Ways of Seeing: John Berger on the Small Screen

Rhythm Circus magazine

A interview with Dr. Jonathan Conlin, curator of BFI season on John Berger and film, for Rhythm Circus magazine

Forty years ago a man walked up to Botticelli's Venus and Mars, and with a knife deliberately cut out Venus' face into a neat square. An act of vandalism, and one that was carried out on behalf of the BBC. This was the very first scene in Ways of Seeing, a four part documentary questioning the 'assumptions usually made about the history of European painting.

The man was John Berger, and if the topic sounds dry and dull, well in his hands it isn't in the slightest. Berger was also the man cutting the (reproduction of the) Botticelli, and following that shot we see a printing press whirring in motion churning out copy after copy of that crop of Venus' head. Only then was cut to the title card telling people what it is they're watching - this introduction probably shook up the watching BBC audience at home, but equally it shook up the way of considering and discussing art and has left a legacy which still affects our approaches today.

Rhythm Circusdiscussed Ways of Seeing with Dr. Jonathan Conlin, the curator of an upcoming season at the BFI looking at John Berger's history of small screen broadcasting. He pointed out that with today's thematically programmed channels the serendipity of happening across such a programme accidentally doesn't happen, and due to the vast choice of channels viewers simply switch over if it's not something they think they want. In 1972 there wasn't that choice, and it could be largely due to this that Ways of Seeing has become such a key television moment and has stuck with a whole generation and more.

Ways of Seeing was aired as a response to the hugely popular, and recently remastered into HD, Civilisation - a thirteen part mega-series by Kenneth Clark covering Western art, architecture and philosophy from the Dark Ages through to contemporary work. Berger's work doesn't attempt to introduce us to the entirety of produced work, as Civilisation did, but instead introduce a new framework for looking at artwork, using that first episode to explain how the modern mechanical and reproducing age has completely changed how one engages with artworks and the produced image.

That episode pulled out fragments of Walter Benjamin's The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproductionand he went on to explore we see art through a Marxist, feminist and thoroughly modern outlook. The last programme in the series concerned photography and Berger's belief that it had taken over from oil painting as a medium, though has twisted the rationale of the work from one that reflects the status and reality of the commissioner in the oil painting to that of projecting an idealised potential to the consumer who devours photographic images in publicity and media.

Jonathan Conlin talks about this idealised potential as the “other place of deferred pleasure, the dream”. Talking over images of perfume advertising, Berger talks about advertising playing upon the fear of undesirability but consoling with the promise of a dream. The film then cuts to “the working lives the very people the dream addresses” who are behind the dream in the perfume factory carrying out their repetitive tasks packaging the “dream” on the perfume production line. Conlin expresses surprise that the perfume manufacture, Yardley, allowed the cameras into their factory and no doubt a company in 2012 would be a lot more savvy.

This concept of how the image is disseminated and understood is fundamental to Berger's thoughts, and Conlin has no doubt that the National Gallery would not not allow Gainsborough's painting of the Andrews appear with a “no trespassers” sign drawn over the top as it does during Berger's descriptions of oil paintings serving to display ownership and wealth - though points out that the same gallery has been happy to license the image to sell Dunhill cigarettes and Renault cars.

As the first in the strand of Broadcasting the Artsthe BFI Jonathan Conlin has curated a programme of four evenings on John Berger and his television output straddling decades of the last century. It remains to be seen what other examples and TV output will form future editions of the strand, but Conlin believes that in recent times art programmes on TV don't contain the directness and power of the classics of Kenneth Clark and John Berger. He believes they can become overwhelmed with the romantic figure of the artist who lives and suffers for their work, the rebel fighting for their vision, or the madman in a garret with no help but to create, when what Ways of Seeing did was to articulate what it meant to see art and how our brains read it, and in the case of Civilisation that it is innate and natural for mankind to create, to make - encouraging messages and ones which help articulate and convey messages of art and not obfuscate it in drama.

In an age of mass media, where everyone has an opinion what is the role of the critic? Jonathan Jones, art critic for the Guardian, asked as much in a recent article underneath which there was 100 comments suggesting why he shouldn't be one, or thanking him for articulating his thoughts. John Conlin believes the role of the critic is to create a public and help provide a language for discussion and understanding. Berger certainly works at providing that language and framework, and while it is a personal reading it is, nonetheless, informative and thought provoking.

Berger intended to put out into the mainstream a new way of looking and considering art, place and the self, using these tools and ideas. It set in place a foundation of acceptance to dialogue with contemporary art and the introduction of philosophies and theoretical ideas into the reading of artwork. Sometimes it hit home in a more subtle way too, Jonathan Conlin said that while carrying out research on Ways of Seeing he came across the minutes of a BBC formal review following the programme. One of those at the meeting said that he was thinking about the programme while in the bath one day, and couldn't make up his mind if he was naked or nude...


Ways of Seeing: John Berger on the Small Screen - the first of the new BFI Strand,Broadcasting the Arts, is at BFI Southbank from 3rd to 17th April.