University of Hertfordshire
Research and Enquiry, Fall 2016
© 2016 by Jamie Tobias
A Critical Analysis of Ways of Seeing
By: Jamie Tobias
I have chosen pages 11-16 from Ways of Seeing by John Berger. This is a extended excerpt because the physical book size is small, and illustrated with about three page of images. Five different writers have collaborated on expanding and elaborating on the ideas of the television series, Ways of Seeing. This television show set a foundation for what these writers say, as well as how they say it. Ways of Seeing contains arguments about the theory of what we see in the surrounding world while exploring the gap between how we associate this ‘world’ with words. John Berger organises these thoughts through several different essays containing words and images. This paper will analyse Berger’s philosophies and arguments presented, I will evaluate the accuracy and quality of his assumptions. I chose this segment to analyse because it introduces me to concepts that drive Berger’s narrative. One of my goal as a filmmaker is to mystify viewers. Mystification is explaining away what might otherwise be evident. Berger demonstrates his understanding of mystification by highlighting Frans Hals consciousness in his painting included on pages 12 and 14. Mystification is important because it allows artists to stay committed to personal vision, hence, provide a clear perspective of the way things are seen.
“When an image is presented as a work of art, the way people look at it is affected by a whole series of learnt assumptions about art” (Berger, 2008). When we hear the word ‘Art’, we can suggest that it consists of beauty, truth, genius, civilization, form, status, taste, and so on. This is based on what we have learned in the surrounding word, but, Art never really has a “look”. Art is the state of consciousness in association with fact of what was. From here Berger introduces the term ‘mystification’ through a painting by Frans Hals. Hals was an old destitute painter who spent most of his life in debt. The book presents a page of two images of sitters. “The author records these facts and then explicitly says it would be incorrect to read into the paintings any criticism of the sitters” (Berger, 2008). Hals explains how lack of evidence plays it role in how we associate words with the things that we see. This is parallel to the act of mystification.
Berger argues that images seduce us in a way that can be associated with direct judgement. He implies that seduction is a total success, but also proves how improper judgement can destroy the intended goal of seduction. Berger mentions how mystification gets little influence from the vocabulary used. “If we can see the present clearly enough, we shall ask the right questions of the past” (Berger, 2008). In the last phase of this section, Berger summarises how perspective emerges with time, hence, mystify the past. This is an effect of developing technology.
According to Berger, what we see is a matter of perspective. Based on the paintings by Hals, we (readers and viewers) are challenged with terms that attempt to prove mystification as correct. “…There is evidence of the paintings themselves: the evidence of a group of men and a group of women as seen by another man, the painter” (Berger, 2008). Berger infers that we make judgement of the personality traits of who is presented in the images. While this affects the intended purpose of a work, this inference does not support how it mystifies the past.
Firstly, Berger suggests that fear of the present mystifies the past. Although I understand Berger’s concern about for the mystification of images, I disagree with extent of his concern. The emergence of technology is inevitable so there is no one to blame for the misinterpretation of images, meaning, and understanding. “If we ‘saw’ art of the past, we would situate ourselves in history” (Berger, 2008). I believe that the development of technology does not affect the fact that numerous assumptions will be made of art, rather you are of the past, or present. Although a scene correlates to a specific time, place, and subject, deprivation of history does not mystify the past.
Regarding the images of the Regents and Regentesses of the Old Men’s Alms House, the passage suggests that if there was a written statement on the images, the will be an influence on emotion towards the paintings. Replication abolishes the uniqueness, hence, meaning and intention of the original image changes.
Berger argues that it is reasonable to consider a paintings composition. The issue with is the lack of evidence to make such judgement on composition. Art of the past will always be mystified because aside from the artist, no one will truly know the intention of work aside from the ones present in that time.
This critical analysis has evaluated the book Ways of Seeing by John Berger. I am impressed by how Berger presented his theories by questioning how history is mystified. I also support Bergers attempt to use the past as a direct reference to explain his argument in how technology has put art in a position to be mystified. Ways of Seeing gives me a heightened appreciation of art. However, I believe that this work is weakened in the aspect of providing a lack of open-mindedness towards the result of someone from the now-generation having an open mind to potential of artwork of the past. Consequentially, Berger’s assumption of developing technology also mystifies, because it will be viewed as incorrect judgement of the past.