarcely be underestimated: it conditioned the formation and structure of Ways of Seeing and gave Berger access to a greater audience than virtually any art critical project had enjoyed before, without which his dual purpose of enforcing change in art history and in society at large could never have been attempted.

There was one project, however, that shared Berger’s enthusiasm for television as an educative tool, though it shared little else with him: Kenneth Clark’s monumental TV series Civilisation (1969). The two programmes are antithetical; where Clark is scholarly and authoritative, Berger is polemical and belligerent. Civilisation is characterised by dignified full-length portraits of Clark posing nonchalantly with a Raphael fresco or Michelangelo ceiling – even when they represent ‘the summit of Civilisation.’3 The authority of someone with such limitless access to these museums, galleries and churches is considerable, and his account of the works themselves is similarly authoritative. He eulogises their timelessness and perfection, their manifest ‘quality of heroic will.’4 Preliminary studies are linked to completed works, allowing us to see their indisputable origins in individual creativity. ‘The Renaissance,’ he informs us ‘was a race of giants and heroes.’5 Occasionally an artist will achieve such an heroic status that he can be abstracted from his own time: ‘Leonardo belongs to no epoch, fits into no category.’6 This makes it possible to quote Shakespeare in reference to him – the timeless quality of their work precludes any threat of anachronism.

Despite the opulence of the programme, its visual style is rather static and staid. Reverential close-ups and slow camera movements dwell on each art-work, while suitable music is used to convey their majesty. Crucially, Civilisation communicates little awareness of how television changes the works on display. It consistently shows works of art in their unique context (church, gallery etc.) and purports to bring us into close contact with them – not acknowledging that we see only reproductions.

In contrast, Ways of Seeing (directed by Mike Dibb) demonstrates a far more assured handling of the medium, and its arguments benefit hugely from this facility. Central ideas are introduced visually – simultaneously making assertions and confirming them by the use of images. The iconoclastic intent is signified in the opening shot: Berger walks up to what we assume is Botticelli’s Venus and Mars and casually cuts out the head of the goddess, turning it into a portrait of a woman. This image is duplicated in a series of reproductions. Cross-cutting between paintings and their reproductions on t-shirts and postcards is reinforced by Berger’s commentary, which states that reproduction destroys the uniqueness of an image and multiplies its meanings. The power of music to perform this function is also demonstrated. Carravaggio’s Last Supper is transformed into a boisterous argument and a sorrowful requiem by the addition of music. Berger’s contention that television can turn paintings into narratives by isolating details and presenting them as a series of images is graphically demonstrated using Breughel’s Procession to Calvary.

This sophisticated and highly self-conscious understanding of both the power of television to manipulate images and its limitations in giving us direct access to them structures every episode of Ways of Seeing – in each case, argument and form are unified. Many of the devices refer directly to those of Civilisation and expose their function. At other times Berger is not above using them himself, as when ominous music encourages us to share his distain for the use of art-works by advertising. Consequently, it has been suggested that Ways of Seeing is itself manipulative, setting out exercises for the viewer to complete in order to see Berger’s way. Certainly he is presumptuous about what the viewer will be thinking (‘You have been waiting impatiently for the camera to move in to examine the details.’)7 The sometimes condescending tone, however, results from Berger’s concern to reveal how the medium alters the viewer’s perception of images, something that Clark ignores throughout all thirteen hours of his series. If Ways of Seeing is manipulative it is rarely tacitly so. This tendency is proclaimed throughout by the self-reflexive quality of the programme, evident in the presentation of Berger himself. For most of the series he appears, not in a gallery like Clark, but in front of a studio bluescreen, while frequent shots of him surrounded by a camera crew never let us forget that we are watching a construction. The first episode ends with Berger saying, ‘I hope you will consider what I arrange, but be sceptical of it.’ This, as Dyer says, is a ‘rhetorical ploy’8: by acknowledging that he is manipulating these images Berger utilises the viewer’s scepticism in order to confirm the truth of his argument - that works of art have become images that can be manipulated to suit one’s purpose.

Further comparison reveals that both the similarities and differences of the two series go much deeper than the level of style. The analysis can be continued with the aid of Raymond Williams’s discussion of the politics of technological developments in late capitalism. Williams is ultimately ambivalent about mass media such as film and television, rejecting the early socialist notion that film is inherently radical due to its dynamism, but acknowledging that it can be used for innovation thanks to its freedom from spatial/temporal limits.9 Similarly, television is seen as being equally adaptable to radical and reactionary projects, and I would argue that this dual potential is exemplified by Ways of Seeing and Civilisation. This is true despite the fundamental correspondences between the programmes: both were produced by the BBC, a state-funded (via licence-fees) and state-regulated institution that purported to offer ‘responsible public service.’10

I have indicated that Berger utilized television as the most public means available in his commitment to producing social change. Clark, of course, lacked this radical motive, but he also embraced the populist aspect of television in his attempt to override barriers and reach all classes with his didactic project. It is therefore tempting to see Clark (and he saw himself) as giving the public, in return for its money, privileged access to the inner sanctums of high culture. This self-image is evident in the style of Civilisation: the camera is constantly moving through doorways, into palatial rooms that unfold spatially as well as visually. A telling shot depicts Michelangelo’s David from the point of view of someone standing before it, gazing up. Denying its mediation by technology, Civilisation claims to put the viewer in front of the artwork - close enough, perhaps, to appreciate its ‘aura’.

It would be wrong to accept Clark’s self-image, for as Williams demonstrates, ‘populist’ does not necessarily equal ‘democratic’.11 Clark may well have been sincere in his desire to bring culture to the masses, but it is negotiated in paternalistic terms – it is a case of minority culture and the vulgar majority. His foreword to the book outlines how he adapted his work to what he sees as a docile audience who must be continually prodded with anecdotes, striking images and ‘risky’12 generalisations to prevent them from switching off (or falling asleep).

Civilisation reinforces the dominance of high culture. Clark is benevolent in the manner of a Victorian philanthropist, sincere in his motives, but ultimately working to promote a culture shared between classes, and owned by one – common values on which the dominance of the ruling class could be secured.

To understand this better it is necessary to look at the specific social and economic situation, which gave rise to both series. Williams has theorised the political and cultural development of capitalism, arguing that the authority of ‘minority culture’ (based on education, taste etc., but ultimately on capital) has been undermined by the demands of capitalism, the very system on which it depends. This tension reached its peak with the advent of Modernism. According to Williams, the processes that produced Modernism (industrialisation, urbanisation etc.) became the conditions that homogenized and diluted it, making it available as the popular culture perceived as its antithesis. ‘Mass civilisation’ was seen as the enemy of ‘minority culture,’ when in fact each was engendered by the same social order.13

With the advent of a ‘harsher phase’ of capitalism, this Modernist dichotomy was being undermined by mass media and replaced with a ‘modern transmitting metropolis’.14 This is the context that produced both Civilisation and Ways of Seeing. While certain reactionaries and radicals saw this as a threat, a response based on technophobia and cultural pessimism, others – including Clark and Berger – adapted to the new technologies with a measure of enthusiasm. Cultural conservatives like Clark observed that minority culture was being eroded by the demands of capitalism, and in the face of these pressures resorted to the ‘old cultural argument’15 based on nostalgia, imperialism, the Classical and pastoral ideals: ‘a high culture to be preserved and by education and access extended to a whole people.’16 This was precisely the response of Civilisation.

The radical alternative found expression in Ways of Seeing. For socialists, a ‘transmitting metropolis’ had the potential to eradicate hierarchical culture. It should be pointed out that Berger, like Williams, was ambivalent about mass culture in some of its forms (see below), but his use of television was intended as a first step towards a genuinely democratic culture and society. Therefore, both series reacted to the same developments in the same social order, and both used television as a means to deal with them, though in vastly different ways. Civilisation encouraged a retreat into a past formation of social order, Ways of Seeing moved decisively towards a still unformulated future of radical social change.

Not surprisingly, Ways of Seeing was received as a direct riposte to Civilisation. Dyer confidently states that it was ‘conceived’ as such,17 but Dibb has since contended that: ‘Ways of Seeing was not conceived and mounted as a polemical riposte to Kenneth Clark.’18 We could argue against this assertion – Berger does take issue with Clark’s discussion of Gainsborough’s Mr and Mrs Andrews; his definition of the nude (WS p54) responds directly to Clark’s – but this would only take us away from the central issue. The point is that Ways of Seeing was universally accepted as a riposte to Civilisation, and this had huge implications for each series and for art history as a whole.

Peter Fuller has rightly noted that many of the faults of Berger’s project are due to this relationship to Civilisation and its need to destroy the assumptions on which it was based. However, this fails to emphasise that many of the attributes of Ways of Seeing also derive from this relationship. Clark’s very prestige, authority and influence played directly into Berger’s hands - as a concrete example of the pervasive mystification spread by bourgeois art history, Berger could not have been better served: Clark ensured that Ways of Seeing would be seen as a vital project that challenged the traditional view of art he had done so much to instil. In turn, Berger convinced many that Civilisation and its ideals were obsolete, and it was not until Fuller entered his neo-conservative phase that anyone felt a need to question this.

In a wider context, Clark and Berger respectively were taken as representatives of the ‘Old,’ connoisseur model of art history and the emergent radical art history that by the eighties was termed ‘New.’ Civilisation does exemplify the traditional model as it is generally understood. Invoking specialist knowledge, aesthetic judgement and hierarchical distinctions, it is a bastion of high culture committed to the up-holding of taste and the triumphal progress of art down the ages. Consequently, Berger’s criticisms of Clark must be understood as applying simultaneously to ‘Old’ art history.

Clark reiterates the dominant myths about artistic creativity and the universal relevance of great art. He speaks of ‘life-giving beliefs,’19 an extremely vague phrase that seeks to invest art-works with a spiritual value Berger would dismiss as ‘bogus religiosity.’ To be fair, he does use the term ‘culture’ in its anthropological sense as a ‘whole way of life,’ but this is merely a concession to the prevailing trend of democratic inclusiveness. He persistently refers to ‘Civilisation’ in contrast to ‘Barbarism’ – thus displacing the traditional high/low distinction onto these terms and preserving the heroic ideal. Overall, Civilisation is severely élitist, and illustrates Berger’s claim that traditional art history imbues art with an ‘aura’ to preserve its value and compensate for what it lost in being mechanically reproduced. Even as Clark benevolently shares his wisdom with the public, art is made remote from them, becoming a quasi-religious entity that must be interpreted by the expert, and this reinforces its status as a preserve of the élite. Clark celebrates Civilisation, claiming that it is superior to culture: it requires a sense of permanence.20 As Berger would say, this insistence on the virtues of continuity and stability is merely an attempt to justify the role of the ruling classes – any form of political or social unrest would constitute the threat of Barbarism.

By systematically destroying these assumptions, exposing their ideological function in the process, Ways of Seeing codified a radical tendency in art history that had been developing for some time. Berger advocates superseding the canon (even if he does not do so himself) and attending instead to the ‘normative tradition’ of unexceptional figures. It is here, he claims, that the issues of class struggle, gender construction, ideology, art’s underlying function as property – the real factors determining the course of art history – can be comprehended.

Due to the highly public nature of this debate, Clark and Berger came to personify, in the public mind at least, these rival factions, making them appear coherent within themselves and in a simple, oppositional relationship to each other. In fact, the division was not so simple. Neither the ‘Old’ nor radical art history was a coherent entity; each was a complex of disparate methods and assumptions, and many of the core elements of the latter were developed by ‘Old’ art historians. The Marxist T.J. Clark, for example, compiled a list of progenitors (Warburg, Wölfflin, Panofsky) whose work pre-empted many of the concerns of radical art history.21 Nicos Hadjinicolaou examined the formalist Wölfflin and identified his ‘art history without names’ as a precursor of the anti-canonical basis of radical art history, despite its concentration on the ‘internal development’ of form.22 Similarly, he regarded the ‘artistic will’ of Riegl and Sedlmayr – a ‘vision of the world’ that conditions works of art produced in a given place and time – as an embryonic form of structuralism, even if these ‘bourgeois’ figures believed artistic will was contingent on geography and ethnicity.23 Indeed, the concept anticipates both Berger’s ‘way of seeing’ and Hadjinicolaou’s ‘visual ideology’ – all recognise that seeing is not simply a universal human faculty, but an act specific to the circumstances in which it is performed.

The significance of the relationship between Civilisation and Ways of Seeing is that it elided these complications and gave each model a false semblance of coherence in itself and in relation to the other. Jonathon Harris has suggested that there was a general understanding of the two models that was based on ‘incautious generalisations on both sides.’24 Ways of Seeing and its relationship to Civilisation played a major part in this. Though it undoubtedly obscured the true nature of each model, it fed into the general understanding of them, and thereby polarised the practice of many art historians, giving each of them a model to conform to and another to react against. In this way, Berger’s project conditioned a mass of subsequent scholarship. It also ensured that the so-called ‘crisis in art history’ was brought to a wider public, where it reacted with contemporary developments in society.

Ways of Seeing could not have achieved its canonical status if the political and social situation had not provided it with an inroad to mainstream debate. This is demonstrated by the cases of Hauser and Antal, both pioneers of a social history of art, whose works suffered due to anti-Marxist sentiment in the 1950s. Berger experienced this hostility first-hand when, as a Marxist art critic for the New Statesman, he was regularly vilified during the fifties. This is another reason why the ideas of Ways of Seeing, though expressed earlier, had a delayed impact: they were kept inert by the Cold War atmosphere until the early seventies provided a more amenable climate. At this point several factors converged. A general aversion to Fascism during the war had created allies among Berger’s generation, who would become an increasingly strong political force decades later. Another catalyst was the political insurrection of 1968. Riots, demonstrations and strikes occurred in Europe and America, and since a significant number of these were perpetrated by students dissatisfied with the education system,25 they ensured that art and art history were recognised as being integral to this political upheaval, not transcendent of it as the academic discipline of art history maintained. A sympathetic audience for Berger’s arguments was secured by the expansion of universities and polytechnics during the seventies and eighties. As this was intended to overcome the exclusivity of the old universities, Ways of Seeing, with its socialist and democratic ethos, achieved talismanic status in these institutions.

O.K. Werckmeister’s essay ‘A Working Perspective for Marxist Art History Today’(1991) has surveyed the development of Marxist art history during this period, showing how its effectiveness was related to political factors in society as a whole. He describes how these developments between 1968 and 1974 ‘appeared to suggest certain possibilities for political and social change to which Marxist scholars were able to relate their drive towards . . . a more truthful social history of culture.’26 He also argues that a crisis in capitalism encouraged the acceptance of Marxist precepts by non-Marxists. Berger’s condemnation of the commerce of art - supported by the dealer-critic system, galleries, museums and publishing companies – would, of course, have been eagerly received by orthodox Marxists who stressed the determination of the economic base on all other aspects of society. But the idea would have appealed even to non-Marxists who recognised that ‘the reign of the art-market’ had become a colossal force in the art world since the 1960s.27

Ways of Seeing was put forward at this moment of opportunity and gained from the general optimism for socialist and Marxist causes. Such a context was essential for the acceptance of the model of art history Berger advocated – a social history of art taking account of class, gender, ideology and economics. But perhaps the pivotal factor was Berger’s ability to show how art could be instrumental in this process of social reform.

The essential differences between Ways of Seeing and the ‘Old’ art history it challenged were its emphasis on the spectator, a concern that became central to radical debate in the seventies (e.g. Screen), and its recognition that seeing is historically- and class-specific. The series and book have a huge scope - covering reproduction, the representation of gender, art’s economic function, advertising, and even broaching the subject of colonialism - all issues that had largely been ignored by traditional art history. In each case, Berger reveals how such factors and their suppression have had vital implications for the spectator’s response to art. His recognition that seeing plays a fundamental role in situating us in relation to each other – i.e. in society – is central to this concern. Traditional art history, he claims, conditions the viewer into bringing learned assumptions (Beauty, Truth, Genius etc.) to their experience of art. These interpose themselves between the viewer and the work, precluding any direct judgement of it. The bourgeois art historian ‘fears such direct judgement.’28 Berger denounces these assumptions as bourgeois aesthetics that mystify rather than clarify, and gives an example of their use: an account of two Hals paintings by an academic art historian, Seymour Slive. Berger’s discussion includes a sustained attack on formalism. Slive, he argues, concentrates on the formal arrangement, the tonal contrasts of the paintings, viewing each as a ‘marvellously made object,’ that gives us an insight into ‘life’s vital forces’ (Slive).29 This approach obscures the social conflict inherent in the paintings by returning to the myths of the unchanging human condition and the timelessness of art.

The polemical force of Ways of Seeing derives from its vehemence in exposing the ideological function of art and art criticism. Berger politicises art by arguing that it has been used to limit our potentiality. ‘The past,’ he says ‘is a well of conclusions from which we draw in order to act.’30 The mystification of art history forbids us direct access to the art of the past, and consequently, ‘the past offers us fewer conclusions to complete in action.’31 We are less able to resist, or even recognise, our domination by the ruling classes.

If Berger sometimes seems to be proposing the existence of a diabolical conspiracy within art history, he elsewhere recognises that ideology functions through a hegemony extending across a broad range of social institutions and practices. Thus, advertising promotes acceptance of our social conditions, our ‘interminable present,’32 by promising us an imaginary future, which is nevertheless continually deferred. In this light, consumerism becomes a substitute for democracy: choice of products replaces political choice.

Ironically, Berger shares with Clark a view of contemporary society as culturally impoverished, but while Clark laments the decline of traditional culture, Berger believes its repressive function has been inherited by a thoroughly debased form of it – ‘publicity.’ He takes a pessimistic - and rather simplistic - view of the consumer as a passive receptacle of either bourgeois mystification or The Truth, courtesy of Berger & Co. His statement that consumption is a substitute for democracy is wholly negative, giving no thought to how consumption can articulate difference and dissent.33

Education also functions in this hegemony. Classical education, allied with the study of history painting, supplies the scholar with examples of ‘heroic action, the dignified exercise of power’34 – in short, with the means to rule. This is why study of the classics is restricted to the élite and invested with moral value, and why history painting was considered hierarchically superior to other genres.

The unprecedented impact of Ways of Seeing owed in large part to the contentious nature of these ideas. Berger revealed the vacuum in art history concerning extra-aesthetic elements, and radically altered subsequent practice by demonstrating how necessary they were for any valuable understanding of art. Relating art to the political domination of the majority under capitalism gave it relevance outside of academia. I have said that Berger politicised art. His project, however, was not restricted to exposing this social injustice: it also showed that art had the potential to be used against it. This potential lay in the reproducibility of art – the very thing that had necessitated the creation of an ‘aura’ around artworks. Mechanical reproduction destroys the uniqueness of the image, meaning that the object itself must be fetishized to compensate for this loss. But Berger adds that this does not have to be as negative as it sounds. A corollary is that the image is ‘liberated’ from the object and consequently from possession by the cultural élite. Images become democratic - available to everyone - and constitute ‘information’ that can be used. What matters now, he says, is who uses this information and for what purpose. Once again, the visual aspect of Ways of Seeing must be considered: as well as putting forward this argument, the series is itself a prime example of the use of images for a political purpose. In this way, Berger showed that the art of the past – as well as contemporary art practice – could be used as a force for political change in the present.

It has been suggested that the polemical force of Ways of Seeing accounts for much of its success, but that to achieve it Berger had to sacrifice academic thoroughness and the extensive qualifications that would have helped his work maintain its canonical status longer than it did.35 This accusation is largely sustainable: the polemical tone, concise slogans and impassioned argument make it a stimulating, provocative text, but in the long run leave it open to criticism. Ultimately, then, Ways of Seeing’s strength is also its failure.

However, some of these criticisms have been over-zealous and have tarnished its reputation more than it deserves. Fuller claims that it relies on a crude reflectionism – the notion that art passively reflects ideology – and gives no thought to how art reproduces ideology in the spectator. As I have tried to demonstrate, however, Berger’s overriding concern – his primary motivation in writing the book – was this very matter. Although it does not give it detailed discussion, the text frequently indicates that Berger was aware of this possibility: the patriarchal ideology of the European nude ‘stills structures the consciousness of many women;’36 furthermore, the suggestion that art reproduces ideology is implicit throughout the programme, as in the episode on advertising where a child is seen walking down a street overflowing with images – indicating that we are kept in a docile, childlike state of wonder and bewilderment by publicity.

Fuller has identified certain ‘contradictions’ in Ways of Seeing. Berger’s claim that, ‘Today we see the art of the past as nobody saw it before,’37 is held to contradict his earlier assertion that we can comprehend the way of seeing inscribed in Hals’s paintings because we live in a world of comparable social relations (i.e. a capitalist one). This kind of word-by-word criticism is Fuller’s speciality in dealing with Berger, but in this case the contradiction remains at the level of words. The claim that we see the art of the past differently does not have to mean that our perception is completely different from that of past ages, that former meanings are utterly irrecoverable, only that the meanings are multiplied – as happens when works of art are reproduced. With this understanding, it is perfectly reasonable to claim that our perception has shifted from that of Hals’s time, but that it still has something in common with it.

Similarly, Berger’s belief in a ‘special relationship’ between oil-painting and property is illustrated with the example of paintings of the Magdalene. The renunciation of carnality present in the story is, he says, undermined by the materiality of oil-painting.38 Fuller aims to correct Berger by pointing out that the painters may have intended the medium to have this effect, in order to de-mystify the Magdalene story. He may, of course, be quite right, but his criticism does not get at the sense of what Berger is saying. Berger’s point is about the materiality of oil-painting, and Fuller’s objection only reasserts it.

Irrespective of whatever faults it may have, Ways of Seeing cannot be regarded as a failure. Berger never intended his project to give a definitive account of the issues in question; he announces in the text that the treatment is ‘very brief, and therefore very crude.’39 Instead, he offers only a starting point, outlining a number of debates that require more attention than any single study could give them. He even goes so far as to suggest projects for further study, providing an extensive list of advertising devices he hopes others will analyse.40 The unique contribution of Ways of Seeing lies in the vast range of debates it opened up, the number of assumptions it called into question. It subjected to scrutiny issues that have subsequently been taken up by Marxists, feminists, post-colonialists and even theorists of visual culture, and brought these issues into the public eye. The success of Berger’s project can only be judged by taking into account the work done as a result of its impetus. Innumerable writers have responded to Ways of Seeing, often reacting against it, and have developed its arguments, supplied qualifications, and ultimately, have furthered the debates it introduced.

Hadjinicolaou is a case in point. A theorist of the ‘bourgeois ideology of ‘art’,’41 he has extended Berger’s lines of argument to their perhaps inevitable conclusion. His book Art History and Class Struggle (1978) begins from the conviction, shared with Berger, that ‘the history of the production of pictures’ is inextricable from the history of class struggle. He derives from Berger a concern for going beyond the canon and a hostility for formalism. The notion of art as ‘an autonomous chain’ is rejected by both, in favour of an art history that takes account of “non-artistic’ factors’ such as class, ideology and economics.42 Clearly, Hadjinicolaou is working in areas that Ways of Seeing circumscribed. His departure from Ways of Seeing takes place over the question of aesthetics. The central concept of his book is ‘visual ideology,’ which he regards as synonymous with ‘style,’ with the proviso that there is no such thing as personal, regional, or national style:

a specific combination of the formal and thematic elements of a picture through which people express the way they relate their lives to the conditions of their existence, a combination which constitutes a particular form of the overall ideology of a social class.43

This definition seeks to relate ‘style’ to ‘ideology’- style is the concretisation within a particular painting of the overall ideology of a social class.

Critics and supporters alike have summarised Hadjinicolaou’s argument as a reduction of aesthetics to ideology. This is only true in effect. He concedes that works of art have aesthetic value in varying measure, but regards ‘style’ itself as value-free,44 and since his purpose is to identify the visual ideology of a painting with its social class, aesthetic considerations are left out of his thinking. However, while he admits that visual ideology does not relate to the value of a painting, he says that aesthetic effect cannot be dissociated from the relationship between the viewer’s ideology and the visual ideology of the painting.45 Therefore, aesthetic judgement will always be conditioned by ideology.

Hadjinicolaou does make definite improvements on Ways of Seeing. His conception of ideology – derived from Althusser – allows a fuller explanation of how ideology is reproduced. But he also extends Berger’s ideas to some drastic conclusions (Ways of Seeing refrained from reducing aesthetics to ideology, and preserved ideals such as the ‘exceptional’ artist, which the social history of art has tended to perpetuate.) For this reason, Hadjinicolaou has generated much anxiety - Fuller regards him as Berger’s ‘monstrous off-spring’46 - and this has led many, including Berger, to re-evaluate Ways of Seeing. In this light, Berger is seen as being either too ‘sensitive,’47 fearing to make clear what his project would entail, or as a sort of bumbling father-figure, carelessly leaving a box of matches within the reach of his demonic children. In any case, Ways of Seeing is recognised as an essential precursor to the development of Marxist art history during the 1970s.

As a Marxist text, Ways of Seeing is highly atypical – it is one of the rare instances in which gender is given serious consideration. Berger discusses how the nude in European oil-painting reduced women to objects of the male gaze, and how this continued to be (along with advertising) an important device in constructing male-female power relations within patriarchy. Ways of Seeing was the first text to discredit Kenneth Clark’s authoritative tome The Nude, and reveal the exigency of this issue for feminists. In doing so, it went beyond the earlier feminist practice of recuperating women artists who had been excluded from history. I am not claiming that Berger’s work initiated second-wave feminism: the crucial debates were introduced in books such as Kate Millet’s Sexual Politics (1970) and Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch (1970). Berger contributed only one facet to feminism’s interrogation of patriarchy – the representation of women in paintings of the nude – but it was a facet that complemented work being undertaken by Linda Nochlin and Griselda Pollock at this time.

Lynda Nead’s essay ‘Representation, Sexuality and the Female Nude’ (1983) is an example of feminism responding to Ways of Seeing and superseding it, but still relying on the methods and terminology it pioneered. The essay addresses the problems of Ways of Seeing – its failure to examine fully how images of the nude structure sexuality; its belief in ‘exceptional nudes’ (paintings of loved women, seen-as-themselves, which exclude all spectators but the painter, and thereby transcend ideology). Nead improves upon the work of her predecessor, demonstrating that ‘the nude must be seen as part of [the] process of organisation of sexuality, of the constantly shifting and negotiated construction of ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity’.’48 However, to achieve these advances, she relies heavily on Berger’s work. Her critique of the tendency to treat paintings of the female nude as reflections of Victorian sexuality is based on the knowledge that this is a phallocentric practice. This draws on Berger’s argument that paintings of the female nude are structured according the male artist/spectator’s sexuality and have ‘nothing to do with her sexuality.’49 (Although Nead would be aware that this last point is not quite true – these images were instrumental in constructing both male and female sexuality, so they must have something to do with hers). Nead’s statement that, ‘In the nineteenth century woman is displayed as a sexual object for the male gaze – she connotes sexual passivity, submissiveness and availability,’50 replicates exactly Berger’s vocabulary when discussing Lely’s picture for Charles II.51

After outlining a methodology for the study of nineteenth-century nudes, Nead’s essay culminates by using this methodology on Millais’s The Knight Errant (1870). Addressing a contemporary review, she takes issue with the critic’s concern with the lack of purity and refinement in the female figure: ‘The connotations of rape have been displaced and blamed on the woman’s own dubious morality.’52 Such hypocrisy was vilified by Berger when he attacked ‘Vanity’ paintings of naked women holding mirrors.53 Both writers contend that this moral condemnation facilitates the spectator’s voyeuristic enjoyment and domination of women. Nead then goes on to say that the critic shifts emphasis onto purely formal praise of the artist’s skill,54 which strongly echoes Berger’s criticism of Slive’s formalist procedure and the bourgeois aesthetics that mask the ideological aspects of an image.

In conclusion, Ways of Seeing has had ‘greater influence than any other art critical project of the last decade.’55(Fuller, 1980). Essential preconditions such as the revival of Marxism and feminism facilitated its influence, as did the rivalry with Civilisation; but ultimately, it owes to Berger’s ability to help us see through the mystifications that obscure our relationship to art, achieved through a persuasive, polemical text and a remarkable command of visual argument. The examples above give an indication of the extent to which subsequent scholarship has been indebted to it. In many cases, this work has surpassed Berger’s achievements, but this is entirely consistent with his ambitions for the project: ‘Our principal aim has been to start off a process of questioning.’56 That this has been achieved is the ultimate measure of Berger’s success. The progress made in our understanding of art history, capitalism, and patriarchy that Ways of Seeing initiated is beyond calculation, particularly because the project it began in 1972 is still ongoing: the role of art in reproducing ideology, and constructing class and gender relations continues to be investigated. But it was Ways of Seeing, more than any other project, that asked these questions in the first place. Appropriately, the book ends with a clause that nevertheless runs throughout the entire text: ‘To be continued by the reader.’57


1. Dyer, p23

2. Ibid. p96

3. Civilisation, episode - ‘The Hero as Artist’

4. Clark, p137

5. Civilisation, episode 5 - ‘The Hero as Artist’

6. Clark, p135

7. Ways of Seeing, episode 1 – ‘Art and Reproduction’

8. Dyer, p99

9. See Williams, p111 and 113

10. BBC quoted ibid. p124

11. Williams, p107

12. Clark, pxv

13. Williams, p131

14. Tony Pinkney, introduction to Williams, p15

15. Williams, p120

16. Ibid. p120

17. Dyer, p95

18. Mike Dibb quoted in Fuller, Seeing Through Berger p71

19. Civilisation, episode 5 - ‘The Hero as Artist’

20. Clark, p14

21. Harris, p36

22. Hadjinicoloau, p60

23. Ibid. p64

24. Harris, p35

25. Ibid. p3

26. Werkmeister, p83

27. Harold Rosenberg quoted in Dyer, p96

28. Berger, p14

29. Ibid. p16

30. Ibid. p11

31. Ibid. p11

32. Ways of Seeing, episode 4 – ‘The Language of Advertising’

33. See, for example, Hebdige Subculture: The Meaning of Style

34. Berger, p101

35. For example, Fuller Seeing Through Berger p44

36. Ways of Seeing, episode 2 – ‘Nude or Naked?’

37. Berger, p16

38. Ibid. p92

39. Ibid. p109

40. Ibid. p138

41. Hadjinicoloau, p3

42. Ibid. p58

43. Ibid. p95

44. Ibid. p97

45. Ibid. p180

46. Fuller Seeing Through Berger p15

47. Art-Language quoted ibid. p14

48. Nead, p230

49. Berger, p55

50. Nead, p232

51. See Berger, p52

52. Nead, p235

53. Berger, p5

54. Nead, p235

55. Fuller Seeing Through Berger p13

56. Berger, p5

57. Berger, p166


Posted on Jan 6, 2012
Posted on Oct 12, 2010
Judith Barton
Posted on Aug 25, 2010
Francois Hagnere
Posted on Aug 24, 2010
Posted on Aug 21, 2010