Following the recent death of seminal writer and art critic John Berger, HausMag takes a look at his extraordinary influence on the art world and beyond..

In 1972, Berger wrote a revolutionary book and television series called ‘Ways of Seeing’ which disrupted society’s previous way of appreciating the visual arts. The series, which was once likened to Mao Zedong’s ‘Little Red Book for a generation of arts students’, is now considered a “landmark in British arts broadcasting and a key moment in the democratisation of art education” The Guardian, 2012.

Mars and Venus by Sandro Botticelli | Picture Courtesy of The UK National Gallery

Berger demystified the world of high art, which was previously an industry dominated by the Oxbridge elite, proving that the world of art was not just for the upper class, but something to be appreciated by all. Berger lamented on the importance of visuals in our society, providing many thought provoking questions and insights, not just on how we view art, but on how we view the world around us.

The relation between what we see and what we know is never settled. Each evening we see the sun set. We know that the earth is turning away from it. Yet the knowledge, the explanation, never quite fits the sight.

– John Berger, Ways of Seeing.

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The Judgement of Paris by Lucas Cranach the Elder | Image Courtesy of The Met Museum

The female nude in Western painting was there to feed an appetite of male sexual desire. She existed to be looked at, posed in such a way that her body was displayed to the eye of the viewer.

– John Berger, Ways of Seeing.

In Ways of Seeing, Berger encourages the audience to analyse and question great pieces of art, not just revere them. A prominent point in this documentary was Berger’s discussion on how the female form’s portrayal in classical European art can be likened to the models of modern day advertising. However, in advertising it is no longer just the lustful eyes of men looking at images of women..

This state of being envied is what constitutes glamour, and publicity is the process of manufacturing glamour.

– John Berger, Ways of Seeing.

Advertising primarily stands to make us believe that buying a product will transform us. Through marketing imagery, we are shown those who have already been transformed by it. These unobtainable models are the ones whom the industry wishes us to aspire to, an image of an underwear model, for example, can simultaneously be desired and envied by males and females alike.

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Kendal Jenner at the Victoria Secret 2016 Show | Photography Courtesy of Harper’s Bazaar

Perhaps the ultimate example of this is the iconic Victoria’s Secret Angels. A fleet of leggy supermodels, who exist as real-life advertisements. In one of the most extravagant marketing rituals in the industry, the annual Victoria’s Secret Show is the most watched fashion event on earth, drawing on average over nine million viewers from across the globe. “When you want to charge up for a product you have to sell more than just cotton underwear, what you’ve got to sell is that this will give you access to a different lifestyle.” Says Bridget Weishaar, a Senior Apparel Analyst at Morningstar.

Are the Angels on their catwalk any different to the nudes in classical paintings?

“The Angels are less static than the nudes who were passive, coyly regarding their male voyeurs. But the impact remains the same – they exist to incite desire, to embody the ideal.” Dazed Digital, 2016.

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John Berger | Image Courtesy of Verso Books

At a time when capitalism heralds it victory with a widespread obsession with money and status, an array of billionaire collectors and an unregulated art market, Berger’s idealism has never been more relevant. His intention was not to put an end to advertising, or to stop people admiring classical art. He simply prompted us to question the images around us which are becoming increasingly at the forefront of our culture. Berger’s legacy and way of thinking is of greater, if not more importance than ever.

The art of the past no longer exists as it once did. Its authority is lost. In its place there is a language of images. What matters now is who uses that language for what purpose.

John Berger, 1927-2017.

references

https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2012/sep/07/ways-seeing-berger-tv-programme-british. Accessed, January 2017.

http://www.dazeddigital.com/artsandculture/article/34166/1/why-we-still-need-ways-of-seeing-john-berger. Accessed January 2017.

http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/436037. Accessed January 2017