Friday, April 19, 2013

In Praise of John Berger

As David Lavery recently reminded me in one of his blog posts John Berger's Ways of Seeing is one of the great if not the greatest documentary on art, the photographic image, and the social and cultural contexts of art and photography. It is also, in my opinion at least, one of the greatest television documentaries ever made.

I first heard about Berger in a Religion and Phenomenology class I took at Indiana University in the early 1980s. Dr. James Hart, our professor guide for the seminar, assigned Berger's book Ways of Seeing for us to read. I soon learned that Ways of Seeing actually began life as a documentary Ways of Seeing. Ways first appeared as a four part documentary on the BBC in 1972. I don't remember when I first saw the documentary. Sometime in the early 1980s. What I do remember is that I saw it, like I saw so much else that has had an immense impact on my intellectual and aesthetic life, on PBS.

Ways of Seeing was intended to be a critique of Sir Kenneth Clark's thirteen part 1969 BBC documentary Civilisation, a documentary that, as the title suggests, counterpointed the supposedly rational civilisation of the West and its art against the superstitious world and art of the non-Western world, and the book Clark wrote as a companion to the show, a book that Berger mentions in Ways of Seeing. Part one of Ways of Seeing draws on the work of the Frankfurt School theorist and cultural historian Walter Benjamin, particularly his influential essay "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction", to explore how the mechanical reproduction of "great art" has changed our perceptions of painting. Part two explores the the depiction of the female nude in art. Part three explores how art has acquired a kind of sacred and sublime quality and how this sublime quality has been translated into economic value in a West dominated by capitalism, and how landscapes themselves have come to reflect capitalist ownership. Part four explores the language of advertising and how advertisements have taken on the ownership quality of oil paintings and the male objectification and desire aspects of paintings of female nudes.

I have long wanted to get a copy of Ways of Seeing on DVD. Sadly neither the BBC nor any other DVD company specialising in documentary has released it. The BBC interestingly has released Clark's incredibly dated and outmoded Civilisation. Despite Ways of Seeing's lack of availability all is not lost, however, thanks to the brave new world of the World Wide Web. You can watch all four episodes of Ways of Seeing complete on YouTube, something I joyously noticed over three years ago.

Berger is sadly almost virtually forgotten and virtually neglected today while Mulvay is de rigueur in film classes. Far too many have forgotten the important role he and his Ways of Seeing played in the development of theory of the male gaze. I have always found his historically sensitive tracing of the male gaze from the art of aristocrats through to contemporary adverts more compelling than Mulvay's more psychoanalytic psychobabble approach to male objectification. Far too many have forgotten the important role he played in bringing Benjamin to a broader audience thanks to Ways of Seeing in both its documentary and book form. And far too many have forgotten how important a writer of non-fiction and fiction he was. The film he co-wrote with Swiss director Alain Tanner, Jonas qui aura 25 ans en l'an 2000/Jonah Who Will Be 25 in the Year 2000 (1976), is one of the great forgotten films (it is not even available on DVD in the US or UK) of the golden age of foreign cinema (ah the eyes of a Yank), a film, Dave Kehr rightly notes, brought together Brectian and Godardian alienation effect and Renoirian humanism giving viewers a humane exploration of a group of leftists who try to keep sixties hopes alive as the sixties morph into the seventies and asked us viewers to do the same. In an era in which casino capitalism and its images have run amok I think it is time for us to rediscover the work and the tempered hope of John Berger.

Viewing
Ways of Seeing, Episode One

Ways of Seeing, Episode Two

Ways of Seeing, Episode Three

Ways of Seeing, Episode Four

Reading
"Ways of Seeing Opened Our Eyes to Visual Culture"

"Ways of Seeing "How We Made It: John Berger and Michael Dibb on Ways of Seeing"

"Ways of Seeing "Through the Looking-Glass: John Berger's Groundbreaking Book Ways of Seeing Started Life as a Seventies Television Series, Repeated for the First Time Tonight."

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