The Ways of Seeing
Against Kenneth Clark,
for John Berger

by Peter Steven

from Jump Cut, no. 20, May 1979, pp. 7-8
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1979, 2005

"Are you civilised? Have you been civilised lately? If so stick this picture of Kenneth Clark to your living room window." — Monty Python

The fact that Kenneth Clark is well known in England and North America as author of the BBC series Civilisation makes such a joke possible. [1] People here knew little of the Marxist art critic John Berger. I believe his work deserves a better fate. So, just as the studios and the agents push and advertise their information, I wish to recommend John Berger to those working toward a radical criticism of capitalist culture. Although I will be concentrating here on the film series THE WAYS OF SEEING, Berger deserves recognition for a number of other projects, indicating a great diversity of interests. Since 1958, he has written four novels and seven other works, dealing with painters, sculptors, an English country doctor, and a group of migrant workers in Geneva. [2] He now lives in Switzerland and has collaborated with Alain Tanner on three film scripts (LA SALAMANDER, MIDDLE OF THE EARTH, and JONAH WHO WILL BE 25 IN THE YEAR 2000).

One profitable contact I have had with Berger's work involved a seminar at Northwestern University in which the participants screened and discussed his THE WAYS OF SEEING. Berger wrote and produced this series of four programs for broadcast on the BBC in 1972. The four parts each run thirty minutes and rent separately or together (in the U.S. from Time/Life; in Canada from the BBC in Toronto).

Each program deals with one topic. The first examines the relations between the traditions of Western oil painting and the modern mass media. The second program looks in detail at one particular aspect of the tradition — the treatment of women — and examines the genre of the nude, from the depiction of Adam and Eve in medieval art to the displays of nudity in the girly magazines. The links are greater between these two case studies than one might think. In the third part Berger discusses a number of forms, techniques, and conventions in the history of oil painting, which, he says, developed between the 15th and 20th centuries, and coincided with the rise and decline of the bourgeoisie as an historical force. The final program deals with the issue of advertising; advertising as the production of glamour and the manipulation of wish-fulfillments.

If the general outlines of the series and the topics sound familiar, somewhat like another Kenneth Clark production, the comparison is apt, and Berger deliberately intends it. [3] Not only are the topics and the forms of discourse similar in Civilisation and THE WAYS OF SEEING, but Berger, to make his position clear, refers a number of times to the arguments of professional art historians, including Clark. In one of the strongest moments of the series, Berger uses the analysis of the paintings of Franz Hals (a Flemish artist, contemporary to Rembrandt, known for his magnificent group portraits, 1580-1666) by a prominent art historian to illustrate the way in which the cultural "expert" goes about setting up barriers between the work of art and the ordinary viewer — all in the name of a "correct and subtle" interpretation. By juxtaposing the actual paintings and the analysis of the expert, Berger points out explicitly what the term mystification refers to when applied to culture. Berger maintains in this sequence that the art historian who sets him/her self up as an expert seems to fear a direct contact between the viewer and the work. The expert fears that a powerful statement made by the painter, and perhaps still applicable today, will be read too directly by the "naïve" viewer and not appreciated for its "universal" and formal artistic value.

But I do not wish to recapitulate Berger's arguments — since in a really fundamental way, as in all good film, there are important interrelations (extremely difficult to verbalize) among sounds, dialogue, and image. These relations are the topic of the first film. I wish instead to recap some of the issues which arose in the discussions at Northwestern in the hope that they will be of interest to those who have seen the films, and to encourage others to see them.

I especially liked the ways in which the Berger films attempted to differ in presentation from the Clark series. These differences in technique divide roughly into two broad categories. First is the presentation of the argument in the film. In this aspect, the role of the narrators (Clark and Berger) and the manner of exposition (by direct or indirect address) predominates. Second, another set of questions centers around Berger's attempts to integrate the Brechtian and formal modernist's arguments for reflexivity.


Anyone who has seen the Civilisation series is familiar with the settings in which Clark presents and illustrates his argument. At one moment the narrator-expert sits in his book-lined study overlooking some spacious English university gardens, and the next moment we find him in front of the Parthenon or whispering of stained glass in a gothic church. In this hopping around, always one step behind the narrator, there is very little room for the viewer to develop a direct response to the works: just as there is no room to think about the way in which the images and words are re-presenting themselves through the TV and film apparatus.

Berger, on the other hand, presents himself casually dressed and standing in what is obviously a studio. He even has the camera draw back to illustrate the effect which a long shot would have in the communication of his arguments. I think that "argument" is an applicable word to use here, for Berger takes pains to point out that there are a number of ways of interpreting the art of the last 500 years — that there is certainly not one single tradition or way of seeing. He presents himself as one who has considered these problems of art history and capitalist culture, a person who has something to argue and has knowledge to back up his interpretations. But he does not present himself as the expert who will place himself between the work and viewer, the guardian and interpreter of the tradition. There is a certain honesty related to the form of direct address which is applicable here, for if one is speaking about the selection and arrangement of the words and images, it seems best to remind the audience where these interpretations are coming from. In THE WAYS OF SEEING the viewer always knows the context in which the images are being used. Even when certain paintings are shown silent, allowing them to work directly, visually, the way they were originally intended, one never gets the feeling that the meanings are fixed, standing as examples in the constant progress of civilisation.

In some kinds of indirect address, in which various well-known images present themselves, one gets the feeling that the series can only signify one interpretation, one narrative. In fact, however, as Berger makes clear, these paintings can be seen in other ways than the tradition has suggested. The spectator can reclaim the works as criticisms of the society in which they were produced. For example, the genre of the nude in Western painting reflects not simply the Renaissance delight in the human body — Humanism — but a particular manifestation of patriarchal society in which the male patron is given an artistic form in which to contemplate the female body, a painted body which he alone possesses.

Yet, the tradition is not monolithic and contains within it the possibility of a non-sexist way of looking Certain works by Rubens and Rembrandt, for example, stand apart from the general impulse of the genre by the way in which they alter the relation between the woman depicted and the intended viewer. There is an undercutting of the viewer as voyeur and, as in many Eastern traditions, a portrayal of the woman as active, not simply an artistic form in which to contemplate the female body, a painted body which he alone possesses. Yet the tradition is not monolithic and contains within it the possibility of a non-sexist way of looking. Certain works by Rubens and Rembrandt, for example, stand apart from the general impulse of the genre by the way in which they alter the relation of the woman depicted and the intended viewer. There is an undercutting of the viewer as voyeur and, as in many Eastern traditions, a portrayal of the woman as active, not simply an artistic form.

Midway through the second program, Berger states that he feels uncomfortable analyzing images of women without asking women themselves how they perceive the images. He then abandons his direct mode of address and launches into an in-studio discussion with several women. He nevertheless remains the moderator and asks a number of specific questions. Many people I have talked to feel that this discussion weakens the series. That observation should be taken seriously; the problem has implications for many types of documentary. The women make several interesting and significant points — significant since they certainly do not merely reiterate Berger's reasoning. However, the discussion is difficult to follow on first viewing and seems rather flat compared to the other films. My feeling is that the change of pace in mode of presentation, from direct to indirect address, leads to difficulties for the average viewer. The shift from a constant variety of visual imagery, presided over by a male narrator, to such a strong does of intellectual conversation may be too demanding. It's a lesson worth remembering for the political documentarist who wants to hold his/her audience.

To summarize my argument: In the mixture of direct and indirect address as used by Clark, the images are made to look as if they are carrying the argument, when in fact, of course, they are merely illustrating the argument. This sleight-of-hand is achieved even though the narrator (Clark) is constantly explaining and talking over what the spectator sees. In Berger's use of narration, there are more chances to observe the paintings directly. At the same time the audience is always aware that the images have been selected as a particular section of Berger's argument. I have stated my difficulties with the group discussion in Berger's second film. It seems likely that the problem lies with Berger's use of indirect address at that point in the film and not with what the women are saying. However, the change in mode of address is at least indicative of a valuable attempt on Berger's part to experiment with the film itself as a means of communication — a desire to have the audience experience his point of view consciously, actively. As in all decent teaching or communication of any material, there must be a constant struggle with the mode of presentation as well as the content. This is the basis for a search for a reflective cinema.


THE WAYS OF SEEING deals explicitly with the conventions and uses of the mass media and thus provides a direct example of reflexive cinema. Berger discusses the role of art galleries, the effects of cheap mass production of images, the properties of oil paint and color photography, and the notions of originality, authenticity, etc., as applied to the mass media. He illustrates how easily the media can manipulate for its own purposes the silence of oil paintings by placing them in various contexts. A person can change the meanings of the paintings by isolating details in various sequences (as in narrative), by surrounding them with different types of music, etc. This could be fascinating and subversive stuff if shown on TV.


The films not only experiment in manner of presentation but mark a radical departure in terms of content. Though they undoubtedly would have immediate impact in the teaching of art history — the arguments would amount to complete heresy in most university departments — I also see an important use for them in film study.

Berger argues that the tradition of Western painting since the Renaissance needs examination as a whole, particularly in its close connections with the rising fortunes of the bourgeoisie and its world view. In the broadcast sense he attempts in his painting criticism what Lukács was doing with the traditions of the novel. The crucial questions for the Marxist relate to the ways in which the socialist future will have to deal with the bourgeois cultural forms of the past, the elements which can be profitably retained for the benefit of all and the elements which must be discarded. This in some senses is quite an orthodox Marxist cultural analysis.

Berger departs from many of the old-left critics and most art historians because of his interest in the relations between the medium of oil painting itself and the subjects which are depicted, by that medium, in that tradition. He emphasizes the possibilities, only realized by the use of oil pigments, in achieving verisimilitude. The realism of textures and appearance, created in the technique of oil painting, links closely to a desire for possession of objects.

Aside from the economic questions of the oil painting as an exchange value in the market, Berger's arguments parallel one strain of recent film theory in France. Since the early '70s the journal Cahiers du cinéma has featured an ongoing debate about the relations between film technology and ideology. [5] The main participants in this discussion have based their arguments on Pierre Francastel's writings on post-Renaissance painting, which place a great deal of importance on the system of one-point perspective. [6] Berger also takes this as his starting point. In this formal system of perspective, all the elements within the painting seem to converge in the eye of the viewer. As Berger puts it:

"It is like a beam from a lighthouse — only instead of light traveling outwards, appearances travel in. The conventions called those appearances 'reality.' Perspective makes the single eye the centre of the visible world." (Ways of Seeing, 1972, p. 16)

Thus the main argument put forward by Berger, Francastel (and his followers in film criticism) offers an overall reading of the post-Renaissance visual arts, culminating in a condemnation of the aesthetic of realism, which, they argue, is an ideological manifestation of the bourgeois way of viewing the world.

Interestingly, the two interpretations differ on the impact of photography in this development. Baudry, Comolli, and Oudart state that the photograph, as used in film narrative, and set in continuous motion by the projection apparatus, simply continues the traditions established with Renaissance perspective, implying that ideology is inseparable from the technology. In contrast, Berger, following the positions expounded by Walter Benjamin in the 1930s, sees very strongly the possibilities for a break between painting and photography. [7] Because of the mechanical reproduction of many copies, photography renders obsolete the aura of an original artwork, which is situated in one place and organized visually to be completed by a single viewer. I must emphasize that Berger is speaking mainly about the still photograph (though he does draw on the argument of Vertov in MAN WITH A MOVIE CAMERA). The Cahiers writers immediately add that even given the element of discontinuity possible in still photographs, the projection apparatus reintroduces the impression of a complete and continuous realism. There is the root of a significant difference in the two interpretations.

A close comparison of Berger's position and the Cahiers' discussions is not possible here but I should sketch in what I perceive to be the main points of contention.

First, Berger is mainly interested in the new way photography has altered our perception of paintings, including those works produced before the advent of photography. The French writers wish primarily to study "Classical Hollywood Realism" and have searched for a theoretical basis and historical precedent in early types of representation (primarily Renaissance perspective). For everyone involved with these questions the movement from painting to cinema depends to a large extent on the "intermediate" status (theoretically and historically) of the still photograph. It seems important not to collapse any of the three media into the others.

Second, Berger states:

"Every drawing or painting that used perspective proposed to the spectator that he/she was the unique centre of the world. The camera — and more particularly the movie camera — demonstrated that there was no centre." (Ways of Seeing, p. 18)

According to Baudry it would seem that Berger is insufficiently aware of the camera lens — that the camera and its lens were designed to reproduce the system of perspective. [8]

Third, Berger dwells on the notion of aura — the fact that original oil paintings established, via perspective, the illusion of a timeless image and a unique spectator. The breakdown of an aura surrounding a work could lead to a broadening of the knowledge and enjoyment of art.

The Cahiers people work on the notion of representation (especially realism). Realism establishes, via perspective, not so much a timeless image as the need for a spectator to organize the space within the work, what Baudry calls the "transcendental subject." Baudry and others tend to see a continuation of realism and its related ideology carrying on from unique works of art into mechanical reproductions.

Fourth, Berger does not speak about ideology, but he certainly equates the dominance of the bourgeoisie with a minority culture and dominant way of viewing the world. He sees the photograph and other types of mechanical reproduction as the possible means of broadening the basis of culture and demystifying the aura of the art object.

The Cahiers writers have taken great pains to elaborate the many particular manifestations of bourgeois ideology, stressing that it permeates all levels of artistic production and consumption, including technology and the scientific laws which technology utilizes. The first program in THE WAYS OF SEEING most forcefully presents Berger's argument. It invites comparison with, and could clarify, the important work being done by the French.

The argument came up at the Northwestern seminar that Berger was not really talking about art but only about the art market. His broad survey of painting seemingly could never do justice to the masterpieces of the tradition. This view cannot be sustained. In fact, if I were to make any criticism of Berger's analysis, I would say that he overly emphasizes the distinction between generic conventions of paintings and the masterpieces, and at times seems to fall back on the notions of the great artist standing above the rest. The contention that Berger is not talking about art is also weak in that it neglects the absolutely fundamental relations between the art market, the role of patronage, and the works of art produced. For instance, the very strong tradition of the formal portrait should be enough to indicate the relation between genres and market for which such objects were intended.

I have often heard it said that the public broadcasting system in the U.S. and the C.B.C. in Canada crave all things produced by the B.B.C. for export. It is interesting to note that this particular series has never been screened — actually it's not that surprising — and in a way its rejection by the networks indicates the challenging content and manner of presentation.

Of all Berger's work, THE WAYS OF SEEING has the most to offer and deserves the most attention by people working in film, especially those engaged in teaching. We should try to convince the networks to air these films to gain as wide a circulation as possible, but in the meantime I urge all film students to screen and discuss John Berger's valuable work.


1. Clark is easily the best-known art historian in the English speaking world. His publications include: The Nude (1956), Looking at Pictures (1960), Ruskin Today (1964), Civilisation (1969).

2. Berger has published the following: numerous articles in the New Statesman; the novels Painter in Our Time (1958), Foot of Clive (1962), Corkers Freedom (1964), G (1972); nonfiction Permanent Red (1960), Success and Failure of Picasso (1965), A Fortunate Man (1967), Art and Revolution (1969), The Look of Things (1972), Ways of Seeing (1972), A Seventh Man (1975). WHY LEGER (BBC Film, 1965).

3. There are a number of BBC productions in the same format as Clark's Civilisation, all of which have been seen on TV, in galleries, etc., a number of times. The best known are: Alistair Cooke's America (1972) and Jacob Bronowski's The Ascent of Man (l973).

4. Bill Nichols has developed the theoretical framework in which the categories of direct and indirect address apply in documentary. See: "Documentary Theory and Practice" Screen 17:4; "New From California Newsreel" JUMP CUT 17; and "Fred Wiseman's Documentaries: Theory and Structure" Film Quarterly 3,1:3.

5. The main participants are these: Jean-Louis Comolli, Jean-Louis Baudry, Jean-Pierre Oudart, Pascal Bonitzer (all associated mainly with Cahiers du Cinéma) and Jean-Patrick Lebel whose influential Cinéma et idéologie (Paris, 1971) attacks many of the "Cahiers positions" from the perspective of the French CP.

6. For a lucid summary of these issues and debates see James Spellerberg, "Technology and Ideology in the Cinema," Quarterly Review of Film Studies 2:3.

7. See in particular Benjamin's essay, "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" in Illuminations (New York: Schocken, 1969).

8. Spellerberg, p. 289.