After completing a recent Facebook exercise that involved listing ten books that have affected me, I haven’t been able to get Ways of Seeing, the book adaptation of John Berger’s groundbreaking 1972 BBC series, out of my mind.
Berger’s book focuses on how our perceptions – specifically, the ways that we consume canonical works of art, advertising, and other forms of cultural production – are driven by forces of ideology that exist beyond us and influence our judgments profoundly.
As a student of literature in the late 1970s and early 1980s, I was taught to believe that the great achievements of Western civilization were pure, powerful, and transcendent. Lowly students like me were required to put our personal experiences aside and approach these works on our knees, offering up our sophomoric insights through a lens that was focused squarely on the text, and only the text.
While Berger’s work deals primarily with the visual, his attacks on the myths propping up traditional approaches to interpretation apply to literary works as well. In simple, primer-like language, he attempts to slay a number of sacred cows:
- How works of art are invested with quasi-religious powers by drawing the comparison between visiting museums and church attendance.
- How many of the world’s great paintings were created as a way of documenting property, and as such are productions of capitalistic as well as aesthetic motivations.
- How the glorification of the female nude stems from the desire to objectify and dehumanize women for the benefit of male gaze.
In particular, I remember a section of the book that discusses Van Gogh’s Wheatfield With Crows; this passage alone is worth the purchase price.
While these insights were imparted to me at a young and impressionable age, their subsequent impact on my outlook – and my work – has been considerable. In certain respects, Ways of Seeing provided me with a blueprint for a way of being that involves unapologetically bringing my own experiences and sensibilities to my projects; striving to express my clients’ goals and aspirations in authentic ways; and trying to behave with integrity in a world that requires acts of compromise large and small on a daily basis.
I can’t predict what effect this small book might have on the lives of others, but I recommend it without qualifications or reservations.