‘The past is not for living in; it is a well of conclusions from which we draw in order to act.’
Ways of Seeing, Essay One.
Occasionally a work of non-fiction has the ability to utterly transform how multiple individuals perceive the world around them. As an 18 year old Film Studies student at Canterbury in the 1980’s, my view of the world was as blinkered as you would expect, and opening both my eyes and mind to the possibility of a larger Universe was a pretty big ask for my tutor. However, it only took one book to alter everything; a set of essays that became a revolution for anyone who looked at the world with a critical eye, truly wanting to understand what they saw.
John Berger, who died in January this year, was born in Stoke Newington in London. He won the Booker prize in 1972, but is best known to a generation of art critics and students as the man whose socialist views on how he perceived static imagery redefined how the world at large considered painting and composition. After time in the Army in the 1940’s he enrolled at the Chelsea School of Art and the Central School of Art before exhibiting his own work. His first work of written fiction appeared in the early 1950’s and by 1962, in protest against British life, he left to live in France where he remained until his passing.
1972 was a pivotal year: Ways of Seeing did not begin life as words, but images; a series of documentaries commissioned by the BBC. The book came later, before becoming indispensable as reference text for a generation. The foundation of this thinking was collaborative too, based in part on an essay by Walter Benjamin entitled ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.’ What Berger bought to the table was charisma and an obvious passion for his ideas on the small screen, understanding all too well the power the moving image could have in both education and enlightenment. The fact these documentaries remain freely available on the Internet is a testament to the significance of his appraisals without the need for commercial gain. This was art, explored and exploded in simple, revelatory terms.
Berger reminds the reader/viewer in his opening appraisal that ‘seeing comes before words: the child looks and recognises before it speaks.’ Once we become aware not only of seeing, but being seen, the way we begin to consume and interact with the world is formed, based on a vast set of differing circumstances. There are assumptions regarding what is beautiful, our tastes, even our backgrounds affect the means by which imagery is ‘consumed.’ Berger also points out that how the past is manipulated and dictated by government plus the ruling classes will have a direct impact on how we ‘see’ it from our present standpoint.
Once upon a time, the only way we had to ‘see’ history was via static works of art, and the means by which that now occurs is different to how those pieces were consumed by those viewing art before us. Photography unlocked the ‘static’ nature of canvas, moments caught at a specific time and place, immovable and inflexible. No longer were these staged images simply meant for specific locations: art hung in churches, in the homes of the rich, in places of civic significance. Photography freed the artistic process and allowed pictures to be instantaneous: soon granting imagery an ability to permeate every home, becoming part of everyday life.
Berger’s argument that ‘if we can see the present clearly enough, we shall ask the right questions of the past’ is as relevant in the current political and social climate of the early 21st Century as it was in the late 20th: his inaugural essay also highlights that art, like it or not, is often nothing but a reproduction of something that an artist considers important. Its relevance to that artist is often unclear or non-existent without vital frames of reference that are often lost when all one has to use as a starting point is the image. Using the past to highlight the present, drawing on nostalgia as a means to sell you an item or encourage you to take part in an activity: so much of what influences our daily existence is now irrefutably woven around imagery.
Just because this new form of static art was not painted by a Grand Master does not mean that an individual cannot learn the process of critique. As Berger points out, ‘reproductions are still used to bolster the illusion that nothing has changed, that art, with its unique undiminished authority… makes inequality seem noble and hierarchies seem thrilling.’ Modern photographic techniques are used to distort what we see, Photoshopped models and actors lose blemishes and weight and because these are photographs and not pictures. Our acceptance of reality is warped yet still accepted, often without complaint.
The reason why I picked Berger to kick off the Internet of Words project is very simple: words are incredibly powerful tools. Combined with imagery, it is possible to create versions of reality that do not exist, and will never be possible. When these works are marked as ‘art and fiction’ is is much easier to understand what is presented. However, when given something that straddles the boundaries of reality and fantasy, which could be honest but just as easily fiction… how do we react? Is it simpler to stick one’s head in the sand and dismiss all the untruths: do we call out Fake News, retouched bodies and unreasonable expectations? Do we need to learn to see for ourselves with a truly objective eye? Only by doing so can we release our minds from what others have taught us and find a reality that is truly a representation of our own personality. This is why learning to ‘see’ matters so much.
As part of the research for this essay, I presented the following image on my Twitter feed and asked people to tell me what they saw:
Produced as a poster for a cervical cancer charity’s fundraiser, I was not surprised to see that most men identified female genitalia way ahead of the women who saw the cocktail glass. This is undoubtedly a very well thought out optical illusion, that allows the fundraisers to present a provocative image, thus reinforcing the point of their charity. Your ‘way of seeing’ is as much about the background you come from, your sexuality and how open you are to the possibility of ambiguity. Learning how to see both images and appreciate the cleverness of this poster should be the ultimate aim in understanding, and that requires both words and pictures to attain.
Image is supremely important on the Internet, but this is not simply a visual medium, despite what YouTube and Facebook might like you to believe. Words matter, far more than many people ever consider when they abuse a random celebrity or ‘anonymously’ send hate mail. In fact, the words used to describe images, the ways in which we deconstruct the visual around us, become increasingly more significant. Language may be altering to allow the emoji to exist as a quick and easy means of expressing visual intent, but if you want to explain yourself at all, you’ll need at least a basic grasp of written language in some form. That may change in the next 40 years, but for now, the Internet of Words is as relevant as the visual, aural and all points in-between.
One of the most important life skills you will ever learn, in my mind, is the ability to be critical of yourself. Knowing when to say you are wrong, accepting shortcomings and learning to communicate with fairness and objectivity… all of these are part of the process. In starting this project, I hope to not only stimulate thought over why things happen the way they do, but to challenge individual thinking on the reasons and motivation behind other people’s written words, their fictions and their works of art, in all its forms. I am eternally grateful for having been taught the process of objective criticism in my 20’s but 30 years on I still struggle with the mechanics. It is never easy, and my mantra of ‘every day is a school day’ is often repeated.
For humanity, standing at any number of economic, environmental or social crossroads, the business of individual enlightenment is more important than it has ever been before. Only by understanding each other as individuals is there any real chance of making full and constant progress to a better, more productive planet. As a first point today, once you’ve read this essay, go and find a favourite picture: perhaps of a computer game character, or even of a classic landscape or portrait.
Look at the picture carefully: what do you see?
Then, look again: why did the artist draw in this way? What does the use of colours say to you… how does it make you feel? There is always more than one way to appreciate anything. Finding joy in doing so is one of life’s pleasures, and is worth taking time to enjoy.
What you see is never all that can be seen.