Just Finished Reading: Ways of Seeing by John Berger (FP: 1972)
Delving again into my newly heightened interest in art and design I noticed that this book came up time and again in my searches on Amazon. So I took a slight chance and ordered it. Although it was a little outside my normal comfort zone (I do like doing that from time to time) I found it frankly fascinating and a surprisingly easy read considering its subject matter and perspective. Some of the comments on the back of the book are rather illuminating. The Observer calls the author ‘One of the most influential intellectuals of our time’ – and completely unknown to me until very recently. The Guardian calls the book ‘A slap in the face of the art establishment’ – so would have had an instant appeal if I’d read that before purchase. The author Jeanette Winterson said ‘He handles thoughts the way an artist handles paint’ – and, for once, it’s true.
The book consists of seven essays of which three are pictorial and contained almost no text in order that the reader could make up their own mind about things and raise their own questions. All very 70’s and radical I thought if not exactly illuminating or particularly educational or informative. I honestly didn’t take much from these ‘pictorial’ essays. Fortunately this was more than made up for by the essays that actually contained words as well as images – and there are a lot of pictures in this book! I think the most surprising thing about this work is the perspective of the author and his collaborators. Prior to ordering and reading this slim volume (a mere 155 pages) I had never heard of John Berger and consequently knew nothing about him or his views on art. So it came as a bit of a surprise to discover that his interpretation of art – of the portrait, the development of oil paintings, the nude and finally graphic art – was resolutely Marxist! I had no idea that such a thing existed, though I guess I should have thinking back to my University days when I was sought out by friends to give a Marxist explanation of everything (long story). Needless to say I was riveted by this strange, and yet strangely coherent, view of the varying aspects of the art world covered here. Although I knew that the majority of art works up until the modern day where commissioned by the rich or by the Church (often the same thing actually) I never really thought about how that influenced so much, from the subject, the style and even the size of the work itself. The authors views bypassed all of the usual (what I like to think of as) bullshit and cut to the very heart of things. It’s really no surprise why the art ‘establishment’ really, really didn’t like him – which, of course, made me like him all the more.
I think the thing I liked most about this book is that it has started me looking at things in a slightly different way. No doubt this will increase as I read other books by this and other associated authors on this and associated subjects. This is the kind of thing I’m reading books for – or more accurately a pleasant and sometimes unexpected addition to being entertained by the thoughts and ideas of others. Books like this prompt you to reassess your thought or, possibly, have thoughts about things you’ve never really considered before. Why, for instance, out of the uncounted thousands of art works produced over time are a vanishing small selection considered to be ‘great works’ and why are so few artists, again out of countless numbers, considered to be ‘great’? Who decides and, more importantly, why? Is it just a fact of longevity – a simple survival of the fittest or is there something more, something not quite explicit about the choices made? It is something I will delve into a bit further to see how far down the rabbit hole goes and how far I’m prepared to descend into it. Certainly one for anyone interested in the more hidden nature of art and design.