Ways of Seeing

Ways of Seeing
based on the BBC television series with John Berger
BBC & Penguin Books

In my acceptance letter to the low-residence MFA program at the Vermont College of Fine Art this book was recommended. It is a series of essays based upon a TV series of the same name produced by the BBC. Some of the essays are marginally interesting, but the writing style is awful. Most of the sentences are short declarative statements which become boring to read and frequently have inadequate references or substantiation. The book is also typeset all in bold – with emphases statements in roman type and the reproductions are very poor. I read through it, gleaned a few tidbits, but did not enjoy most of it.

The following are a few verbatim quotations from I found of some interest:

From the first essay, “Seeing comes before words ..” Page 10: “… Every image embodies a way of seeing. Even a photograph. For photographs are not, as is often assumed, a mechanical record. Every time we look at a photograph, we are a photograph, we are aware, however slightly, of the photographer selecting that sight from an infinity of other possible sights. This is true even in the most causal family snapshot. The photographer’s way of seeing is reflected in his choice of subject. The painter’s way of seeing is reconstituted by the marks he makes on the canvas or paper.

From the 5th Essay, on oil painting, Page 83-84: “Oil paintings often depict things. Things which in reality are buyable. to have thing painted and put on a canvas is not unlike buying it and putting it in your house. If you buy a painting you buy also the look of the thing it represents. This analogy between possessing and the way of seeing which is incorporated in oil painting, is a factor usually ignored by art experts and historians. Significantly enough it is an anthropologist who has come closest to recognizing it.

Levi-Strauss writes: It is this avid and ambitious desire to take possession o the object for the benefit of the owner or even of the spectator which seems to me to constitute one of the outstandingly original features of the art of Western civilization.”

Page 84: “… Nor can the end of the period of the oil painting be dated exactly. Oil paintings are still being painted today. Yet the basis of its traditional way of seeing was undermined by Impressionism and overthrown by Cubism. At about the same time the photograph took the place of the oil painting as the principal source of visual imagery. For these reasons the period of the traditional oil painting may be roughly set as between 1500 and 1900.”

Page 85: “What are these paintings? Before they are anything else, they are themselves objects which can be bought and owned. Unique objects. A patron cannot be surrounded by music or poems in the same way as he is surrounded by his pictures.”

Page 86-87: “The art of any period tends to serve the ideological interests of the ruling class. If we were simply saying that European art between 1500 and 1900 served the interests of the successive ruling classes, all of who depended in different ways on the new power of capital, we should not be saying anything very new. What is being proposed is a little more precise; that a way of seeing the world, which was ultimately determined by new attitudes to property and exchange, found its visual expression in the oil painting, and could not have found it in any other art form.”

Page 101: “Until very recently – and in certain milieux even today – a certain moral value was ascribed to the study of the classics. This was because the classic texts, whatever their intrinsic worth, supplied the higher strata of the ruling lass with a system of references for the forms of their own idealized behavior. As well as poetry, logic and philosophy, the classics offered a system of etiquette. They offered examples of how the heightened moments of life – to be found in heroic action, the dignified exercise of power, passion, courageous death, the noble pursuit of pleasure — should be lived, or, at lest, should be seen to be lived.”

Page 105, on landscape painting: “… The sky has no surface and is intangible; the sky cannot be turned into a thing or given a quantity. And landscape painting begins with the problem of painting sky and distance. The first pure landscapes – painted in Holland in the seventeenth century — answered no direct social need. Landscape painting was, from its inception, a relatively independent activity. Its painters naturally inherited and so, to a large extent, were forced to continue the methods and norms of the tradition. But each time the tradition of oil painting was significantly modified, the first initiative came from landscaping painting. From the seventeenth century onwards the exceptional innovators in terms of vision and therefore technique were Ruysdael, Rembrandt (the use of light in his later work derived from his landscape studies), Constable (in his sketches), Turner and, at the end of the period, Monet and the Impressionists. Furthermore, their innovations led progressively away from the substantial and tangible towards the indeterminate and intangible.”

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