Book Review: John Berger, Ways of Seeing

This book argues that painting, and today advertising and the printed image, have mucked around with how literally we see, as a conditioned act. They have done this by concealing in them ideologies that have become so ubiquitous we no longer notice them, like computers have become environmental when only a few decades ago they would've freaked anyone out.

Berger says the female nude is not naked, without clothes. She's something else, invented, not herself.  The female nude is a "convention" cooked up by painters and their patrons. She knows she's being looked at by men and she submits to their feelings or demands. "Nakedness reveals itself," explains Berger. "Nudity is placed on display."

The book - I should say tract - is rife with these sorts of claims.

On landscape painting: "They show him [the lordly European buyer of the 17th century] sights: sights of what he may possess."  And, "Oil painting, before it was anything else, was a celebration of private property."

On commercial art: "Art is a sign of affluence; it belongs to the good life; it is part of the furnishing which the world gives to the rich and beautiful."

The most powerful chapter is one on advertising. Berger looks at how advertisers have pillaged art's past for visual tropes that have primed us for sensations advertisers want, such as power, pleasure, and envy.

Ways was first published when people still said things like capitalism. While generalizations that lead to easy thinking are annoying, the book is a good thought piece. It convinced me we need a lot more visual literacy to protect ourselves.


  1. Interesting. I certainly feel visually challenged.

  2. I'd heard about this book decades ago, I think. But I've never read it. :) Anyway, I thought that the first oil paintings were done for Church clients, not for wealthy landowners. (??)


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