A Presentation on
John Berger's Ways of Seeing:
Chapters 1 - 3

by Meg Roland


Berger, John. Ways of Seeing. London and New York: British Broadcasting Corp. and Penguin Books, 1982.
The following hypertext essay was developed from an oral presentation on John Berger's Ways of Seeing given as part of a seminar on Hypertext and Markup Languages (Autumn 1998) by George Dillon at the University of Washington.

Some background on Berger:
Born 1926. First edition of Ways of Seeing 1972 (hence the "retro" look in the ads)

Other books: A Seventh Man, A Fortunate Man, The Success and Failure of Picasso, About Looking, Into their Labors(a trilogy)

Influences:(self-disclosed) German critic and philosopherWalter Benjamin .
(inferred) Phenomenology Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger
Hermeneutics (Hans-Georg Gadamer)

Phenomenology "stresses the perceiver's central role in determining meaning . . ." (Theory 51).

Heidegger argued that "what is distinctive about human consciousness is its Dasein ('giveness'): our consciousness both the things of the world and at the same time is subjected to the world by the very nature of existence in the world" (Theory 52).

"Yet, although every image embodies a way of seeing, our perception or appreciation of an image depends also upon our own way of seeing. . . when an image is presented as a work of art, the way people look at it is affected by a whole series of learnt assumptions about art . . .Many of these assumptions no longer accord with the world as it is. (The world-as-it-is is more than pure objective fact, it includes consciousness.) (Berger 11)

"Gadamer argued that a literary work does not pop into the world as a finished and neatly parcelled bundle of meaning; rather meaning depends on the historical situation of the interpreter" (Theory 52).

Gadamer's concept of hermeneutics "argues that all interpretations of past literature arise from a dialogue between past and present. Our attempts to understand a work will depend on the questions which our own cultural environment allows us to raise . . .A hermeneutical notion of 'understanding' does not separate knower and object in the familiar fashion of empirical science; rather it views understanding as a 'fusion' of past and present: we cannot make our journey into the past without taking the present with us"(Theory 54).

"The past is never there waiting to be discovered, to be recognizedfor exactly what it is. History always constitutes the relation between a present and a past"(Berger 11).

Today we see the art of the past as nobody saw it before. We actually perceive it in a different way (Berger 16).

"The real question is: to whom does the meaning of the art of the past properly belong?" (Berger 32).

Selden, Raman and Widdowson, Peter. A Reader 's Guide to Contemporary Literary Theory, 3rd edition. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1993.

Ways of Seeing
The cover: A surreal painting with text that wanders off the page, unfinished.

The purpose of the text, according to Berger: "to start a process of questioning."

Berger's BBC program is described as one in which "you constantly saw one image in the context of anotner" with the goal being "to focus his viewer's attention not on a single painting in isolation but on 'ways of seeing in general,' on the ways we have learned to look at and understand the images that surround us, and on the culture that teaches us to see things as we do" (Bartholomae and Petrosky Ways of Reading 67).

Berger's visual essay of Chapter 2 & 4 are selections of images from both paintings and contemporary photography and advertising juxtaposed on the same pages establishing new contexts for the images.

Thinking about Berger in the context of the web and hypertext

Chapter 1:
A. How do we design web sites (sights) and incorporate use of images? Does Landow's concept of collage speak to Berger's concept of images & context?

"We never look at just one thing; we are always looking at the relation between things and ourselves. Our vision is continually active, continually moving, continually holding things in a circle around itself, constituting what is present to us as we are. " (8)

An image is a sight which has been recreated or reproduced . . .detached from the place and time in which it first made its appearance . . .every image embodies a way of seeing. (8-9)

"When the camera reproduces a painting, it destroys the uniqueness of its image. As a result its meaning changes. Or, more exactly, its meaning multiplies and fragments into many meanings." (19)

"In this essay each image reproduced has become part of an argument which has little or nothing to do with the painting's original independent meaning . . . Consequently a reproduction, as well as making its own references to the image of its original, becomes itself the reference point for other images." (28) (sounds like hypertext/hyperimage)

Berger comments on the use of bulletin boards which people use to pin up photos, art postcards, etc. "Logically, these boards should replace art museums." (30)(i.e. personal web pages with their montage of images, texts, links)

"Reproduction isolates a detail of a painting from the whole." (25)

B. Does the internet address some of the remoteness Berger decries in museums?

"In the end, the art of the past is being mystified because a privileged minority is striving to invent a history which can retrospectively justify the role of the ruling class ' (11).

Berger takes on the equivalent of the critical edition in textual studies (which seeks to establish a unified text) when he argues against discussing paintings solely on the basis of the composition--a position which ignores the vantage of the painter and of the viewer. "All conflict disappears . . . But there is the evidence in the paintings themselves . . .Study this evidence and judge for yourself" (13).

C. The politics of art and images: role of web in "democratizing" images, in making individual and cultural meaning, in further separating the masses from art and therefore an understanding of its own past (and thus freedom to act as a people).

"The art of the past no longer exits as it once did. Its authority is lost. In its place there is a language of images. What matters now is who uses that language for what purpose." (33)

D. Does seeing come before words? How do words(consciousness, culture) affect seeing?


Chapter 3:

A.Feminism and the web: are images of women on the web carried over from the Renaissance nudes; are web sites designed with the assumption of male viewers?

"But the essential way of seeing women, the essential use to which their images are put has not changed . . .the ideal spectator is always assumed to be male and the image of the woman is designed to flatter him." (64)

[Again, this was written in 1972]

Related Sites:


Harvard Project Examines material aspects of three early Netherlandish paintings using digital imaging techniques
Louvre "Home of the Mona Lisa" and "voyage virtuel au musee"
Museum of Bad Art
Women and gender in the ancient world

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