I made a passing reference, yesterday, to John Berger's TV series Ways of Seeing, and how the rightward swing of British art critic Peter Fuller could be mapped in the transition from his 1980 book "Seeing Berger" to his 1988 revision of it, entitled "Seeing Through Berger". I linked to a short piece I'd written last year about Ways of Seeing. The YouTube embeds from the series were dead, but they were pretty short anyway. A YouTube search yesterday revealed that -- just in the last month -- all four half-hour episodes of Ways of Seeing have gone up online. I watched them last night, and I think this is still the most intelligent glance television -- a medium, ostensibly, about looking, but actually very bad at looking intelligently at looking -- has ever cast on the act of looking.
It would be easy to say that Ways of Seeing is hopelessly dated -- made in 1972, the films come across as a puritan-groovy mix of Monty Python, the Open University and the Look Around You spoofs. And yet what's so remarkable about this series is that it seems more apposite, subversive and thought-provoking than ever. The Britain we glimpse in the films, already alienated by spooky BBC Radiophonic Workshop music by Delia Derbyshire, is alienated even more by the passing of time. Alienated usefully, in the Brechtian sense; we look at a capitalist society which is like, and unlike, our own.
One way our own society is unlike 1972 is in the fact that, despite the enormous plethora of TV and internet TV we have now, nobody has made anything quite like this. In art history, the treatment of women's bodies, in our relationship with objects and property and in advertising (the themes of the four films) the same mystifications and objectifications and manipulations carry on. What doesn't carry on is analysis of them on this level.
Sure, there are a thousand media studies courses out there. But several things have happened since Ways of Seeing was made. Firstly, Western societies have swung right; they're much less resisting of the capitalist beast -- much more infused with its values -- than they were in 1972. There's very little actually-existing socialism now, and perhaps globalisation has also eroded national differences quite a bit in the thirty-six years since the series was made. Secondly, postmodernism has made it much more difficult to critique popular culture now. PoMo collapsed high and low, then and now, author and writer, and as a result it became much more difficult to attack authority; in PoMo there was no more them-and-us, no more there there. Everything was just scales on the ouroboral snake. Ways of Seeing is not just a Marxist take on representation, but a late Modernist one, informed by Benjamin, Barthes, Brecht. There are no TV Modernists left; people who believe in the avant garde, and believe that the mandarins -- in the form of a radical intelligentsia -- can help the masses to shed their ideological chains. (Well, apart from me, obviously!)
The series is also Reithian; a riposte to Sir Kenneth Clark's Civilisation series, which had recently gone out over the same antennae, but a riposte which shares Clark's mandarin sense of mission, his Reithian confidence in his entitlement to educate. And that, too, is something TV stopped doing in the dismal, deregulated New World Order that followed.
Berger's authority here is a moral and poetic one, though, and he's at pains throughout to make us question the authority of commentarists seen and unseen, question the use of music and context in media, look at editing, make our own ethical juxtapositions (an ad for an aperitif next to images of refugees). There's a wonderful moment in the first episode where he mocks the commentary in a recently-published book about Caravaggio (it jumps straight from tediously specific formalist analysis to talk about "the human spirit" with nothing in between) then takes it to a group of schoolchildren, who immediately spot the epicene ambiguity of the central figures in the paintings -- who spot, in other words, that Caravaggio was gay. Berger also takes a group portrait by Franz Hals of some benefactors who saved Hals from starvation by feeding him, and reads out a formalist commentary critiquing the poor composition. I can't think of an art series since which has dared to criticize other art critics so directly, and so systematically.
The second episode, about the female nude, has some particularly troublesome and interesting things to say about structural narcissism ("men dream of women, women dream of themselves being dreamt of"), the difference between nakedness and nudity, and the institutionalised misogyny deep in our culture -- the tendency of men to desire women and simultaneously blame them for provoking that desire. Berger traces this back to the biblical tale of the expulsion from Eden. There's a great discussion at the end with a group of highly articulate women, including the writer Eva Figes. Episode three is about oil paintings, their relationship with saleable objects and property, and their fate as saleable property, valuable for depicting objects of value. And the last episode -- for me the most compelling -- is about advertising and envy.
I actually find it rather disturbing that -- despite our claims to be a culture that's increasing freedom of choice all the time -- we haven't come up with anything quite as astute, subversive or beautiful as Ways of Seeing since. Not on the BBC, and not even -- especially not -- on the internet. Download it while you still can.
Yes, Adam Curtis is the best we have, and he's in a direct lineage from Berger. But, for the reasons I outline above -- historical changes from Modernism to PoMo, Marxism to money-ism, the loss of the Reithian mission to educate, and so on -- I think even Curtis could be seen to fall into a post-MTV, PoMo and internet-era morass: a place where conspiracy theory meets music video meets investigative free association meets paranoia meets a sort of satirical critique which shares the framings a little too closely with the things it targets.
I love Curtis, but I think he lacks the very clear, poetic and authoritative TV voice Berger had. That's not his fault, it's something that's changed in the culture, to do with the collapse of hierarchies -- a collapse that Ways of Seeing might, paradoxically, have hastened, because even as he stood atop the BBC pillar, Berger was chipping assiduously and insidiously away at it.
pictures are like songs i like to be in a different room from the music box i find a song can change shape when your hear it outside or in the kitchten or in the cafe one day i love the tune but in a different situation it could be dread full music is not fixed and image becomes unfixed
You're in your late forties. The early seventies were the formative years for you, I guess, and you respond to the culture of those years - the late modernism, the marxist analysis, the idea that cultural criticism belonged to an elite, the reithian high-mindedness, the faux avant-gardism of popular music then, etc. It's another world, an alien world to me, probably as alien as WW2 newsreels are to you. But it's the world you obviously feel the most comfortable in. I'm not so convinced that cultural criticism was really better then. Or even more resistant to mainstream capitalist culture. I mean, listen to Berger! No matter what he's saying, you can tell he's part of that same elite. And his films have the feel of government information campaigns of the time or something. The look and feel is all of a piece with the institutional culture.
Ever since time began, people of your age have been telling the up and coming generation that it was all so much better back in the day, when you were young.
I do think 1968 to 1972 was a particularly good period. Have a listen to this for some of the reasons. Maybe 2068 to 2072 will be too -- after all, we elitist Marxian Modernists believe in the future! That's the whole point of us! I won't be there, but you will be. Make it better!
Thanks for the link, but that show exemplifies the worst traits of modern television essays. The helicopter stock shots, the software-based impacts and flashes unmotivated by anything happening on screen, the cliched script with its engineered cliffhangers, the C&A catalogue model presenter, the intrusive, urgent music playing the whole time... it's absolutely dreadful, and absolutely perfect if you want an example of the kind of visual and verbal mystification Berger was talking about.
Thanks very much for bringing this to attention, the youtubes you recommended last year prompted me to purchase the book of the series so it is great to see the series in totality. Unfortunately the BBC still have not made it available on DVD and at this point it is likely that they never will.
Being a few years the junior of Mr M, my first encounter with Ways of Seeing was as a text as well. It was only later that I saw excerpts from the series and it was great to finally have a chance to see the whole thing.
The latest edition of the Radio4 series, 1968 - Myth or reality?, Philosophy on the Streets, gives a perspective on the political and intellectual context his thought comes partly out of.
I think that his distinction of being "nude" vs. being "naked" helped me to finally nail down why I find women to be so exceptionally beautiful early in the morning when they just woke up and are reaching for a cup of coffee: for a while they're free from self-criticism, from the ever-present superegoic Male Gaze; they're truly naked.
In the 70s Fuller started a "hard left tabloid broadsheet" called Seven Days, and got his hero John Berger to write for it. But by the late 80s -- when Fuller was writing for the right wing Daily Telegraph -- he had decided that Berger's Marxist art criticism was reductive.
In "Seeing Through Berger", his revision of "Seeing Berger", Fuller turned his original praise of Berger into criticism -- we shouldn't interpret pre-20th century art through the prism of our own concerns, or through sociology, he thought.