On John Berger’s Ways of Seeing

Written by Georgia Smith

Perhaps the pre-eminent work of popular art history and criticism, John Berger’s Ways of Seeing manages to retain its sublime suggestive quality several decades after its initial publication in 1972. Sharp but convivial and often magnetic, Berger’s writing on the function of art has an almost contemporary feel – a sensibility produced by an enduring fascination with aestheticism and the image. In noting traditions in European art dating from the fifteenth to the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Berger makes considered reflections upon the intersections of seeing and possessing, convention and securing status – pondering the linear relationship between glamour, dreaming, and the language of publicity. Of particular interest is Berger’s idea of nakedness and the nude as expressive of one distinctly masculine and another distinctly feminine experience or sensibility. I would like to toy with this idea of sexed embodiment as much in life as in Berger’s reading of artistic representation and its voyeuristic proclivities, pushing beyond the jaded polarity of bodily authority and objectification. 

Of the seven essays which constitute Ways of Seeing, none are titled. The first serves as a gorgeously sophisticated, yet comprehensible, introduction to debates in subjectivity and perception as they may relate to the philosophy and theory of history. To Berger, seeing is less about spontaneity than habit and convention. Opening with the statement ‘seeing comes before words’ Berger marks the act of perception as something which is consciously and culturally constructed, drawing from a past which ‘is not for living in [but] is a well of conclusions from which we draw in order to act’. Yet this act of seeing is also a subjective experience, from the point in which perspective becomes the preoccupation of Renaissance art, the eye of the beholder foregrounds subjectivity as the experience of viewing art. As Berger suggests, ‘the visible world is [then] arranged for the spectator as the universe was once thought to be arranged for God’. Art then becomes about lending meaning, reflecting something about the subject who views it. As such, the fifth essay proposes art as mystification or a function of power, an attempt at self-assurance. Representative of a continuing ‘oligarchic undemocratic culture’, Berger’s semantic choices betray early murmurs of his Marxist inclinations. A felt vacuousness characterises this form of art, one which is particularly prominent in the genre of oil painting – it represents ‘a stance towards the world’, a system of reference in which one sees oneself reflected. In fact, it ‘functions like a garment held out for the spectator-owner to put his arms into and wear’. Placed between two pictorial essays displaying the archetypes of this genre, Berger’s remark on the omnipotence of seeing is both physically and metaphysically surrounded by that which it attempts to demystify.  

The omnipotence of seeing is a theme shared with essay number seven which stands singularly, not unlike the first essay, and is too no exception to Berger’s propensity for bold claims. ‘In no other form of society in history has there been such a concentration of images, such a density of visual messages.’ Proposing in a Barthesian vein that the images of publicity act as a language or ‘set of signs’, existing as a philosophical system through which to interpret the world. One becomes a spectator-buyer. Sedating the masses by a permanent deferral to dreaming – publicity may invoke the past but speaks only of the future. A future in which, through the acquisition of the advertised we can become envied. Thus, ‘publicity is about social relations, not objects’ a set of social relations in which ‘the state of being envied is what constitutes glamour’. Glamour being, quite often, to what we all strive. To be constituted by what you own, another whispering of Berger’s latent Marxism. To Berger there is an extra element to the female experience of publicity, a woman must become ‘an object of envy for others (other women), an envy which will then justify her loving herself.’ To begin to question Berger’s poised language of and predilection for totality in his interpretation, in this case the totality of a woman’s self-love, are there other ways in which women can relate to images of publicity? Perhaps as inverting its claims to ideal femininity for political purposes or using its messages to forge new and alternative meanings? The assumptions on seeing and perceiving, spectator-owners and spectator-buyers, demonstrate the complex and many ways in which art functions to enrich and influence human experience – a fact of particular salience when one considers that the spectator, or subject, must see (or create art) only from the perspective of a sexed body.  

Whatever one decides is the relationship between art and life, it should be intimate in some form. An imitation, a sacralisation, a crude rip-off, an experiment in realism or fantasy. The vicarious quality of art as it relates to the spectator-owner and spectator-buyer speaks to a kind of consciousness that Bergers overlooks when he comes to discuss nakedness and the nude.  


  1. A tangible or visible form of an idea, quality, or feeling.  
  1. The representation or expression of something in a tangible or visible form. 

The form versus the representation of the form. The twin character of embodiment. To Berger, this symbolises the disparity in nakedness (the male experience) and in the nude (female experience). Building on Clark’s The Nude Berger posits that men act and women appear. To be naked is to be without clothes as oneself. However, to be nude is to be in a conventionalised form of dress, unrecognisable to oneself, echoing Barthes’ remark on nakedness as a form of ‘delicious terror’. For a woman is ‘not naked as she is…she is naked as the spectator sees her’ she does not signify her own feelings but only submission to the viewer. By this logic, the male sexual sensibility is practical and therefore true, the female sexual sensibility ornamental and thus not only false but something that exists only in the perception of others. The practical and ornamental distinction is perhaps no more perfectly symbolised than in the movements that sexed bodies are permitted to undertake. How many men have you seen perform burlesque? 

In the fatigued analogies of performance which constitute a lot of the thought on femininity as objectification the concern is always with the masquerade, never about the play. What about those who enjoy, or have enjoyed, being actors? What if women are lent something in the experience of being viewed which is not completely negative, an experience which can be rich and intoxicating, a luxurious experiment in that ornamental but no less potent side of female sexuality? What would it mean to not believe in voyeurism, proposing instead Berger’s own argument on the omnipotence of seeing as a natural preoccupation of human experience? Variously quoted and reproduced, Ways of Seeing is a cultural classic. Emily Ratajkowski’s recently published My Body reproduces Berger’s quotation on vanity while equally flirting with the idea of empowerment as commanding attention, a strict divergence from Berger’s brand of noting objectification and objectification only. 

One of Berger’s most startling claims lays in his view on the only instances in which women are not viewed as objects in art, this is the art in which they are the subjects of the artist’s affection – they are loved. In a culture which often observes a strict divorce between pure love and sexual desire when one claims that to be loved is the only way to be respected one etiolates the potentials of desire in its forms beyond traditional notions of love. A discourse which is particularly dangerous in a culture in which women are told their only value derives from the act of being loved. One can be loved, or one can be sexual, a subtle implication there is a choice to be made between the two.  

The unprecedented proliferation of the image is a theme which obsesses Berger. Images which we now have the power to mass create and curate ourselves, alluding to an experience beyond Berger’s initial thesis of the vicarious quality of art as simply a signifier. Now, we use our own bodies and subjectivities as modes of art, we exist to some extent as the signifier ourselves. There is something postmodern in this iteration of the idea of the body as a site of artistic expression, when we come to constitute the signifier, we embody the idea is that there is no truth, there is also no genre, no convention. In this manner, postmodernism is liberatory not cynical, not suspended in some state of embittered and perpetual cynicism but existing as an untying of oneself standard convention or should it be said way of seeing. As Berger suggests images are now ‘ephemeral, ubiquitous, insubstantial, valueless, free.’ A permanent expression of ‘an increasing consciousness of individuality’ which arises in the twentieth century.  

On a concluding note, the primary issue is perhaps the totalitarian quality of Berger’s interpretation – not all experiences or exploitations in art and life are totalities. A more fluid, or realistic, view of the contemporary image (especially as it relates to women) is as something which is often ambiguous, liable to be staged, consumed and aestheticised but more importantly something to gain pleasure from – something closer to Berger’s desire to advance ‘a total approach to art which attempts to relate it to every aspect of experience (or emotion)’ and rejects the ‘esoteric approach’ of a nostalgia ruling class in decline. A difficult claim, but maybe one should also reject this sense of seriousness in body politics. There are pleasures inherent to being viewed, being a spectator-owner and a spectator-subject, are not necessarily contradictory positions to hold. If art is to belong to the individual, it must fully account for the contradictions internal to that individuality. 


Barthes, Roland. 2009. Mythologies. London: Penguin Classics. 

Berger, John. 2008. Ways of Seeing. London: Penguin Books. 

Ratajkowski, Emily. 2021. My Body. London: Quercus.  

Featured image credit: Edouard Manet, Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe (1863). Oil on canvas. Musée d’Orsay, Paris. Accessed via Wikimedia Commons: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Edouard_Manet_-Luncheon_on_the_Grass-_Google_Art_Project.jpg.

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