Cultural Marxism: John Berger’s Ways of Seeing

An illustration of Ways of Seeing done in pencil.
Credit: Austin Kleon / Flikr.

Conceived as a riposte to Sir Kenneth Clarke’s BBC series Civilisation, John Berger’s “Ways of Seeing” is a lucid and accessible account of classical western art and an equally accessible Marxist analysis, writes Tara Brady.

The late John Berger (1926 – 2017) was a sometime soldier, scholar, poet, essayist, critic, painter and a lifelong Marxist. Upon winning the Man Booker Prize for his novel G in 1972, he announced that in protest against award namesake Booker McConnell’s historic exploitation of indentured labour in British Guiana, he would donate half his prize money to the British Black Panther Party. The other half funded A Seventh Man, his 1975 study of migrant workers.

Speaking to the BBC’s Newsnight in 2011, he said: “My reading of Marx helped me enormously to understand history, and therefore to understand where we are in history. And therefore to understand what we have to envisage as a future, thinking about human dignity and justice.”

Arguably Berger remains best known for his landmark four-part 1972 BBC television series Ways of Seeing. Conceived, in part, as a riposte to Sir Kenneth Clark’s earlier BBC series Civilisation, Berger’s arguments, which were later collected in a book of the same name, make for a lucid and accessible account of classical western art and an equally accessible Marxist analysis. It’s more entertaining than such a project has any right to be, as Berger confers with ordinary women and plays games and conducts fun little experiments with the audience. Against this, there is heft to his arguments. 

Drawing on Marxist philosopher Walter Benjamin’s essay “Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”, Berger questions the mystification of classical art, noting how the democratic availability of the reproduced image is frequently undercut by inaccessible text. To counter this effect, he invites London school children to pour over a Carravaggio. 

While Berger acknowledges that the “uninterrupted silence and stillness of a painting can be very striking”, the aura that we, as viewers, bestow on an artwork is connected to a paintings function as “the final empty claim of the continuing values of an oligarchic, undemocratic culture”. The veiled language of the art catalogue adds a further layer of remove but inaccessibility is precisely the point of western art. Oil paintings have always been the preserve of the privileged capitalist class. For the form’s 500-year history, oil paintings exist as testimony and tribute to the wealth of their owners. The age of photographic reproduction may make an image once painted by Goya or Da Vinci more accessible, but it simultaneously makes the original work valuable because it is an original. 

“The meaning of the original work no longer lies uniquely in what it says but in what it uniquely is. It is defined as an object whose value depends on its rarity,” says Berger.

This glorification of capital continues in contemporary commercials. The advertising sector manufactures an enviable hypothetical future with product x, making the choice to not buy product x seem inconceivable. It’s another score for private ownership. 

The most revolutionary notion outlined in Ways of Seeing is Berger’s Marxist-feminist takedown of how women are depicted in classical art. The seminal second episode begins: “Men dream. Women dream of being dreamt of. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at.”

Placing images of the classical “nude” in Western painting beside women in advertisements, and what, in quaint 1970s parlance he calls “girlie magazines”, Berger denounces women’s lack of agency in both art and in society:  “You paint a naked woman because you enjoyed looking at her. Put a mirror in her hand, and you call the painting Vanity, thus morally condemning the woman whose nakedness you had depicted for your own pleasure.”

Won’t someone please hack the next season of Celebrity Love Island for a Ways of Seeing rerun?