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The Analysis of John Berger's Work "Ways of Seeing"

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In “Ways of Seeing,” art critic John Berger discusses a key argument, which is, that if you know your history, then you know where you are coming from. In Berger’s more classically Marxist formulation he states, “A people or a class which is cut off from its own past is far less free to choose and to act as a people or class than one that has been able to situate itself in history”. This is relevant to the detail which Berger infuses in his writing about how different classes of people interpret museums. It be cool if museums in the future take this modern desire in consideration – though I have no idea what they could do to make those great paintings come to life in the modern context. In this sense, history stands for art’s authenticity over time. It is relevant in pictures, because many perspectives on viewing the pictures is continually changing.

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Over time, it becomes more difficult to somewhat grasp a painter’s original feelings, thoughts and intents when painting a specific piece, also, the ways in which we view pictures has changed, through things such as the development of the camera. Berger states, “the invention of the camera changed the way man saw”, because of the camera, the painting now journeys to the observer, versus observer to the painting, during its travels, its meaning becomes diversified. Contemporary devices impact interpretation, paintings can also changes one’s mind to places throughout history. In my own experience, if I had to define history based on its use in this assignment, I would more then likely come up with something such as; history is a combination of societies feelings and apprehensions of life, leading up to present day.

The connection Berger shows among the past and the present, is one that grasp both positive and negative prospects. From a positive point a view, images from the past can aid us in understanding a artists feelings throughout their span of life; however, our ways of thinking an viewpoints are constantly changing. From a negative perspective, we as a people may adapt works of art to twenty first century society and completely overlook their meanings. In a way it is bad, Berger teaches us, to go above and beyond or over analyze works and “mystifying” them. He writes, “The art of the past no longer exists as it once did. Its authority is lost”. I

t is hard to appreciate or comprehend different pieces of art of which you cannot allow your mind to become free and to go back in time to understand feelings and thoughts of different artists. If Berger has not discovered or perceived the past, then he has either completely misinterpreted the paintings about which he has written, or he has advanced our thoughts and opinions for the better by stimulating new questions and ideas about art. In such a way implying Berger placing us in history explains that he has taken us to the creators of artworks and gotten us to really think about their true motivations in producing them. He mentions that people who have been denied this right have been denied freedoms.

This could be taken for a political meaning, because certain cultures and peoples have been oppressed over time and prevented from truly exploring their past. Furthermore, this could be applied to examples such as the Civil Rights Movement, etc.Berger names the unnamed art historian’s interpretation of the Hals painting “mystification,” because the unnamed historian overanalyzes the piece and pays more attention to nitpicky details rather than feelings and emotion. Berger, himself, defines mystification when he writes, “Mystification is the process of explaining away what might otherwise be evident”.

I would characterize Berger’s account of the Regentesses painting as “emotionally-aware.” Rather then looking at details in the painting and connecting them to society around the turn of the seventeenth century, Berger pays more attention when looking at paintings to the feelings and motivations of the artist. I would say that what he sees is really there, but it is not self-evident, because there is a difference between looking at a painting and seeing it for what it is worth. It takes an expert to really see a painting, because the expert knows that true art possess some sort of meaning behind it. Berger, in this case, appears to be an expert. He not only looks at images in churches, he sees that the images are a part of them.

Also, he distinguishes between original works of art and their replications, by stating that uniqueness is lost through reproduction. If the artist paints what he feels at that moment in history, then a reproduction twenty years later could not possibly house the same emotional feelings as did the original. Artists are “in the moment” in this sense. Berger further elaborates on this when he writes, “Reproduction isolates a detail of a painting from the whole. the detail is transformed. An allegorical figure becomes a portrait of a girl”.

Again, he likes emotion. Berger also reflects upon how words can change the feeling of a painting, Berger writes on knowing and believing affecting ways of seeing. He knows that people need to not let technologies and reproductions of great works of art affect their interpretation of the works’ original meaning. He also knows that he, himself, has been a victim of this. Berger believes that, in order to reach this goal, man would have to go through a hard battle to try and get themselves to fully appreciate and understand art and its history.

Ways of seeing is a critical and unconventional text (some essays are textual some image-based) about the loss of innocence towards the social apparatus behind advertising, photography, feminism and composition in European oil painting. his precious de-fragmentations of the mechanical act of seeing, his didactic notions on the intellectual exercise of pictorial art analysis and his deracinations of the surreptitious tricks that advertisement and media impose on our notions of sexuality and self-realization. On the futility of any artist in trying to change the status quo and the constant objectification of women (their sublimation in paintings were often portrayed as objects of sexual desire, looking out at the observer in a role of complete submission, Berger says the following, “Women are there to feed an appetite, not to have any of their own.”

Works cited

  1. Berger, J. (1972). Ways of Seeing. London: Penguin Books.
  2. Evans, J., & Berger, J. (2017). Ways of Seeing: Based on the BBC Television Series. New York: Penguin Books.
  3. Dyer, G. (2012). John Berger: Ways of Seeing. Film Quarterly, 65(3), 61-63.
  4. Sturken, M. (2014). John Berger's "Ways of Seeing" and the Iconic Turn in Cultural Studies. Journal of Visual Culture, 13(3), 392-397.
  5. Mercer, K. (2008). A Matter of Life and Death: John Berger and the Art of Storytelling. Visual Culture in Britain, 9(2), 207-221.
  6. Merriman, N. (2011). Reaching the Viewer: Television, Art, and John Berger's Ways of Seeing. Screen, 52(1), 123-141.
  7. Farr, I. (2008). A Maverick on the Margins: John Berger, Ways of Seeing and the Sociology of Art. Cultural Sociology, 2(1), 45-60.
  8. Albers, P. C. (2015). A Critical Evaluation of John Berger's "Ways of Seeing." Visual Resources, 31(1-2), 83-92.
  9. Bondebjerg, I. (2019). John Berger's "Ways of Seeing" and the Future of Visual Analysis. European Journal of Cultural Studies, 22(6), 793-810.
  10. Harris, J. (2004). John Berger's "Ways of Seeing" and the Question of Subjectivity. Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 62(3), 275-285.

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