Holding that dog-eared copy in my hands today, the book still seems to shiver with revelatory power. For many Berger fans, Ways of Seeing represents the first time a book trusted them to see past the appearance of things. It’s a book about art history and the media, but it’s also a magic trick. Berger takes his readers beyond the visible, towards a closer understanding of the world as it really is—the one capitalism, patriarchy, and empire try to hide from you.And what are the revelations that made this poor reader shiver with their power?
In this small work, Berger gives a basic primer on the complicity of the European art tradition from 1500 to 1900 with the politics of the same period.Art is political! What an astonishing idea! And not only that:
Berger explains the difference between the painted nude—seductive, objectified—and the naked human being. He tells us that still-life painting did not depict objects qua objects, but as items to be owned. European conventions on perspective, he argues, offer the world up to the covetous viewer with a deference found in no other tradition. Berger points out that the globe hovering behind Holbein’s The Ambassadors refers to incipient empire and so to racist violence.MY GOD PAINTED NUDES ARE DIFFERENT FROM NAKED PEOPLE!!! CAN YOU BELIEVE THE DEPTH OF THIS MAN'S INSIGHTS???
But it's really the crap about perspective and the covetous gaze that is the perfect John Berger line: portentous, inflammatory, nonsensical. Yet to a certain sort of 19-year-old it all shivers with revelation.