The relation between what we see and what we know is never settled
March 31, 2024 12:43 AM   Subscribe

Based on the 1972 BBC series and comprised of 7 essays, 3 of which are entirely pictoral, Ways of Seeing by John Berger is a seminal work which examines how we view art.
posted by chavenet (11 comments total) 57 users marked this as a favorite
 
To be naked is to be oneself.

To be nude is to be seen naked by others and yet not recognized for oneself.

A naked body has to be seen as an object in order to become a nude. (The sight of it as an object stimulates the use of it as an object.) Nakedness reveals itself. Nudity is placed on display.

To be naked is to be without disguise.

To be on display is to have the surface of one's own skin, the hairs of one's own body, turned into a disguise which, in that situation, can never be discarded. The nude is condemned to never being naked. Nudity is a form of dress. [Chapter three]
Ways of seeing indeed.
posted by Thella at 1:33 AM on March 31 [6 favorites]


His collected essays in "Portraits" have had an impact on me that is almost impossible to overstate.
posted by Literaryhero at 2:04 AM on March 31 [3 favorites]


Just acquired this to re-read it, and when my adult kid saw it, they reacted with enthusiasm and said they had used it in teaching an English class and it really transformed things for their students.
posted by Peach at 3:58 AM on March 31 [2 favorites]


Profoundly influenced me as a very young man in the 80s. I continue to recommend Ways of Seeing to my students to this day. And I've seen it blow so many minds.
posted by spitbull at 9:17 AM on March 31 [1 favorite]


I'm an old, I was 18 when this was first shown on the telly. It was like a tonk to the head. In one episode, Berger shows a group of eight year olds a picture by Caravaggio called Supper at Emmaus which is now in the National Gallery in London. They discuss this dramatic painting but are bemused as to what sex is the central character. It turns out that the food-blesser is The Risen Christ albeit a little incognito because his beard is missing. Berger develops this ambiguity by pointing out that Caravaggio was homosexual and may have been quite ambivalent about gender. So obvious, so simple, probably so trite an explanation from the perspective of 2016 and marriage equality but in 1972 it seemed profound. I became and remain a Berger groupie thereafter.

After he died in 2017,b Suzanne Moore, the angry journalist, made a personal tribute which cleverly starts off by objectifying John Berger for his piercing blue eyes. She points out that, in the episode of Ways of Seeing about the objectification of women, he finally shuts up and gives the screen over to a group of women to to discuss the issue. Those women at least are given a voice as well as a body. Others criticise Berger and Ways of Seeing for being superficial, which is true only because he set out his stall with such generosity that others could trade the stuff on his table.

Perhaps the most accessible and interesting of his early books is A Fortunate Man: The Story of a Country Doctor (1967) - reviewed in the Guardian. It is a celebration of the ordinary in the life of an extraordinary rural GP in West England who is still in the 1960s a General Practitioner, setting bones and delivering babies rather than just prescribing antibiotics and referring patients to experts in hospital. The book is a pas de deux between Berger writing a life in telling vignettes and anecdotes and the series of stunning photographs by his collaborator Jean Mohr.

Among those inspired by A Fortunate Man were the author and the protagonist of a remarkable sequel / counterpoint in Polly Morland's A Fortunate Woman: a country doctor's story [2022] which tracks the d♀ctor who inherited the same practice in the Forest of Dean some years after "John Sassal" retired and abruptly shot himself. General practice improved significantly between 1966 and 2006: boundaries were put to always-on 24/7 care so that doctors could have some work-life balance and make better decisions without sleep deprivation - not to mention meds for depression.
posted by BobTheScientist at 9:23 AM on March 31 [2 favorites]


Suzanne Moore, the angry journalist

Angry about the fact that trans women exist, among other things.

I have a book of Berger's essays on my shelf that I've barely cracked, but this thread is making me curious about it. I was in a bookshop with a friend just after Berger's death, and they were emphatic that I HAD to read this.
posted by Pallas Athena at 10:14 AM on March 31 [2 favorites]


Berger's descriptions, in Ways of Seeing's third chapter, of people assigned female at birth as existing in a relentless surveillance state, one that coerces their participation (bolding added):

"Men survey women before treating them. Consequently how a woman appears to a man can determine how she will be treated. To acquire some control over this process, women must contain it and interiorize it."

"To be born a woman has been to be born, within an allotted and confined space, into the keeping of men. The social presence of women has developed as a result of their ingenuity in living under under such tutelage within such a limited space. But this has been at the cost of woman’s self bring split into two. A woman must continually watch herself. She is almost continually accompanied by her own image of herself… From earliest childhood she has been taught and persuaded to survey herself continually. She has to survey everything she is and everything she does because how she appears to others, and ultimately how she appears to men, is of crucial importance for what is normally thought of as the success of her life. Her own sense of being in herself is supplanted by a sense of being appreciated as herself by another."

"One might simplify this by saying: men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves. The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed female. Thus she turns herself into an object – and most particularly an object of vision: a sight."
posted by Iris Gambol at 10:55 AM on March 31 [1 favorite]


The section in the episode about depictions of women, in which ..."You painted a naked woman because you enjoyed looking at her, put a mirror in her hand and you called the painting 'Vanity,' thus morally condemning the woman whose nakedness you had depicted for you own pleasure.” Punches you in the face.
posted by Capybara at 1:54 PM on March 31 [2 favorites]


Ways of Something is a project curated by Lorna Mills with 113 one minute videos by artists interpreting Ways of Seeing. There are few random bits on YT.
posted by ovvl at 4:50 PM on March 31 [1 favorite]


This is great to see to see. Thanks for posting, I really have to dig into Ways of Seeing again. It's been far too long.
posted by Phlegmco(tm) at 11:14 PM on March 31 [1 favorite]


To be naked is to be oneself.

To be nude is to be seen naked by others and yet not recognized for oneself.

A naked body has to be seen as an object in order to become a nude. (The sight of it as an object stimulates the use of it as an object.) Nakedness reveals itself. Nudity is placed on display.

To be naked is to be without disguise.

To be on display is to have the surface of one's own skin, the hairs of one's own body, turned into a disguise which, in that situation, can never be discarded. The nude is condemned to never being naked. Nudity is a form of dress.


As both a figure model and a nudist I can attest to this.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 7:30 AM on April 1 [1 favorite]


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