The Canon: Ways of Seeing. By John Berger

April 15, 2010

In the early 1970s, John Berger almost single-handedly changed the face of art history with this work and the four-part BBC TV series that accompanied it. The book continues to be influential, and remains on student reading lists for both art history and media studies.

As befits a public intellectual and Marxist art critic, Berger's project was both revolutionary and educational. He wanted to overthrow the art establishment's intellectual stranglehold on the history of our art: "Our principal aim is to start a process of questioning." As any good revolutionary knows, knowledge is power. Inspired by the likes of Walter Benjamin and Claude Levi-Strauss, Berger took advantage of the mass media of TV and paperback publishing to create a kind of "Visual Literacy 101", asking ordinary people to reject preconceptions about the exclusivity of art and to see themselves as part of the history of art. He showed us how to look and think independently about painting and visual images in the media.

Ways of Seeing popularised the early 1970s shift in the discipline to "the New Art History", which questioned everything from the representation of gender and the politics of patronage to the absence of women artists (and female academics). Berger challenged the authority of Western art criticism and offered an alternative to the smooth narratives of Kenneth Clark's Civilisation series.

He is an engaging and passionate guide, presenting us with a wide range of images from Holbein's Ambassadors in the National Gallery and Ingres' Odalisque to advertising images and soft porn. We look at Van Gogh's Wheatfield with Crows, and he asks us to "Look at it for a moment" before turning the page to see the same image repeated but this time with a caption: "This is the last picture Van Gogh painted before he killed himself." The words have changed our interpretation of the image, becoming a kind of truth.

At a time when mass media were still in their infancy, it was prescient to devote a whole chapter to unpicking the visual language of TV and magazine advertising. The most influential section for me was the book's photo-essay on the commodification of women in art and advertising and its analysis in an accompanying essay. Sadly, it reminds us that we have not moved on in terms of the sexual objectification of women and, more recently, girls.

I came across this book aged 15, while browsing the bookshelves of a friend's father. Intrigued, I borrowed it, but to my shame never quite managed to return it. It changed the way I thought and made me see how intellectually satisfying art criticism could be: I switched my allegiance from literature to art history. Berger's influence on me endured as I went on to commission visual-arts books for university presses, with the aim of breaking up the grand narratives of the past in favour of new approaches to the canon from Vermeer to Monet, and to include the hitherto excluded, from 18th-century women artists to photographic criticism.

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