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Modern Classics Ways Of Seeing [Paperback]

John Berger
3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (27 customer reviews)
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Book Description

Oct. 28 2008
How do we see the world around us? The Penguin on Design series includes the works of creative thinkers whose writings on art, design and the media have changed our vision forever.

"Seeing comes before words. The child looks and recognizes before it can speak."

"But there is also another sense in which seeing comes before words. It is seeing which establishes our place in the surrounding world; we explain that world with words, but word can never undo the fact that we are surrounded by it. The relation between what we see and what we know is never settled."

John Berger's Ways of Seeing is one of the most stimulating and influential books on art in any language. First published in 1972, it was based on the BBC television series about which the (London) Sunday Times critic commented: "This is an eye-opener in more ways than one: by concentrating on how we look at paintings... he will almost certainly change the way you look at pictures." By now he has.

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About the Author

John Berger was born in London in 1926. He is well known for his novels & stories as well as for his works of nonfiction, including several volumes of art criticism. His first novel, "A Painter of Our Time", was published in 1958, & since then his books have included the novel "G.", which won the Booker Prize in 1972. In 1962 he left Britain permanently, & he now lives in a small village in the French Alps.

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Customer Reviews

Most helpful customer reviews
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
Barely showing its age after thirty years, John Berger's WAYS OF SEEING remains one of the best popular presentations of academic and scholarly thought in recent decades. There are actually very few original ideas in Berger's book. Just about the entire content can be found in a variety of thinkers either inspiring, belonging to, or influenced by the Frankfort school, for instance, Meyer Schapiro, Adorno, and especially Walter Benjamin. None of these thinkers are household names in the English speaking world, even though Schapiro may well be the greatest art critic America has produced, and despite Benjamin's possibly being the greatest cultural critic of the 20th century. One reason their ideas have not become more widely known is the fact that all of these thinkers were deeply influenced by Marxism, though none of them were Communists. As a result, while many of the ideas that Berger presents in his work are well known in literary and scholarly circles, they remain unknown to most casual visitors to art museums.
Berger is intent to challenge ways of looking at art and other images that ignore the status of works of art as commodities. We not only live in a capitalistic society, but one in which virtually all its inhabitants are consumers. Consumers purchase commodities. Berger wants to raise the consciousness of viewers of these paintings that they are not merely "masterpieces," but commodities. Or, in the case of oil painting, visual representations of commodities.
These central assumptions are brought out in a series of essays. The first is a straightforward presentation of the main ideas in Walter Benjamin's seminal essay "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," a fact that Berger acknowledges at the end of the essay.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
By A Customer
I must agree that this is an excellent book. It is not only a wonderful series of essays on art, but a landmark study of the ideological function of visual discourse. Berger "shows" how the framing of visual images shapes the viewer's perception of those images and of what they attempt to represent. Chapters two and three, on "ways of seeing women", are especially powerful illustrations of how particular attitudes are reflected in visual representations and of how those attitudes are reaffirmed for the viewer. Berger's argument is that discourse -- visual in this case -- is never purely objective, but is always reflective of a particular way of seeing the world. This is not to say that we should attempt to overcome our particular ways of seeing -- which cannot be done. It is instead a call to be aware of the ways of seeing to which we have become accustomed, and which we reproduce in our own lives.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Does Art Illuminate? Jan. 8 2003
This book has the potential to completely re-shift your understanding of art. It is about art philosophy, but much more than that, how we understand the nature of art, and how it relates to our cultures and societies. It is a book designed for the general reader, without a large art background, but also appreciable by the artist and the professional art critic.
People often look down upon the objectification of women in advertising, and how we regularly degrade women for the pleasure of a few, treating women as objects or bodies only. But then we look back on the nudes of the Renaissance or other periods and think, how beautifully made! This is truly art, after all, and not the same moral level as an underwear ad or porn. Berger destroys these myths. Yes, Rembrandt's nudes are much more artistically done than anything in advertising, but Berger shows a convincing link between the treatment of women in art of that time and art of this time. If one expands the definition of art in the modern period, the similarities are extraordinary. In Ways of Seeing Berger carefully traces how art has been used as a method of control, in general and towards women in particular. How those beautiful nudes we now see in museums were usually in wealthy men's private collections where only they could observe them- much as Playboy is today. How even the medium (oil, watercolor, film) changes the way information is forced upon us and control is asserted. Berger does this all not only through text but showing the actual paintings and pictures- indeed, over half the book is art of various sorts. It is illuminating to see an ad that obviously objectifies women, and then to see the exact same picture next to it, but of a famous oil painting that the ad was based on. I first read this work over a decade ago and it's ideas and images have never left me. Nor will they leave you.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Art as tool Dec 12 2001
WAYS OF SEEING is a collection of seven essays. Three are pictorial; four are textual. All are about art, how art is seen, how it is valued, how it is used, and what we can learn from looking at art.
Of the textual essays, the first is about the mystification of art and history by its associations with assumptions and values that are not necessarily inherent in the work itself, but in its rarity, uniqueness, and commercial demand. He discusses art as being seen as an almost religious icon, and how the reproduction of images has contributed to the mystification of the original image.
The second textual essay is a study of women and how they are seen, who sees them, and how they see themselves being seen by others. It is Berger's critique of the Nude as an art form, and he argues that they place women as objects to be seen and desired and overpowered by men, the subject.
The third essay is about the tradition of oil paintings in Europe between 1500 and 1900. Berger explains the connections between the content of these paintings and the ownership of them as a symbol of affluence, as products of capitalism and the maintenance of the status quo.
The fourth essay has to do with publicity, or advertisement, and the reference that such images make to oil paintings, sexual attractiveness, and dissatisfaction with the current state of life (the promise of a better future, given that you buy something).
I'm not an art historian, and I don't know much about theories of art. But WAYS OF SEEING is a book that pierces into the comfortable notions of art as belonging to the elite and cultured, and reveals its role as used to maintain power structures. Who commissioned the work, who is meant to look at it, what is it putting on display, what are its political motives? These are questions that should be asked of any work of art, and Berger aims to ask these questions. By doing so, he also enlightens the reader.
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Most recent customer reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Still a classic!
I read this book when I was studying my undergraduate degree in art, and frequently referred back to it after. Now, I use it as a teaching tool in my class. Read more
Published 7 months ago by P. A. Glatta
1.0 out of 5 stars Pseudo-academic
Berger isn't making artistic observations as much as social commentary. He gives not-so-subtle hints that he's basically a communist and talks about how European Art serves the... Read more
Published on Feb. 2 2004 by CJ in College Station
2.0 out of 5 stars Interesting ideas, but without thoughtful coherent expansion
This book had some insights, but overall, I found myself quite disappointed by it. Dedicated to attacking the viewpoint of the privileged élite creators of high-art... Read more
Published on Oct. 8 2003 by Julian Elson
2.0 out of 5 stars Warning: Post-structuralism ahead
If you want your eyes and mind opened to beauty and meaning, try "The Nude" by Kenneth Clark. If you want a tedious specimen of what Harold Bloom calls "the school of resentment,"... Read more
Published on Nov. 26 2002 by David W. Stoesz
3.0 out of 5 stars A specialized work
Berger et al have produced an interesting work. It isn't something you would need to just have around the house for fun though. Read more
Published on June 30 2002 by I. Rodden
4.0 out of 5 stars Seems Like It's Been Around Forever
What do we see when we look? What makes us look in the first place? This book from the 1970s is a classic about what makes art and what attracts the eye. Read more
Published on Jan. 16 2002 by Bruce Appelbaum
5.0 out of 5 stars An historical document, but still fiercely relevant.
thirty years on, 'Ways of Seeing' continues to be a major primary textbook, not just for those studying or interested in fine art, but in any of the humanities from literature to... Read more
Published on Oct. 22 2001 by darragh o'donoghue
5.0 out of 5 stars It's a treasure!
This little book is about the dialetics of seeing. In a highly distilled and sweeping fashion, this book touches on the many issues that one should know about when it comes to... Read more
Published on Sept. 30 2001 by Ron
4.0 out of 5 stars The history of oligarichical damage via European painting
This is an interesting little book. It is based on a BBC television series of the same name, which I have never seen. Read more
Published on July 16 2001 by Bart Tare
5.0 out of 5 stars This book changed my life
This book is simply amazing....I can't imagine anyone not benefitting from it.
Published on July 3 2001 by "overlook1977"
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