In trying to open my eyes to the world of art criticism and to widen my understanding of how images are read and interpreted, I have watched the series; Ways of Seeing, written and hosted by John Berger. This is a 4 part series that was held in high regard and which was highly recommended by my fellow students. Despite its age (aired in 1972), and the fact that it concentrates largely on the medium of oil painting, it is still very relevant and interesting.
Episode 1 explores context, and the shifting meaning of images with time, context and mass reproduction.
Initially Berger discusses how the mass reproduction of paintings, through the use of cameras, can change their meaning. Photographs in the media, whether in newspapers, on TV or viewed on the internet, bring the meaning to the viewer. This alone shifts the meaning which can differ from when a unique art work is viewed in an institution.
This mechanical transmission of meaning opens up the prospect of manipulation. In Semiotic terms, this manipulation (if unintentional) may be referred to as Noise (see last post). When shown on the TV, or in a paper, an image may be cropped or shown in a different sequence. When viewed on the internet, the scale may be different, or colours may be represented differently. Music could be added which can change the significance or interpretation. We cannot ignore that today, we view most images in the context of our own homes. Although many contemporary images are created with this intent, it changes the meaning of images that were not originally intended for viewing juxtaposed against these surroundings and other media.
The last key point that Berger raises is on the subject of art criticism and the effects that mass reproduction have had on it. He talks of ‘false mystification’: Where art has been made more accessible through mass reproduction, the negative effect of this is that it has been made less accessible by the jealously guarded language used by ‘art experts’, which is a response to this mass production and accessibility. In an interesting clip, he shows a painting to a group of children who de-construct it, relating it to their own experiences, simply reading it for what it is. Although they lack knowledge on the intent of the author and other such factors which affect interpretation, they deduce their own meaning and cut through the mystification.
Whilst this demonstration by Berger argues that even children can make sense of art without a whole raft of academic text on the image, it is a flawed argument. Yes, the children found enjoyment in the image and they deduced their own meanings, but they may well have missed the authors actual message.
The whole of Episode 2 explores the female nudes of the 18th/19th century. During the first half, Berger explains how the conventions of the nude allow us to understand how women and their appearance have been defined by such artworks. Berger states that in the vast majority of these nudes, the women are not naked as they are, they are naked as they seen. In this sense, Berger is saying that the women are objectified, and implies an awareness of being seen. They are in essence wearing a disguise by being nude, and displaying an expected aesthetic. They do not see themselves, they see themselves being seen. He concludes this part by posing 2 questions:
- Do these images celebrate the women within them, or the male voyeur?
- Is there sexuality within the frame, or in front of it?
Both questions are almost rhetorical, and given the age of the programme, it is easy to see how accepted norms have (or haven’t) changed. Today, such images could be regarded as sexist or demeaning, but little has changed. We do not see so much female nudity in art or advertising, but women continue to feel that they fall short of expectations due to sexualised images in pop videos, advertisements and the digital manipulation of such images.
The second half of the episode is a group discussion, in which a group of women (who have seen the first half) discuss the programme and the questions it raises. Inevitably, many of the women agree with the sentiments of how they feel about themselves and their expected appearance/inadequacies, which brings the episode to its conclusion.
To begin with, I though this would be an episode about consumerism or advertising and their place (if they have one) as art. I was completely wrong. It was all about wealth and ownership within European oil painting. Berger begins by posing a question about oil paintings:
- Where does their value come from? The same question could be asked of certain photographs of the same period.
In essence, the episode looks at how wealth is depicted in oil paintings and how the ownership of such paintings depicts wealth. He also looks at how the depiction of tangible, valuable objects in a painting is desirable as a form of ownership, even if it is only of their image. Early portraits depicted wealth, often through generations of a family, and the style of the paintings could say a lot about the subject e.g. ‘I am respected’.
Towards the end of the episode, Berger uses an example image of a woman counting pearls to demonstrate how taking the time to really see an image can reveal alternate meanings. Unlike so many paintings of the time, this is not about wealth, but the suspension of time and capturing of a moment. But the viewer must really look, to see this meaning.
Berger closes by concluding that European oil painting was a medium that celebrated possession. With little experience in this field I cannot argue this, but from what I have seen of early photography, I would agree that both mediums have been used throughout history for the same thing.
By looking at advertising and the images used, Berger makes comparisons between photography (advertising) and European oil painting. He is also critical of our culture, using arguments based on contradiction and contrast that demonstrate incomprehension. For me, this was the most interesting episode and the one most relevant to the reading and criticism of photography.
We are literally surrounded by adverts. Images of an alternative way of life, many of which portray or sell the concept of glamour. Glamour goes deeper than just looks, but depends entirely on them in an image. Glamour is a relatively new concept. Before the mass reproduction of images, people had or did not have ‘status’. The paintings they owned portrayed what they already had, and re-affirmed this. With the advent of consumerism, the idea was sold that anyone could be glamorous.
Much of what we see in advertising photography takes inspiration form European oil painting; the atmosphere, poses, symbols of prestige and gestures. The nymphs and goddesses of oil paintings have been replaced by models that allow our imaginations to revel in what might be, while the advertisers try to sell us that dream.
Although he doesn’t specifically say so, Berger implies that adverts lie to us, and I have to agree with him as a generalisation. The common theme amongst most advertising campaigns is that if we buy the product, our lives will be changed or improved somehow. We may look better, we may be the life and soul of the party, may have different or better relationships, will be happier etc. This is achieved by making us feel that we are currently inadequate, and that we could be ‘more’. Coupled with this is the consumerist culture. The backwards idea that to be wealthier, we must own more, even though the spending of money to do this will make us poorer. In turn this has led to a sense that our ability to buy, and what we own is linked to our virility or status.
In looking at adverts, Berger asks us to look through them, and to see the ‘interminable present’. If we see through the lies, we will see the reality of the manufacturing process, of the workers who make these products, and the need of the marketers to sell them. That there is much more to a product than its advertising or promised results. The objects themselves are in fact neutral, but they are made glamorous by inserting them into a context.
By far the most interesting part of this series was Berger’s criticism of the consumerist culture. He uses the example of a weekly colour supplemental magazine, which is full of current affairs stories, interspersed with advertisements. The adverts are in stark contrast to the photojournalist images that they are juxtaposed against. The reality of the advertising images is absolute. We want to believe them, and the images are tangible. Yet, the realism of the photojournalist images of starving and dying refugees is also absolute. When we see a crying, starving child on one page, followed by a smiling child drinking coka-cola on the next, we have to ask, is our culture mad?
Berger concludes the series by summarising that many of the traditions in photography began with European oil painting and that all images, regardless of genre must be viewed against our experiences.
I enjoyed the series more than I expected. It is dated, but then so is photography. The fact that each episode is only 30 mins, and the content is put across in an understandable, non-academic way is great.
BBC (1972a) John Berger / ways of seeing , episode 1 (1972)
. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0pDE4VX_9Kk&app=desktop
(Accessed: 8 February 2017).
BBC (1972b) John Berger / ways of seeing , episode 2 (1972)
. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m1GI8mNU5Sg
(Accessed: 8 February 2017).
BBC (1972c) John Berger / ways of seeing , episode 3 (1972)
. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z7wi8jd7aC4
(Accessed: 8 February 2017).
BBC (1972d) John Berger / ways of seeing , episode 4 (1972)
. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5jTUebm73IY
(Accessed: 8 February 2017).