Ways of Seeing was a BBC television series consisting of visual essays that raise questions about hidden ideologies in visual images. The series gave rise to a later book of the same name written by John Berger.
It would be easy to say that Ways of Seeing is hopelessly dated -- made in 1972, the films come across as a puritan-groovy mix of Monty Python, the Open University and the Look Around You spoofs. And yet what's so remarkable about this series is that it seems more apposite, subversive and thought-provoking than ever. The Britain we glimpse in the films, already alienated by spooky BBC Radiophonic Workshop music by Delia Derbyshire, is alienated even more by the passing of time. Alienated usefully, in the Brechtian sense; we look at a capitalist society which is like, and unlike, our own.
One way our own society is unlike 1972 is in the fact that, despite the enormous plethora of TV and internet TV we have now, nobody has made anything quite like this. In art history, the treatment of women's bodies, in our relationship with objects and property and in advertising (the themes of the four films) the same mystifications and objectifications and manipulations carry on. What doesn't carry on is analysis of them on this level.
Sure, there are a thousand media studies courses out there. But several things have happened since Ways of Seeing was made. Firstly, Western societies have swung right; they're much less resisting of the capitalist beast -- much more infused with its values -- than they were in 1972. There's very little actually-existing socialism now, and perhaps globalisation has also eroded national differences quite a bit in the thirty-six years since the series was made. Secondly, postmodernism has made it much more difficult to critique popular culture now. Ways of Seeing is not just a Marxist take on representation, but a late Modernist one, informed by Benjamin, Barthes, Brecht.
Berger's authority here is a moral and poetic one, though, and he's at pains throughout to make us question the authority of commentarists seen and unseen, question the use of music and context in media, look at editing, make our own ethical juxtapositions (an ad for an aperitif next to images of refugees). There's a wonderful moment in the first episode where he mocks the commentary in a recently-published book about Caravaggio (it jumps straight from tediously specific formalist analysis to talk about "the human spirit" with nothing in between) then takes it to a group of schoolchildren, who immediately spot the epicene ambiguity of the central figures in the paintings -- who spot, in other words, that Caravaggio was gay. Berger also takes a group portrait by Franz Hals of some benefactors who saved Hals from starvation by feeding him, and reads out a formalist commentary critiquing the poor composition. I can't think of an art series since which has dared to criticize other art critics so directly, and so systematically.
The second episode, about the female nude, has some particularly troublesome and interesting things to say about structural narcissism ("men dream of women, women dream of themselves being dreamt of"), the difference between nakedness and nudity, and the institutionalised misogyny deep in our culture -- the tendency of men to desire women and simultaneously blame them for provoking that desire. Berger traces this back to the biblical tale of the expulsion from Eden. There's a great discussion at the end with a group of highly articulate women, including the writer Eva Figes. Episode three is about oil paintings, their relationship with saleable objects and property, and their fate as saleable property, valuable for depicting objects of value. And the last episode -- for me the most compelling -- is about advertising and envy.
I actually find it rather disturbing that -- despite our claims to be a culture that's increasing freedom of choice all the time -- we haven't come up with anything quite as astute, subversive or beautiful as Ways of Seeing since. Not on the BBC, and not even -- especially not -- on the internet.
I think this is still the most intelligent glance television -- a medium, ostensibly, about looking, but actually very bad at looking intelligently at looking -- has ever cast on the act of looking.