Standing in front of the Mona Lisa at the Louvre in Paris, I notice bulletproof glass encasing the painting. I imagine pulling out a semi-automatic and letting loose on the da Vinci as polyester-clad guards rush me from behind. Then I snap back—this is the Mona Lisa, finally I am seeing it for real, in the flesh. It’s masterfully painted and exciting to view on the wall instead of in an art history book or on a coffee mug. But I feel let down—how can the real thing ever compare to the hype surrounding it?
John Berger’s 1972 classic Ways of Seeing, his best-known work, explores the alchemy of this nexus where the civilian encounters the great work of art. On the book’s 30th anniversary, it’s worth a look back to see how Berger’s arguments have weathered. The doyen of radical cultural criticism, Berger has written countless essays on art and artists in addition to novels, plays, and non-fiction books; on occasion he even exhibits his own drawings. In Ways of Seeing, Berger attacks the elite art establishment’s intense sexism (in which women are things) and haughty class biases (in which money is supreme and the poor are happy). From there he makes connections between the “high culture” of classical painting and modern advertising. Both, in his eyes, are sites of ruling class cultural control, as he proceeds from the assumption that “the art of any period tends to serve the ideological interests of the ruling class.”
Crucial to Berger’s thesis is his challenge to the interpretations of the official institutions that mystify fine art—museums, galleries, and especially art history texts. For Berger, “mystification is the process of explaining away what might otherwise be evident.” According to Berger, art history more often obscures the meaning of an artwork than reveals its real politics. The gatekeepers of high art do this by avoiding the work’s represented content, and instead focusing on the aesthetics of technique. Furthermore, charges Berger, mainstream critics perform this formalistic divination in a highly obtuse vernacular that serves to alienate regular working and middle class folks.
Berger contrasts his reading of Renaissance greats with the official line. For example, he sizes up Frans Hals’s “Regents of the Old Men’s Alms House”, then quotes Seymour Slive, a leading contemporary scholar on the painter, in his assessment of the same work. At the time the painting was made, Hals was poor and old, living off alms from the new merchant class. From Berger’s perspective one of the Regents appears drunk and disheveled, his face bloated, eyes bleary. For Berger and, he would insist, Hals, this represents a type of decadence of “the new characters and expressions created by capitalism” which was then a rising force and not inured.
But for Slive, any mention of drunkenness is libel. According to him, slouched hats were the fashion of the day and as for the Regent’s puffy, hungover look, Slive cites medical opinion to prove this man suffered from facial paralysis. Avoiding any possible political message that the bourgeoisie were corrupt, Slive prefers to limit his interpretation strictly to the artist’s formal skill.
Crack open any art history text and check out this doctrine of form over content at all costs. The information is often equivalent to collector’s notes on the object itself, i.e. where and when it was painted, by whom, and who owns it, supplemented by a dry, confusing interpretation about color, texture, and composition. Terms such as “harmonious fusion, unforgettable contrast” or “a peak of breadth and strength” serve in Berger’s words to “transfer the emotion provoked by the image from the plane of lived experience, to that of disinterested ‘art appreciation.’” The picture’s meaning is sanitized and subordinated to its function as a commodity bearing economic value. For Berger, the worship of economic value is reflected in both the form and function of high art: Classical paintings are full of rich people and their possessions, and are owned by rich people to represent their economic and social power.
Despite mainstream art history’s obsession with skill, Berger argues, truly quality painting is often overlooked just as schlock painting, of the right sort, can find its way into the Louvre. He reveals the dirty secret obvious to many art viewers that museums frequently hang mediocre paintings alongside great ones.
Why is this so? Berger contends that the art establishment attributes value on the basis of a painting being an original rather than technical virtuosity. In the age of mechanical reproduction, as Walter Benjamin noted, we can infinitely reproduce paintings in books and on posters and T-shirts. So what makes the artwork valuable if everyone can have it? The original. Since not just anyone can possess the “real” painting, the ruling class art establishment imbues one-of-a-kind objects with tremendous monetary and therefore cultural value. In this framework, the skill of the artist becomes secondary to the presence of the picture itself.
Another key argument in Ways of Seeing is that no other medium could have served the interests of the market economy’s ruling class as effectively as oil painting. Thus its maturation and dominance as an art form paralleled the rise of capitalism, from its birth in a declining feudal economy starting around 1500 to the peak of the Industrial Revolution around 1900.
This new form liberated art from the confines of the fresco, fixed as it was in the exclusive geographical locations of church and absolutist state power: cathedrals and palaces. These feudalist mediums were too expensive for the rising class of merchants and small manufacturers who also wanted their affluence reflected back to them. Oil paintings, on the other hand, were portable objects that could be bought and sold for more affordable prices.
But oil painting was not just a scaled-down imitation of nobility, it actually fostered and reflected a cultural shift whereby everything became a commodity reducible to its economic value and interchangeable with all other commodities. The owner of a painting possessed both the picture and whatever was represented within its frame. This helped create a “way of seeing the world, which was ultimately determined by new attitudes to property and exchange, [that] found its visual expression in the oil painting, and could not have found it in any other visual art form.” In this art, the soul receded and materiality came to the fore.
These ideas are fleshed out in Berger’s analysis of the content of great Renaissance paintings. Take, for example, Holbein’s The Ambassadors (1533). Depicting two men surrounded by sensuous finery—fur robes, exotic carpets, a lute, navigation devices, an elaborate marble floor—everything about the piece communicates wealth of the new trading class. Even the surface of the painting, having been meticulously worked over by Holbein to accurately reproduce the textures and colors of the scene, emanates power and prosperity.
The common reading is that the two men are surrounded by objects symbolizing ideas. While their effects might well represent the ambassadors’ identities, more obviously these objects are possessions that directly refer to the power of mercantile capitalism. Any symbolism is overridden by luscious physicality so much so that in order to communicate the metaphysical message of the skull in the foreground, Holbein had to severely distort it. Otherwise, Berger observes, the skull would have been interpreted as just another possession.
Under this “way of seeing,” Berger observes, even classical religious paintings depicted biblical figures in a markedly unspiritual fashion. He considers three paintings of Mary Magdalen, from the 16th, 18th, and 19th centuries featuring the repentant prostitute who came to reject the flesh, accepting the immortality of the soul. “Yet the way the pictures are painted contradicts the essence of this story…She is painted as being, before anything else, a takeable and desirable woman.” Here Magdalen is a passive object, titillating chattel for the painting’s owner to consume any time he looks at the image. Again we have the logic of the commodity form, in this case imbricated with the age-old objectification of women.
The book’s final essay focuses on advertising’s references to classical art. By reproducing famous paintings and sculptures or echoing traditional compositions, advertisers lend their products authenticity, legitimacy, and social status. The book criticizes advertising’s use of high art to invoke glamour and wealth. In Berger’s eyes this is really about referencing and summoning a set of values and a sense of quality that exists beyond and outside the market, that is to say, dressing up commodities as something more transcendental and truly valuable. More broadly, all of advertising plays with utopian desires for our diverse and not always market-oriented needs. We have the choice of transforming ourselves from alienated worker to active consumer with each purchase, yet, Berger explains, we don’t really have the choices of a true democracy. “The choice of what one eats (or wears or drives) takes the place of significant political choice.” So, we see the role of fine art coming full circle, serving the interests of the ruling class in both high and popular culture.
So how does all this stack up after three decades? The new post-’60s Marxist art history and criticism, set in motion partly by Berger, has delved further into the connection between the market, current day art, art-producers, and the institutions of art—museum, gallery, and art criticism. Re-historicizing high art from a feminist perspective, Linda Nochlin, in The Politics of Vision, opposes dealers’ and curators’ efforts to reduce the meaning of art to a series of surfaces. And Carol Duncan, in The Aesthetics of Power, exposes the centrality of the modern-day art critic in transforming “potential art into the real thing.” Duncan’s critique of art criticism comes down to this: Official writing about art adds value to said art, making it sell for more on the market. As in Berger’s analysis, Duncan says this highly selective valorization of the art object serves two functions: material, to ensure the monetary value of the work; and ideological, to police the perimeter of high art, keeping out the riffraff. While Ways of Seeing did not focus on the contemporary art market, Berger paved the way for the radical criticism Nochlin, Duncan, and others continue to develop.
When compared to these folks who are currently on the cutting edge of socially aware art criticism, Berger’s book seems dated in its narrow focus and lack of attention to institutions like museums, criticism and art education. Even as his materialist reading of classical art and advertising retains its strength, Berger’s gender analysis seems rather simple by today’s standards. But the book has done and does its job well and there’s a reason it continues to be taught in college courses— as an introduction to thinking critically about art, Ways of Seeing is still extremely useful.
Heather Rogers is a Bay Area writer and photographer.