John Berger’s “Ways of Seeing” in the digital age classroom

Ways of Seeing: BBC’s classic production, released in 1972, nearly 50 years ago, presciently helps us appreciate the nature of our digital age world, by exploring the cultural inheritances in the west that have shaped our views.

A terrific educational resource, with clearly articulated and accessible arguments and insights, teachers can easily adopt and adapt Berger’s techniques and re-produce his oil painting examples in their own classrooms. The work culminates in a study of media literacy, and we’re led to understand where many of our ideas about publicity, celebrity, and advertising originate. Teachers should obviously review the documentary’s content before classroom use, as parts of it may be challenging viewing for younger or sensitive audiences. (ie. There are nudes.) Other parts of the work may need some gentle framing to assist student’s understanding (ie. discussions of gender identity in the works of Caravaggio, the general treatment of women, and the impact of colonialism). As the arguments are clearly structured and well-organised however, it would be easy to show excerpts to a class. My review of each episode below highlights some of the content, my thoughts and ideas that teachers might find interesting, and areas that might be useful to the digital age classroom experience. Teachers of all areas will find the work interesting, but it could be especially useful in Art, History, Media, and English Language Arts classrooms. The work is broadly accessible, and widely available on YouTube. There was also a book later released, based on the series.

Episode 1

The passion to help us understand the ways in which our perception of the world is increasingly shaped by the media around us looms large in the opening episode of Berger’s presentation. With the benefit of half a century’s hindsight (the show debuted in 1972), its refreshing to know that many of the challenges we face now were not unthinkable, or even entirely novel, fifty years ago. We can find our place as citizens of a digital age world at the end of a long evolution of media development.

Berger demonstrates the helplessness of image and the easy way in which image can be de-contextualised. It’s highly pertinent to digital age life. But I think its also useful for teachers to know that this insight can also be found in the pages of Plato’s Phaedrus. While Berger doesn’t make this connection in the tv series, it’s a great point to get students thinking about just how far back our relationship with image manipulation goes.

Berger’s strength is in putting the art before us, and demonstrating the various ways that it can be manipulated by allowing us to experience it first hand. It’s difficult not to be struck by the concept of “memes” that identifies itself so readily, and by Berger’s insistence that this is naturally expected in the media realm of transmittable art. His exercise in zooming into paintings, showing only a portion of them, or putting them to music will be appreciated by digital age students.

Our inclination to devalue our own experience is at the heart of Berger’s concerns. The language in which art experts have dressed the appreciation of ideas made image has, in Berger’s words, mystified art. Again, teachers could draw parallels to other historical figures, like the great knowledge democratiser William Buchan, whose critically important 18th century work “Domestic Medicine” opens with a cry to de-mystify medicine, lest the general public find themselves swindled by quackery. So too, Berger appeals to this need to place confidence into the hands of the public by de-mystifying the artistic interpretive experience. There is a hint here of arguments to come, when Berger suggests that there is a financial motivation locked in this need for mystification. (Buchan said the same thing.) Berger validates your experience, while simultaneously pushing you to dig deeper into meaning, and that’s important empowerment for learners.

Finally, Berger shows a piece of art to a group of young school children. You think, at last, here is a gap in his argument, for without the appropriate grounding and context, the children do not seem to really understand what they are looking at. Some of the children allude to the content of the painting (that it might be a picture of Jesus at the last supper) but broadly they cannot come to agreement on the subject’s gender, let alone its message, making what appear to be unconnected observations about underlying sexual tensions between the subjects. Just when you think this whole exercise might be a waste of time, Berger cleverly pulls the rug out from under you, and explains how the children’s direct observations demonstrate an even greater understanding of the nature of the artist and the work. There’s a conversation on gender identity to be had here, on our narrow perceptions, social acceptability, and how we communicate who we are.

The only thing that is perhaps more astonishing, is the revelation at the end of the episode, that “many of the ideas in this programme were first outlined in an essay in 1936 by the German writer Walter Benjamin”. Having opened the show with clips from Dziga Vertov’s 1923 manifesto, we are afforded a sense of the rich history of image that underpins our current digital experience and reminded that our current digital age challenges are not so divided from our past.

Teachers be aware, there are nudes, and the scenes used in relation to Goya’s work may be difficult viewing.

Episode 2

Opens with a sobering discussion of women and powerlessness. The art of the nude, and revelations about the differing self-perceptions of men and women make up the first half of the program. Because there are nudes, it will depend on your school’s approach and the maturity level of your students, how much of this you use in the classroom, but there are important insights about how studying nudes tells us the history and justifications used in the objectification of women. There are a lot of quotes that students will easily be able to relate to and engage with, and even hearing audio clips, or sharing a few quotes, will have impact on students.

Berger then does a rather revolutionary thing. After the first half of the program, he gets a group of women together, and asks them what they think. The second half of the program belongs to a female discussion group, who have just been shown the first half of the program and asked to give their thoughts. It’s the same mechanism he uses with the children in the first episode, canvassing opinions to help you appreciate your own power in perceiving art. His group is well-chosen, and the insights are fascinating.

You almost forget that Berger is there. Close ups feature the women as they speak and it’s only the occasional interjection to elicit further detail that reminds you Berger is present, smoking a cigarette and listening ardently. This is the scholarly pursuit of active listening, and its nice to see it modeled. (Again, for those working in classroom where cigarettes cannot be shown on screen, you will have to be aware.)

Here again, there are startling digitally relevant issues to discuss. The oversexualization of the portrayal of females, and narcissism make feature appearances, but with interesting differences to what you might expect. Photographs are described as closer to real (perhaps not surprising at a time before too much digital editing took hold) while paintings are identified as manipulating the female form. There’s a tacit implication, on reflecting about what we now know, that the manipulation of the female form as a means of pleasing men and disempowering woman not only reaches back historically, but also reaches forward. That is, once it is possible to digitally alter photographs, the formation and distribution of ridiculous norms about the female form find a new channel of distribution, and we’re left wondering if the inevitability of disempowering women in this way will ever stop.

There’s a second insight here too, about Narcissism. Far from the digital age terror of being called narcisstic, these women suggest the self-delight and opportunity to make contact with the world that it offers, as well as identifying the painful feelings of inadequacy that it brings about. There’s something reflective of Dr. Craig Malkin’s grounding breaking psychology work here, in seeing Narcissism on a spectrum, and understanding it as an important part of a healthy self, and linked with identity development. The wild passivity and inaction that women feel, and the opportunities to enact power in the world that they link with narcissism make you wonder if we haven’t all been sold a terrible lie about narcissim and online interaction. That it may have a critically important role to play, and that it helps us identify the ways in which women are silenced with shame when they try to express power. You can stare at my highly manipulated form for your male pleasure, but if I look at myself, I am vain. Its okay for you to look at me, but its not okay for me to look at myself. Yet, if women cannot see themselves, how can they grow and develop healthy identities? Or relate to the world? Or act in it? There’s great opportunity here for a classroom discussion about digital technologies, interaction, and perceived narcissism.

For one focus group participant, there is some hope found in a Lorenzetti fresco, The allegory of good and bad government (featured above), a work before the 15th century art we are discussing. (Maybe the Pre-Raphaelites had it right all along; art really did all go askew with Raphael.) The piece contains a female woman with power and self-possession, suggesting that even just one portrayal of a woman that breaks with convention can have significant impact on our views of self. We begin to appreciate that representation matters, not as a surface concept to acknowledge, but through personal experience with the forces that shape our perception of reality. And there is ample opportunity here to get students thinking about representation in other media, like tv and film, too.

Episode 3

Money comes to the fore, and the third episode now takes a far more fiscally political tone. A few holes start to open in Berger’s argument, though his overall thesis is strong and there’s lots of opportunity to identify critically important concepts in digital age life.

We are reminded by Berger, before proceeding, that a love of art can be independent of a lot of other values. (I am reminded of Oscar Wilde’s warning preface on art and morality from Dorian Gray, that we mustn’t conflate art and ethics. This could be brought home to students when they think about modern examples- like Harvey Weinstein making films, or Kevin Spacey’s acting career. Being good at art, or appreciating art, does not make you a good person by default.) Scenes from two war propaganda concerts enjoyed in juxtaposition between British and German nationalists during WWII, serve as Berger’s example.

It’s a set up to help us appreciate the argument to come, that just because we may like art, there should be no implication of inherent ethical goodness. We are about to engage with the fiscal side of oil painting, both as object to be owned, and as communicator of wealth. And in seeking to be objective about how oil painting might be viewed, Berger will teach us it is a medium which celebrated private possessions.

We begin by exploring a concept of representation in art. For Berger, owning a representation of an object is largely the same as owning the object. There is some ontological question here: what is truly real? The item? The representation of the item? There’s a train of thought vastly relevant to the digital age with its queries about physicality, representation, and ontological continuity (I think of Luciano Floridi’s philosophy of information), that receives only a moment’s flicker before Berger tells us that oil paintings offer this physicality, even as representations of items, because you can put your hands on them, they have tangibility. And further, that this physical concept of what is real being what you can put your hands on, becomes closely connected with ownership. It makes me wonder what consequences of ownership we suffer now, as we continue representations in the online world.

It does feel like there is something lost in Berger’s chain of thought, for the first time, in the series. In the rush to make the connection between tangible physicality and ownership, we miss out on this important insight about ontology, and there’s an apparent allusion to Descartes’ ideas that is unarticulated. Berger’s only real explanation for this new physical tangibility, is a quick remark about the medium: that oils allowed a new depth of richness in portraying their subject. It’s not enough. But the overall point that oil paintings were celebrated as private possessions, and representations of wealth and what you could buy, is very clear. And, in the examples of the paintings themselves, it is easy to follow his insights, and perhaps that is how Berger would have wanted it:

  • He engages with colonialism, connecting art, money, and slavery through demonstrating its presence in works that both depict the exploitation of humans and theft of wealth from the colonies, to those benefitting in Europe, to bankers profiting from it in London.
  • The use of painting to self-represent, and make exaggerated claims about our wealth and status points to a long history of transmitting self-promoting narratives that far pre-dates the digital age: “look at my great life” is not only a social media phenomenon.
  • The treatment of the female and the hypocritical views on the sacred and sexual in art are discussed with relation to paintings of Mary Magdalene.
  • And, perhaps most fiercely, we are shown the relationship between ownership and land, as being confused with the relationship of individual to nature, as though we own nature itself. A well-placed private property sign makes this latter point for Berger. (Students pursuing higher order learning outcomes will see clear links to Heidegger’s “The Question Concerning Technology”.)

Finally, Berger reminds us of the value of seeing, and breaking, conventions. True artists appreciate and understand the conventions around them and transcend them. Teacher’s can draw interdisciplinary links to other 20th century areas of the arts, like Nijinsky’s choreography and Stravinsky’s music for “Rite of Spring”, or VanGogh’s mastery of so many styles leading to new ideas. As we move forward we must be bold in our innovation, but make those moves with understanding of our past so that we might free ourselves of its negative attributes. An important lesson, not only to art, but also pertinent to digital civics.

Episode 4

Berger, finally brings all of his insights about oil painting into the ‘modern day’ world of 1972 that he inhabits; though his lessons are still fiercely pertinent to our lives now. Perhaps this is because we are starting to realise, through examining the past 500 years of European art, that if we do not appraise the messages we come in contact with, we will fall victim to their influences, living our lives unaware of the damage they cause us.

Berger has always left the door open for us to disagree with him. It is one of the statements he makes in concluding his first episode. So we are free to agree or disagree with some of his ideas, or areas where his argument seems less fleshed out or politically opinionated. When he says that glamour is new, he provides a nuanced distinction between it and what has gone before; so nuanced you’re not entirely sure he’s right. But his overall message of publicity, and its fiscally manipulative driving forces is clear and well presented. Publicity has to do with aspiration for a better life and plays on our anxieties about the money we need to purchase this better life. Thus, publicity and oil paintings share many things, key among these ideas, “that you are what you have”.

Some of the stylistic commonalities between oil paintings and publicity Berger identifies are: Devices of atmosphere, settings, pleasures, objects, poses, symbols of prestige, gestures, signs of love. Students can easily find these in digital renderings of art, and the memes and photographs they share and popularize.

In his exploration of the continuing tradition of the oil painting, one wonders what Berger would make of recent digital age gallery challenges to re-create oil paintings, and indeed, these are also great projects with which to engage students at this point.

At its heart, Berger’s final episode is an exercise in media literacy, a practice still vitally relevant to the digital age. The use of publicity as a philosophical system; the inadequacies in ourselves that it plays off; the lack of empathy it cultivates for the struggles of others; and the way it manipulates the sacred secret parts of ourselves, like our imagination and dreams, all come under scrutiny.

In essence, Berger invites us to look behind the publicity, and come into contact with that feeling of helplessness that is being preyed upon, that desire for a better life, or the feeling that we are not where we are ‘supposed to be’; to concretely engage with our self, and have some footing to begin making new decisions about who we are, and what we really want, free from the needs foisted on us to feed a hole within ourselves that we didn’t understand before.

This is why media literacy is still so important and why our digital practices must come from seeing the digital age world as part of a long chain of historical events, not as a sudden shocking division from the rest of history. We have faced challenges similar to those in the digital age for a long time, and students can draw out a sense of belonging in the world from knowing art history. In a world where arts education always seems first on the funding chopping block, perhaps we need to take this into consideration.

Image by: Ambrogio Lorenzetti, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons