John Berger's Ways of Seeing

We need John Berger now more than ever.

On January 17th, 2017, we lost a great thinker, writer, and translator of human experience. John Berger was many things beyond this, but his most celebrated skill was making the grand and minute gestures of art sensible and alive for those not trained to see them. But he did this in a way that was surprising for his time. He is perhaps best known for his 1972 book Ways of Seeing, and the accompanying television series. This work brought a new form of art criticism to the public, and marked a turning point in social criticism because by arguing that art is not only to be analyzed and appreciated in universal terms, but also as a socially constructed idea. He dared to suggest that we should look at art in terms of the artists’, and our own, historical and social context. For instance, he suggested that “Today we see the art of the past as nobody saw it before. We actually perceive it in a different way” (16).

In addition to changing the way many saw art and art history, this point resonates in a different from throughout the scholarship of a large number of people who heard what he said and understood. It is important because it suggested a new way of understanding cultural production, or even reality itself. His work brought empathetic, culturally aware relativism intothe mainstream. And while he was not the first to suggest culturally contextualized perspectives change the way we see, Berger was on of this notion’s most eloquent and energized proponents.

His point rests on the observation that we do not view artworks as their creators or first admirers do. We live in a different time and we have different ways of seeing and understanding than the original audience did. Berger pointed out that concepts like beauty and the sublime really are in the eye of the beholder, but are not entirely subjective. They are social. They are cultural. They are understood differently in different socio-cultural context. And we cannot understand how other’s see them unless we understand their time, their society, and their culture.  

It is not surprising, then, that Berger is important in anthropological theory and practice. He articulated for art precisely what anthropologists seek to explore elsewhere (or indeed in art as well). The idea that there are more than one ways of seeing, is an important concept to remember when trying to understand someone’s idiosyncratic view of things, or an entire society’s unique perspective. It changes the way we study someone else’s reality. It changes the way we examine the way they science. Most importantly, it changes the way we understand the things we build for ourselves to understand our world.

I believe that his ideas are still prescient, especially because Berger’s work on how we see art is a metaphor for how we understand reality. I argue that we are losing track of his greater meaning and are starting to lose track of how to understand other’s socio-cultural contexts. Globally, we are preferring to inhabit realities that are based in a blend of small-scale, protective identity formations and a strong belief in quasi-scientific empirical universals. Collectively, we are losing our empathy for other ways of seeing the world, and are building conceptual barriers to protect idiosyncratic understandings of reality. This is not good. It is essential we remember that appealing to universals does not guarantee understanding and we have to be mindful of how other’s conceptualize the world and the cultural items they produce.

Accepting that there are other ways of seeing, or understanding, is the first step in finding common ground. There is similarity to be found in those fundamental differences. Hopefully, his work will become popular once again outside of critical studies seminars and we can begin the process of finding common ground by looking at pictures differently. 

Berger, John. 1972. Ways of Seeing. London: BBC and Penguin.