Why I could never agree with John Berger

Image courtesy of Verso Books

 

Berger’s ground breaking Ways of Seeing was a cultural tour de force. It remains highly relevant today. But I have never been able to agree with most of what he said.

Growing up in an outer Melbourne suburb, I was blissfully unaware of Berger whose book was published when I was about 11. What I was aware of was the painful ugliness of miles of new suburban housing and the almost visceral reaction I had to the destruction of bush, re-routing of creeks and bulldozing of apple orchards in our neighbourhood.  This left me with a life-long appreciation of beauty, and a consequent resistance to any philosophy that told me I couldn’t have it, or it didn’t exist. I had seen it, and I had seen it destroyed.

So Berger and I were never going to get along, as for him, concepts like beauty are merely conditioned responses, built into us through culture by the powerful for the purpose of control.

But I can see how he got there, and I’m going to trace it out for you – and for myself –because in a culture so awash with coercive visual imagery as ours, his ideas have a continuing but limited relevance. And because if you don’t know history, you are destined to repeat it.

What Berger confronts is how what we see relates to what actually is in the world, and as he points out it’s not a simple one-for-one relationship. In many ways we learn to see, although we are born with sight. It is this learning that he seeks to explain in Ways of Seeing.

 

He is not the first in this territory – it has been occupied by philosophers for millennia. Two schools of thought map out the ground. Firstly is the thesis that the mind is a complete blank until it is filled with information that we get through the senses. So in this scenario, you have no idea of what an object is until you encounter it- see it, feel it, and from that formulate the idea of it in your mind.  The opposing line of reasoning goes that you have ideas of what things are already, and when you meet them, you attach the perceptual data to the idea.  In this view, the idea is more important than the object, which is really just an illustration or outward form of the idea. The idea is not dependent on the object, but exists independently in your mind.

 Let’s take the object of wax (stay with me!) as an example.  If wax is really an idea, and actual wax is simply the outward form (Plato called them shadows) of that idea then we run into trouble. The problem is that wax can be solid or liquid, can adopt any shape, so how do the senses allocate it to the single idea of wax?  Surely the senses would confirm it as three separate things. There must be an idea of wax presupposing the perceptual data. There followed all sorts of arguments as to whether reality then was really ideas or actual stuff.

This was pretty much stalemate until Kant came along in the 19th century. His breakthrough was to propose that the mind wasn’t merely passive in this game – containing a pre-existing idea of wax or receiving information about an actual wax through the senses. His claim was that the mind was a player – it acted on the information from the senses to construct idea not merely to receive it or contain it.

So how does the mind act is the next question? What informs it? And this is where Berger and the cultural theorists of the 20th century come in. He proposed that the mind is filled with bias, that what we see we filter through the assumptions of a culture of which we are largely unaware, and that these are set by the ruling classes as a means of control. We are so aware now of both the psychology and visual games of the advertising industry,  that much of what Berger says has become a commonplace. And much of what he said should be kept in mind unless you want to fall prey to coercion.  My problem with Berger is not his clarion call of caution, his unveiling of the many hands seeking to hold the tiller, to steer the mind in constructing meaning from what we see. But his own bias was to assess everything in terms of power relationships and consequently politics. For Berger, as for Foucault, all relationships were about power.  For him the mind was programmed through culture. Seeing was never naive, but always interpreted through the filter of the narrative imposed by society’s upper/ruling classes.

 Which brings me back to beauty. No doubt culture informs one’s idea of it. But it’s not all secret signs and puppetmasters. Its power is as subversive as it is authoritarian – it is unallied, though widely recruited.  It remains elusive but universally longed for across class, across cultures. I hold it in my mind and find it in the world, a necessary and occasionally sufficient cause for hope.

 

ArtNews obituary: JOHN BERGER, RADICAL AND WIDE-RANGING ART CRITIC, NOVELIST, AND ESSAYIST, DIES AT 90

Link to Film series ‘Ways of Seeing’

Link to Pdf of ‘Ways of Seeing’

Alexandra Sasse

 Upcoming Exhibition April 2020