Ways of Seeing

John Berger

Kind of the Camera Lucida on fine art, this book is based on the BBC documentary of the same name. Seven essays, three composed entirely of images and four primarily of text that aren’t too heavy with the theory. Of those that are textual, they look at the mystification of art —

Many of these assumptions no longer accord with the world as it is. (The world-as-it-is is more than pure objective facts, it includes consciousness.) Out of true with the present, these assumptions obscure the past. They mystify rather than clarify. The past is never there waiting to be discovered, to be recognized for exactly what it is. History always constitutes the relation between a present and its past. Consequently fear of the present leads to mystification of the past. The past is not for living in; it is a well of conclusions from which we draw in order to act. Cultural mystification of the past entails a double loss. Works of art are made unnecessarily remote. And the past offers us fewer conclusions to complete in action.

— how images of women in fine art force a male gaze, a brief look at the initial evolution of oil painting (from 1500–1900), and the contrast of fine art to images in advertising:

Being envied is a solitary form of reassurance. It depends precisely upon not sharing your experiences with those who envy you. You are observed with interest but you do not observe with interest — if you do, you will become less enviable. In this respect the envied are like bureaucrats; the more impersonal they are, the greater the illusion (for themselves and for others) of their power. The power of the glamorous resides in their supposed happiness: the power of the bureaucrat in his supposed authority. It is this which explains the absent, unfocused look of so many glamour images. They look out over the looks of envy which sustain them.

It’s disappointing that the most popular edition of this book is printed in black and white as it’s difficult to really appreciate the images. For what it’s worth, there’s a review on Amazon that says this book is “a popularisation of theories that have since become much more complex.” So this may be more of a record of art criticism due to its age.