Ways of Seeing Summary and Study Guide

John Berger

Ways of Seeing

  • 67-page comprehensive study guide
  • Features 7 chapter summaries and 5 sections of expert analysis
  • Written by an English instructor with an MFA in Creative Writing
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Ways of Seeing Summary and Study Guide

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides for challenging works of literature. This 67-page guide for “Ways of Seeing” by John Berger includes detailed chapter summaries and analysis covering 7 chapters, as well as several more in-depth sections of expert-written literary analysis. Featured content includes commentary on major characters, 25 important quotes, essay topics, and key themes like The Corrosive Ideology of Capitalism and The Entrenchment of the Common Person through the Manipulation of the Visual.

Plot Summary

The book opens with Berger’s take on Walter Benjamin’s seminal essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Berger therefore establishes the Marxist bent of his work, particularly as he parses out the manner in which the ruling class, and a class of scholars which essentially do its bidding, attach an artificial and untruthful aura to original artworks. They do this as a bid to maintain their oppressive and morally-wrong socioeconomic status, and to renew and maintain the fetishization of original works of art, which the proliferation of photographic reproduction threatens.

The rest of the book is spent analyzing three different genres of visual material: the nude (Chapter Three), oil painting (Chapter Five), and ‘publicity images,’ or advertisements (Chapter Seven). Berger’s textual chapters alternate with chapters entirely composed of reproductions of works of art or pieces of visual media, including reproductions of oil paintings, editorial photography, and advertisements. Each chapter composed of reproductions seems to serve a thematic aim which matches either the chapter that precedes or proceeds it.

In Chapter Three, Berger carefully elucidates the visual codes of the nude, using several oil paintings that demonstrate and validate his argument. He judiciously distinguishes the nude, as an art form with its own distinct set of conventions, as entirely different from the human experience of nakedness and lived sexuality. Instead, for him, the nude normalizes the sexist, patriarchal reduction of female humans to the status of sex objects to be used and looked at by men. Through his analysis of the genre’s distinct set of conventions, including the mandate to render the naked female body completely free of hair, and the occasional presence of a mirror within the picture frame, in order to condemn a woman for her so-called ‘vanity,’ Berger demonstrates the manner in which the visual language of the nude engenders a fundamentally-unequal way of seeing women. In turn, this visual language indoctrinates both women and men—but especially women. Under the cultural conditions both created by and responsible for the creation of the nude, the woman internalizes the male gaze and objectifies herself as a manner of survival under patriarchy.

In Chapter Five, Berger undertakes a historicized analysis of the visual codes of oil painting. Charting the manner in which its rise was contemporaneous with the rise of capitalism, Berger ultimately asserts that the central aim of oil painting was to depict the philosophical system of capitalism. Within that philosophical system, the world and all within it is reduced to property and commodity. Oil painting, commissioned by the ruling class, was thus tasked with the purpose of reflecting that class’s power to own and possess back to it. For Berger, this central aim was the reason for the development of both perspective and tangible realism within the genre of oil painting.

In Chapter Seven, Berger expands on his articulation of the relationship between oil painting and capitalism in order to produce an analysis of contemporary advertising images. For him, the visual codes of oil painting have reached their apotheosis within the visual language of advertising. Both genres aim to entrench and normalize the philosophy of capitalism. There is, however, one crucial difference between the two visual languages. Because oil painting was the province of the ruling class, it was primarily tasked with affirming that class’s position. The obsessive rendering of objects, and of aristocratic portraiture, was designed to confirm the social and economic status that the ruling class indeed enjoyed. Advertising, however, is directed to the working class. Therefore, it must produce an aspirational image geared toward a futurity that that class must be tempted to attain. While both genres rely on depicting commodities and objects in hyper-realistic visual detail which importunes the sense of touch, advertising articulates a distinct temporality and set of concerns that is meant to tantalize and hook those who do not yet (and perhaps never will) enjoy the status of the ruling class.

Ultimately, in each chapter, Berger is highly invested in deconstructing the normalized ways in which the average Western subject is indoctrinated into a mindset which sanctions and duplicates the harmful, oversimplifying, and exploitative tenets of sexism (in the case of Chapter Three) and capitalism (in the case of Chapters Five and Seven). He repeatedly invokes the primacy of the visual in the human experience. He does this not only to communicate the great power of visual subliminal messaging, but also to rally his readers into a more critical understanding of the visual world around them, and the manner in which harmful ideologies are enshrined and mystified through the exploitation of the human capacity to see. Ultimately, he has hope that both the primacy of the visual and the human ability to create visual language can be used to produce both resistance to pernicious ideologies, and, perhaps, the creation of alternate ways in which humans can relate to themselves, each other, and the world at large.

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Chapter 1