2016 claimed many a luminary, from Prince to Muhammad Ali, Carrie Fisher to Kenny Baker. The English author, artist and art critic John Berger narrowly escaped that cursed year only to be snatched away with the arrival of the new year. He died too soon at the age of 90, but his critical mind continues to influence his successors in art history, art criticism and, yes, media literacy.
I first encountered John Berger’s “Ways of Seeing” as an assigned text for my Freshman year Intro to Art History course at Northwestern University. I didn’t know then that the book had been conceived as complement to a BBC documentary series of the same name directed by Mike Dibb—which you shouldn’t binge watch but view weekly as when it aired in 1972, allowing the ideas time to work on you between viewings. Through the book, Berger’s words didn’t just blow my mind, they ruptured my vision.
Berger taught me how to see critically. He taught me to consider not only the physical context of an artwork—its frame, its location in a museum, the adjacent works sharing the wall—but also the social, political and economic frames that shape how people experience an image. His ideas continue to inform our work at the LAMP as we show young people how to notice deeply and think critically.
Berger’s critique of gender representation in Western art applied directly to a recent “Breaking Ads” program at the Manhattan Early College School for Advertising (MECA). While exploring how advertisers target men and women differently with high school students, we traveled to the Instagram page for the fashion brand Michael Kors. There we found two adjacent images. One shows a reclining woman snapping a selfie amongst her recent purchase from the store. The other shows a serious man in motion, departing his private jet heading…somewhere important presumably. Here we see that—as Berger noted with respect to European painting—”the social presence of a woman is different in kind from that of a man.”
“Men act and women appear.”
“A woman must continually watch herself. She is almost continually accompanied by her own image of herself. Whilst she is walking across a room or whilst she is weeping at the death of her father, she can scarcely avoid envisaging herself walking or weeping. From earliest childhood she has been taught and persuaded to survey herself continually. And so she comes to consider the surveyor and the surveyed within her as the two constituent yet always distinct elements of her identity as a woman. She has to survey everything she is and everything she does because how she appears to men, is of crucial importance for what is normally thought of as the success of her life. Her own sense of being in herself is supplanted by a sense of being appreciated as herself by another….
One might simplify this by saying: men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves. The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed female. Thus she turns herself into an object—and most particularly an object of vision: a sight.”
At MECA we discussed with students how people use Instagram photos to construct a social identity: how we want to be seen by others. Brands use social media to construct a brand identity: how a brand wants to seen by consumers. In the process companies bombard viewers with images that perpetuate representations of women that are confining, limiting and harmful. Women may become objectified when rendered through the possessive male gaze. As mere objects of vision, the message reinforced is that they have no power, no agency, and no status except in relation to men. When we deconstruct advertising images and other visual media with young people, Berger’s potent ideas challenge us all to see in new ways.
In “Ways of Seeing,” Berger spoke not only of art but of advertising (publicity). So much of what he said contributes directly to LAMP’s mission of helping people critically comprehend and challenge media. 45 years later, his words remain clear and vital, revealing how advertising works and how it works on us.
A Few Salient Quotes:
John Berger, we at the LAMP salute you. Bon voyage.