In 1972, British art critic and novelist John Berger collaborated with producer Mike Dibb to make a four-part miniseries for the BBC about the legacy of European painting from 1400-1900. Ways of Seeing was wildly popular, and Berger reconfigured his script into a book of the same title--a compilation of seven essays that eventually became a best-seller. Probably in part because it's required reading in like - oh I dunno - approximately 97% of university courses taught by left-leaning professors in the disciplines of Art, Art History, and English. A student of the humanities myself, I read this book more than once during college. While I appreciated the clarity of Berger's prose and the idealism that inspired it, I remembered very little of the book by the time my classes moved on to the next required text. I didn't really "get it," and I didn't really "care". However, when I watched the first part of the BBC series, I was overjoyed to learn that this was not a consequence of my mild ADD and severe laziness, but in fact, because Ways of Seeing is not just about art and spectatorship, but the medium of television itself--and that is much, much more interesting than pre-modern Western art.
While the later episodes take on specific topics--the convention of the female nude, the medium of oil painting, and the world of advertising, respectively--the first episode of the series introduces the historical materialist lens through which these topics will later be explored. Berger revamps Walter Benjamin's seminal essay, "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" from 1936, which asserts that since the beginning of modernism and the emergence of an advanced global marketplace, art has taken on new meaning; with the invention of photography, the actual and perceived intention of painting and sculpture is no longer religious devotion and verisimilar representation. Instead, original works of art—as well as mass-circulated reproductions of them—are both cultural products upon which capitalist hegemony is inscribed, and a means through which it can be overturned through cultural criticism and self-conscious analysis. In the first episode of Ways of Seeing, Berger elaborates on Benjamin's critique of the art market and the capitalist economy in which it operates. This show is an attempt to translate the legacy of the Frankfurt School--a group of Marxist theorists to which Benjamin belonged--from the page to the screen, from the language of the privileged to the language of "the masses."
The show begins with a shot of a neo-classical painting, framed and displayed on a museum wall. A man who resembles the love child of Mick Jagger and a mad professor walks up to the painting, and cuts it with a pocketknife, excising the face of a woman from a scene of classical mythology. The man identifies himself as John Berger, and explains his intention to deconstruct the processes of representation, reproduction and perception in the age of mechanical reproduction. He argues that, “The meaning of a painting no longer relies on its unique painted surface which it is only possible to see in one place at one time. Its meaning—or a large part of it—has become transmittable;” As these reproductions broaden the potential audience of works of art, they also encourage the fetishization and commodification of “authentic” originals.
Although Berger celebrates reproductions for problematizing the notion of authenticity that allows the capitalist art market to thrive, he also cautions that, “Reproductions of works of art can be used by anybody for their purposes.” He discusses the implications of the mass-circulation of artistic reproductions for a culture that is bombarded with an ever-growing number of images and media forms through which they circulate. He enumerates through example a number of different ways in which images can be manipulated to serve different agendas. However, instead of using big words and casual references to Marxist theory (like I did in the past two paragraphs), Berger addresses the viewer directly with straightforward and informal language while the editing further clarifies his words. For example, about half way into the episode, Berger discusses the effect of a museum environment on spectatorship. The editing recreates the experience of quiet, introspective viewing with a handful of still shots of paintings and complete silence for the better part of a minute.
Both the script and the editing of Ways of Seeing demonstrate a populist idealism about television as a media form. The language, the editing, and Berger's casual demeanor reflect a desire to make "intellectual" ideas more accessible through TV and to make appreciation of the arts less of an elitist pastime. The episode concludes with a demand from Berger: he begins, “Access to television,” he pauses as the camera zooms in creating a dramatic close-up of his face, “must be extended beyond its narrow means.” I wonder what he thinks about Network Awesome…
Clara Gamalski lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan. She loves Law & Order and her mom. She is also needlessly modest about her own accomplishments.