John Berger's "Ways of Seeing" Summary & Commentary

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John Berger’s “Ways of Seeing” is a short commentary that seems to be about how different classes of people perceive art, how its meaning has changed through the ages, and how the introduction of technology has affected it. Berger seems to be an extremely controversial art critic, based off opinions of him that range from “stimulating” to “preposterous”. He has been praised numerous times, yet condemned just as much. His writings can seem extremely complex and difficult, even cryptic at times; but trudging through his works can yield many fascinating nuggets of truth.

My first reading of “Ways of Seeing” barely provided me with any information, but subsequent readings finally gave up some of Berger’s most interesting points, such as his idea that the meaning of great works of art no longer send out the message of the original creator. He speculates that this is because of the inaccessibility of art along with the widespread popularity of copies. I believe that ultimately, Berger’s argument of original pieces of art losing their value is solid.

Berger starts out by establishing how sight is arguably our most important sense. He then makes us question if we can truly believe our eyes, if what we see is actually reality. Even pictures, according to him, cannot be taken for face value because one must consider the intent of the photographer and other factors that may have skewed the message. “Regents of the Old Men’s Alms House” by Frans Hals is cited as an example to show us that the viewpoint of the painter affects the tone of the painting. He suggests that instead of painting the subjects as stoic government officials, they are portrayed as drunkards.

He continues by presenting the concept of how a picture may look the same to many different people that view it, it may carry a different message to each viewer. The same concept applies to copies of great art, says Berger; because there are so many copies of great works of art, the original may have lost...
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