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. (This essay can be easily obtained in Benjamin's great collection ILLUMINATIONS, which also includes classic essays on Proust, Kafka, and Baudelaire, as well as his astonishing "Theses on the Philosophy of History.") He goes on to write about such subjects as the significance of nudity (as opposed to nakedness) in painting and the ideological use to which oil painting has been put. He ends with a marvelous discussion of the real point in advertising (which inevitably arose with the shift of all European and American nations to consumer societies).
The great virtue of this book is that Berger has a positive genius for what many of the most pertinent insights of the Frankfort school has been, and a genuine knack for presenting these ideas in a readily graspable form. The book still reads marvelously after several decades. I do think the book would benefit from a second edition with a complete revamping of the photographs. While the content of the book holds up well, the photographs often smack too much of the sixties, making the book feel more like a fragment from the past than it ought. Still, WAYS OF SEEING remains one of the finest popularizations of the past few decades, though I would hasten to add that any academic would also enjoy reading it.