Academic journal article Millennium Film Journal

Ways of Seeing after the Internet

Academic journal article Millennium Film Journal

Ways of Seeing after the Internet

Article excerpt

On January 2, 2017, it was announced that the English Marxist writer, artist, and public intellectual John Berger had died at the age of ninety. For many of his readers and admirers, the date of Berger's death, just past the threshold of the new year, seemed indicative of other ominous cultural and political shifts on the horizon. The news sparked a wave of eulogies, encomia, academic and critical assessments: in March, a memorial symposium was held at Columbia University in collaboration with the online journal Public Books; in September, a two-day conference was held at Canterbury Christ Church University in London; the next month, the British Film Institute organized a commemorative program of his work in television and film at London's National Gallery, accompanied by a short essay, "John Berger: Radical Broadcaster." If Berger's status as a radical public intellectual often positioned him as a school of one during his lifetime, it is his style of writing-unhurried, historically rigorous, and critically precise-that remains at odds with the click-baiting, attention-deficit economy of contemporary online discourse. Not one for hot-takes or think pieces, Berger preferred to concentrate on fundamental philosophical questions concerning how we encounter the world and make meaning from it, such as "What is storytelling?" or "Why look at animals?". But his perennial concern, the problem that drove all of his creative production, from fiction to drawing, poetry to criticism, was the relationship between art and politics.

Nowhere is this commitment to accessible humanistic inquiry on art and politics more evident than in Ways of Seeing, a four-part documentary series that premiered on BBC Two in 1972. Conceived in part as a response to the triumphant narrative of Western masterpieces presented in Kenneth Clark's Civilisation, which was broadcast on the same channel three years earlier in 1969, Ways of Seeing frames the history of Western art not as a product of individual genius, innovation or virtuosity, but rather as a dialectical process conditioned by intersecting systems of domination, namely capitalism, patriarchy, and colonialism. Ways of Seeing places particular emphasis on how modern mass media has transformed the meaning and value of artworks through mechanical reproduction, and how advertising spectacle and the male gaze work in tandem to consolidate the dominance of capitalist heteropatriarchy. Equally charismatic, eloquent and photogenic, Berger takes up the role of talking head narrator across all four episodes, with a tone at turns exploratory and revolutionary. Perhaps to compensate for potential channel surfing and inconsistent viewing, Berger's script is peppered with quotable lines that often sound less like a critical theory-infused manifesto than everyday commonsense. His assertive, straightforward rhetoric re-surfaces in the published version of Ways of Seeing, for instance, its opening line: "Seeing comes before words. The child looks and recognizes before it can speak," which resonates as a secular, anti-logocentric reversal of the beginning of John 1:1: "In the beginning was the Word." Such seductively simple, quasi-Biblical formulations endow both the text and broadcast iterations of Ways of Seeing with a sense of universality and relevance that persists decades after its initial debut.

Considering its lasting popularity, it is perhaps unsurprising that an artistic homage to Ways of Seeing was on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art's blockbuster exhibition, Dreamlands: Immersive Cinema and Art, 1905-2016, in the months directly preceding Berger's death. This multi-author video essay, Ways of Something (2014-15) was conceptualized and compiled by Toronto-based internet artist Lorna Mills, who invited over one hundred, mostly North American and European artists to produce a one-minute moving image sequence in response to an excerpt of equivalent length from Berger's original BBC program. …

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