By JANE GAINES
“Every image,” John Berger wrote, “embodies a way of seeing.” Because of this embodiment the historian who comes later can study the way in which the historical image “had once been seen” or how viewers had “once looked.” Thinking back over four decades, we now realize how this thesis underwrote a powerful new approach, an approach one might call historical studies of looking. Thinking back, revisiting the study of looking in its formative moment, we recall how it took root in the academy as part of the critique of the image. Also, rethinking that moment, we recall the corollary to Berger’s “Every image embodies a way of seeing,” and that is this: that even if a historical image embodies a historical way of seeing, our seeing of it depends upon “our own way of seeing.” Here is the premise of the analysis of culture that is now fundamental to the study of still and moving images in the U.S., Europe, and increasingly the world academy: our study of historical ways of seeing intersects with “our own way of seeing.” Today I wonder about our “own way of seeing” as culture members as well as critical theorists. Berger’s formulation included both of these, which is why my comments are directed at “us” insofar as we assume a “them,” that is, insofar as we study others and the ways that they see things.
Let’s think about the critical method Berger taught. He taught that to find social relations inscribed in the image is to see how a society is ordered. We learned from him to see that basic assumptions about everything—work, play, art, commerce—are hidden in the surrounding culture of images. And what has been the goal of this “way of seeing” “seeing”? To be able to show that things are not what they say they are. They are never what they first appear to be but can be made to reveal their secret. And what is that secret? Of course, it has to do with how, as Berger showed, in this way of seeing, everything is at stake, absolutely everything—the fate of empires, the existence of populations, the health of the planet. Berger’s is a way of seeing everything. But there is a catch, as we know. There is a catch because the historical analyst has to have the political key to crack the code. To put it another way, the application of this way of seeing requires having already seen. A critical eye is requisite. And let’s not forget that Berger’s method was radical because it taught us to see what we were never supposed to see at all. That is, we were never supposed to see that capitalism operated by means of a thorough infusion of culture; that the social, tied to the semiotic, is a consequence of the unequal relations that organize our society, relations stemming from the alienation of human beings from their labor. As further consequence, we never see our own enthusiastic participation in the way things should be as well as the way they should be seen.
As we pay tribute to John Berger and think back to 1972, the year that the four episodes of “Ways of Seeing” aired on the BBC, most academics will think of the intellectual tributaries that flowed into this popular program. Most pronounced is the British Marxist legacy of Richard Hoggart’s The Uses of Literacy and Raymond Williams’s analysis of literature and culture. We also remember that in these programs and the Penguin Books paperback, German Frankfurt School Marxism meets French post-structuralism. We recall that in Berger, Walter Benjamin’s “Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” meets Roland Barthes’ Mythologies, Michel Foucault’s analysis of the Velàzquez painting “Las Meninas” and Louis Althusser’s subject positioning with its theory of ideology. Let’s add to our recollections that this was also a moment in which Umberto Eco called semiotics the study of “everything that could be used in order to lie.” It is a blow to have lost Umberto Eco in 2016 and before that in 2014 Stuart Hall, to whom we paid tribute at a Columbia Conference in September 2015. And now we have lost John Berger, who was regularly taught in those years as part of British Marxist cultural studies in the units on the photographic image as well as the culture of consumption.
But in the academy we can’t afford the luxury of reviewing what we already know so well that we scarcely know we know it anymore. Few of us can recall a time before we knew this, before we learned this way of seeing everything, before we learned a method, a critique. Really, more than anything a critique of capitalism. Of course, the “Ways of Seeing” series was not promoted in the UK as a critique of capitalism. After all, it aired on BBC 2, the upscale channel, part of the project of producer Michael Dibb, who facilitated so much liberal programming there beginning in the 1970s. Now, thinking back, here is the relevant pair of questions. First ask yourself why American PBS stations picked up the Kenneth Clark “Civilization” series, an important inspiration for the “Ways of Seeing” attack on elite art institutions. Then ask why PBS picked up “Civilization,” but never, to my knowledge, aired “Ways of Seeing.” That should tell you a lot.
If I’m less interested in Berger’s legacy in UK cultural studies courses and at elite academic institutions like Columbia University, it’s because that legacy has been well established. This leaves us with the problem of the wider impact in less elite institutions, as, for instance, in U.S. community colleges where Ways of Seeing, the book, has been taught in art history courses. Even more difficult, I would contend, is the assessment of the cultural terrain on which “Ways of Seeing” has made no impact at all. Let me get at this by asking the following: If “Ways of Seeing” was designed to teach critical seeing, what needs to be said about uncritical seeing? Is uncritical seeing even the best term? One way of approaching this pressing question is to think about John Berger’s missing audiences—the audiences the book and the series didn’t reach and perhaps couldn’t reach, the “discriminating” high culture Kenneth Clark audience and the “susceptible” low culture audience. It is clear now that Berger was not speaking to either as he appeared on screen in his casual patterned shirt and touselled hair, looking like a young Mick Jagger. But then, as we know, one of the great achievements of the project was the link Berger made between high culture masterworks and low culture advertisements, an achievement that today is still haunted by the audiences it would never reach. Let’s tentatively call them the high culture snob audience and the lower common sense audience. But there is another audience which perhaps overlaps with these others but which, in the U.S. case, we might not want to associate with uncritical seeing because they do view the status quo with suspicion. They do view selectively. What about the eighty-one percent of white evangelicals in the 2016 election who voted for Donald Trump for president. Does Berger’s analysis address their way of seeing, which we might want to dismiss as not seeing at all? Or doesn’t it?
Let me make two points about ways of seeing before Berger, the first having to do with common sense notions about seeing things and the second with art appreciation. First, then, let’s say that predating John Berger is the simplicity of common sense ideas about seeing. There was and continues to be the idea that we see “only what we want to see.” And there is its companion: “seeing is believing.” But there is also the idea that we are susceptible to “suggestion” or to the seduction of images. Then, there is the formulation in which “my reality” is opposed to “your reality.” For instance, of Donald Trump supporters we may say things like: “They see only what they want to see.” In return, however, they can say the same of those of us who are Trump detractors: “They see only what they want to see.” Trump’s suspicious supporters might even say that “There is more to this than meets the eye,” to which we could even nod in agreement. We might even concur, for example, that “Everything is rigged.” Today, then, in the moment sometimes summarized as “post-truth,” we probably need to reassess the premium placed on skepticism, even in Berger, recalling that in the conclusion to his series his last sentence to the camera is “Consider what I have arranged but be skeptical of it.”
This entirely new set of questions for critical “ways of seeing” comes to the fore because we now realize that the Left doesn’t have a monopoly on skepticism of the mainstream media or of elites in high places. Evangelical Christians have been taught to distrust, to question, and to reject, albeit in a way that places them outside any tradition we would recognize as genuine intellectual inquiry.
Here, however, is skepticism that co-exists with what could be called the semiotic fundamentalism of scripture, “the law of the word” as in “the word of the Bible.” Here is a fundamentalism of “the word” transferrable to the object in the world in which “it is what it is,” to the photograph, “it is what it shows,” the companion to which might be the conviction that Donald Trump “tells it like it is.” With a caveat. The caveat we need to add is that semiotic fundamentalism is underwritten by a worldview, what in the U.S. is sometimes referred to as the “biblical” or “evangelical” worldview. In other words, something “is what it is” relative to what you believe, that is if it supports what you already believe. Yet for the evangelical, this belief is not relative, it is absolute. Only other belief systems are narrowly relativist.
Because thinking about seeing is a vehicle for analyzing the mixed contents of consciousness, Berger’s approach was not only a theory of the image. It didn’t stop there as it attempted a fresh Western Marxist approach to “class consciousness” that didn’t use the term. Rather it was a political economy of the class-based uses of images that could get behind notions like “seeing is believing” to suggest how useless it was, especially given that it could be turned against those classes thought to be easily duped (by images). Yet we are left to explain the evangelical audience which, at least in the U.S., has had mainstream commentators stumped. But something important has changed since 1972. Returning to Berger’s “ways of seeing” moment reminds us that in the 1970s U.S. the analysis that Trump’s audience is working class whites who voted against their best interests would not have been available in the mainstream press. Can we now get more specific? We could call them the religious capitalists who, while skeptical of science as well as the mainstream media, are not skeptical of the free market capitalism that is so firmly allied with evangelical Christian ideals. Our analysis would then need to ask what power a critique of capitalism at the level of representation could possibly have against the religious belief in capitalism.
My second point about seeing before Berger is somewhat easier to address. There was of course art appreciation (more like veneration, really) of the kind fostered in traditional art history survey courses. In “appreciation” every would-be cultured member of a society is taught what he or she should see in order to pass the test of social difference as social distinction. What is effected by such cultivated seeing, Berger says, is “The envelopment of the work of art in an atmosphere of entirely bogus religiosity.” Looking back, it occurs to me that Berger’s term “bogus religiosity” is an improvement over Walter Benjamin’s “aura,” which, as a kind of halo, is often taken to be positive. Of course, beyond the halo around the relic, Berger was pointing to fraud. That is, he exposed the fraudulent basis of value in European oil painting attributed to the Old Masters, that value transferable into the obscene amount of money now paid for them. Berger thus took the implications of the “Work of Art” essay further than anyone had yet dared to take it. But here is the paradox: in taking Benjamin’s essay further, Berger proved Benjamin’s 1936 prediction to have been wrong. He proved it to have been wrong, but without having to say exactly where it had been wrong. Recall that Benjamin says, to paraphrase him, that it makes no sense to ask for an authentic photograph. Well, yes, the idea of an original reproduction is still nonsensical, but Berger demonstrates how the art market reinforces the bogus claim of authenticity (to which add the legal prosecution of art counterfeiters). This economy of the original and the copy, as we know, now applies to so-called photographic “art.” How do we know this? Because to ask for an authentic photograph is no longer nonsense.
In this insight, Berger, like Benjamin before him, is wrong at the same time that he is right. For example, Berger opens by repeating Benjamin’s premise that “the invention of the camera has changed the ways in which we see, are encouraged to see….” At the same time, however, Berger proves with his visual examples that the camera did not change what stubbornly persisted, shows that the same high art conventions and protocols were just carried over into the new forms of photography with the difference that photos were now endlessly reproducible. Even as reproductions replaced the original, the value of the original is now also reinforced by the reproductions that dilute that value. The original now becomes, as Berger puts it, again improving on Benjamin, the “original of a reproduction.” In the end, as we know, Sothebys and Christies, the great auction houses, were not brought down by this critique. So this is also to say in answer to “what of” ways of seeing before and after “Ways of Seeing,” that some ways of seeing are the same but more so, especially as pertains to the status of the original “work of art.”
No, mechanical reproduction did not destroy “originality” or “authenticity” or “uniqueness.” Rather, mechanical reproduction produced the opposite. Reproduction produced the reaffirmation of genuineness and singularity. Thus, after Berger, in the academy we consider what the reproduction gives back to the original, counting all of the ways that it makes the original into “the original of a reproduction.” Millions of postcards, T-shirts, and images scanable and downloadable neither destroy nor devalue the original. The multiplication of the image, its massification, only serves to re-enshrine the masterpiece. At online sites dedicated to defacing Leonardo da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa,” the painting’s new faces transform her into Donald Duck, Osama Bin Laden, and Michael Jackson all the while paying homage to the original. Let’s not dismiss the parodic value of high culture brought down by means of popular reclamation. Yet who today wants to hear, as John Berger told us in 1972, that “Bulletin boards should replace or should have by now replaced museums”? Most likely they did, but no longer or less and less, as bulletin boards are now replaced by digital storage on your hard drive of the major masterpieces of Western art. Berger goes on: “Modern means of reproduction have …to destroy the authority of art and to remove it…from any preserve. But while some “art” has been removed, is continuing to be removed further and further from private preserves, other art is being increasingly cosseted, safely secured, protected by copyright, or held as security in its function within a system of exchange. Art objects are not available, yet images of them, Berger goes on, are ever-available, ubiquitous, and even “free.” But, to ask the ultimate question about ubiquity–who has noticed? After all, the means of mechanical reproduction are used both to make available and to promote elite unavailability–underwriting the illusion that “nothing has changed.” Nothing has changed, of course, except that, Berger thinks, the “masses, thanks to reproductions, can now begin to appreciate art as the cultured minority once did.” But “appreciate”? Are we still charged with teaching appreciation? Answering his own point, Berger goes on: “Understandably, the masses remain uninterested and skeptical.” And we answer him: Well, perhaps they should remain “uninterested and skeptical.” Trump supporters, however, might be uninterested in and skeptical of “art,” understood as a measure of class hierarchy, but they are not skeptical of the capitalism that underwrites it. We are well aware that in recent centuries the culture of the work of art, the art of and for the cultured, is one ticket into that class. The work of art still offers little or nothing to those remaining outside that class. But to this old class equation we now need to add the case of billionaire Donald Trump. If Trump is the measure, as we will see, he is as “uninterested and skeptical,” as unimpressed as his followers, and this despite his social proximity to wealthy connoisseurs.
It should be clear from my comments that I am somewhat dubious about the impact of the critique of the original relative to reproducibility, the original and its copy–within the academy and the larger public as well as within the elite collecting class. However, I am much more certain about the impact of Berger’s signature formulation as it pertains to ways of seeing women.
Let’s revisit the productivity of Berger’s formulation that “A woman must continually watch herself. She is almost continually accompanied by her own image of herself.” Or, to put it another way, a woman “watches herself being looked at.” Berger’s Ways of Seeing was taught for many years along with Laura Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” the article which appeared in the journal Screen in 1975 and has since been reprinted so many times that in the field we may have lost count. In retrospect, what is interesting to note, however, is how Mulvey echoes Jean-Paul Sartre’s Being and Nothingness. Her “to-be-looked-at-ness” of the female body is close to Sartre’s concept of “The Look” in which the philosopher makes reference to how “the Other’s look fashions my body” and finds connection between “being-a-look” and “being looked-at.” But while Mulvey channeled Sartre, Berger’s formulation is actually closer to the thought of Simone de Beauvoir. In Berger, the woman “turns herself into an object…an object of vision: a sight” which recaps the French feminist’s idea that women internalize this mechanism. Where de Beauvoir formulates “Women see themselves being seen by men,” Berger writes “Women watch themselves being looked at.” De Beauvoir clearly took Sartre’s ungendered looking paradigm and gendered it, applying the structure to men’s perception of women. Yet de Beauvoir’s theoretical formulation did not catch on immediately in feminist academic circles, at least not until Berger’s illustrated application of that theory.
All I am saying is that I think we can credit Berger for giving feminist theory an early boost, although it would have been great if he had credited Simone de Beauvoir in the way that he credited Walter Benjamin. Perhaps more intriguing is the way he prepared the terrain for studies of gay male representation. For example, Berger suggested, ever so slyly, that the tables could be turned by swapping out the gender of the unclothed figure in recline. What then do we have if we carry over the conventions of the nude, arranged as she was for maximum appreciation of the male spectator-owner, but “try them on” the male figure. Anyone can try by cutting and pasting body parts to recreate such a gender commutation test for which Berger gives these instructions: “If you have any doubts choose a traditional nude. Transform the woman into a man. Then notice the violence which that transformation does…not to the image but to the assumptions…of the viewer.”  Following Berger’s experiment in ways of seeing gender troubled, we can imagine the gay male studies of sexual looking yet to come in the 1980s. Think here of Richard Dyer’s seminal “Instabilities of the Pin-up” and Tom Waugh’s study of gay male porn that set off his famous feud with the Kinsey Institute over reproducing their photographs.
The Marxist-feminist analysis of the spectator-owner centered on “Allegory of Time and Love” by Bronzino. Why, Berger wants to know, does Cupid’s kiss seem so strangely planted and askew? He explains that the appeal is to the sexuality of the “man looking.” Then he goes on to surprise us with the following: “It has nothing to do with her sexuality. Women are there to feed an appetite, not to have any of their own.” Have we now forgotten how radical it was for women to ask for a “sexuality of their own” in 1972? It was not only that female sexuality could be a topic for art history but that feminism’s most valid complaint could be raised on television. An appetite of her own? It would be another decade before the tumultuous Barnard College “pro-sex” conference and the debates about lesbian sado-masochism as well as the emergence of groups like “Lesbians for Lipstick.” What is perhaps most diplomatic to say here is that feminist theory took what it wanted from John Berger. Put another way, Ways of Seeing reinforced emerging positions. But while academic feminist theory has moved on, Berger’s formulation now seems closer to the first appeals of what we now call consumer feminism: “a paycheck of her own, an apartment of her own, a sexuality of her own.”
There is something that I have always wanted to say about the confluence of Berger and Mulvey in the analysis of gendered spectatorship and what in Mulvey came to be known as “gaze theory.” I think that there is a political flaw in the analysis. Ironically, part of the great success of the formulation that men “look,” women are “looked at” was the very metaphor that resonated for so many—women are turned into an object. “Women are objectified” really did trickle down where it entered the discourse on workplace harassment. But the object metaphor, I think, ultimately played into the hands of an unfortunate moralism. The concept of women as objectified in representation from the oil painting to the publicity photograph to the Hollywood narrative film was, for a short period, an orthodoxy that prohibited all uses of the female body. Before the internet, this prohibition even accelerated into a futile feminist campaign against pornography. Further, as Marxist feminists, it should have occurred to us that the implicit obverse of “objectification” was a variant of humanism, as in “Don’t treat us as objects, we are human beings.” This claim to personhood would forget the Marxist critique of humanism. In the end, a politics based on unequal looking relations did not and does not take us far enough.
Today, in 2017, Berger’s analysis of the connection between gilded frames and glossy publicity is ripe for reconsideration. Let us turn, then, to Donald Trump’s lifestyle. If, to quote John Berger, the “purpose of publicity is to make the spectator marginally dissatisfied with his present way of life,” he or she is then susceptible to an idea that purchase will make his life better. Note, in Berger’s his subtle critique, how easily one can substitute for “purchase” the word “vote” and recall his analysis that “Publicity turns consumption into a substitute for democracy.” A surprising number of young women later said that they voted for the image of Ivanka Trump. This means that they also voted for images of consumption right out of the 1970s magazine pages that Berger analyzed. Surely others have noticed that stylistically both Melania and Ivanka Trump are 1970s retro personified. Yet here is what has changed. What traditional art history might read as incongruity between Donald Trump’s interior décor and the historical interior of Versailles to which it pays homage, we now read, after John Berger, as a perfect congruence. (We also read in Trump’s penthouse décor the megaglomaniacal wish to rule the world.) Ways of Seeing is painfully prescient in its explanation of the gilded frame around the landscape painting. John Berger’s question hits his target when he asks “But where is this way of life?” and “Where did the owner’s wealth come from?” Now let’s consider Trump’s home office and the famous Renoir painting in the gilded frame, a reproduction of the original “Le Loge” which hangs in London. The point is finally not that the reproduction is deceptively framed as one would frame a valuable original. The point is that for this object in this space, the Trump home office, “art” is not really the subject. It is not now about “art” if it ever was. The point is that after Trump we should stop asking the question, “Is it art?” Art history’s fake/original distinction could thus finally meet its challenge.
Here, however, is what is really, really disturbing. For us, Trump’s faux Versailles interior décor is just too easy a target. We thought that because it was so easy for us to see what it signified that everyone would see it this way, that they would see the way we see. Didn’t we take our analytical eye off the culture of consumption and thus fail to see who was looking at it— looking at it, shall we say, appreciatively? Didn’t we fail to see not just who was buying it but more importantly who was buying into it? Today we want to know how “Ways of Seeing” constituted not only its implied audience (which is “us”) but also the other audiences, given that it was not really for the contemporary audience that it was about, to return to my earlier point. “Ways of Seeing” was not, of course, for the audience for publicity, the “exploited majority” as Berger called them, the masses who, he concluded, “remain uninterested and skeptical.” That is, they remain unappreciative and skeptical of “art.” But not, we assume, unappreciative or skeptical of publicity. Exhibit A would be the female voters who, when interviewed, said that they wanted to look like and be like Ivanka Trump, who had her own business. This has been our analysis in a nutshell, and thinking of John Berger reminds us of how long Western Marxism has held to this analysis of the “exploited” which holds that they embrace ideas that are not in their own best interests, as I noted before. Or there is Berger’s version of this in which the majority is deeply drawn to the image of the lifestyle that they can only envy; they will never have anything more than images of it because Trump’s having this lifestyle is predicated on your not having it.
Did we, as graduate students in the mid to late 1970s, really think that this devastating critique of the art world would expose the bogus art market? Or that it would undermine the advertising industry? I don’t know that we believed our critique could have impact in the worlds beyond the academy. What I do know is that this critique did impact some parts of the U.S. university curriculum. In media studies after John Berger, advertising as “persuasion” was no longer taught. Further, after the 1970s, those of us who read Ways of Seeing in the context of cultural studies wanted no part in teaching art or literature “appreciation.” After graduate school, we sought jobs teaching cultural studies or film and media studies. Those who taught in art history departments in the U.S., especially in community colleges, taught Ways of Seeing as what they called “detox.”
John Berger taught us to see this way. But in the end, as academics, we have to ask about the relation between our cultural way of seeing and our critical way of seeing. This entails asking if our critical way of “seeing everything” missed seeing something. Thus, there is no better way to end than to return to Berger’s own conclusion to his series, mentioned earlier. This is where he says, throwing it back on the viewer: “Consider what I have arranged but be skeptical of it.” Let’s not miss this final irony. The irony that “Ways of Seeing” may have taught us this scrutiny so well that forty-five years later we turn the skeptical eye back on it, asking what it might have failed to see. Ironically, then, what better tribute to John Berger than a critique that stimulates new ways of seeing “Ways of Seeing”?
Jane Gaines is the award-winning author of two books: Contested Culture: The Image, the Voice and the Law and Fire and Desire: Mixed Race Movies in the Silent Era, both of which received the Katherine Singer Kovacs prize from the Society for Cinema and Media Studies. She received an Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Scholarly Award for her forthcoming book on early cinema, Historical Fictioning: Women Film Pioneers and for work on the Women Film Pioneers digital archive published by Columbia University Libraries in 2013. She teaches in the School of the Arts at Columbia.
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