Friday, 17 February 2017

This is not a Book Review: Ways of Seeing; John Berger

Ways of SeeingWays of Seeing by John Berger
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I had made a decision in my final year in SRFTI (Satyajit Ray Film and Television Institute) that before shooting films I would read two books. ‘Sculpting in Time’ and ‘Notes on the Cinematographer’. I did that before the shoot of my diploma project, ‘Gi’. When I read ‘Ways of Seeing’ I updated the list. The next time I make a film I will be reading three books before shoot.
'Ways of Seeing' was a delight.
I am yet to watch the television series. It has the same content but since it is visual you can make better references. I will watch it, eventually. Now to the book and portions which opened my eyes to new ways of seeing.
The portion which speaks about art of the past has some very valid findings.
‘…The way original works of art are usually approached – through museum catalogues, guides, hired cassettes, etc. – is not the only way they might be approached. When the art of the past cease to be holy relics – although they will never re-become what they were before the age of reproduction.’
If I remember correctly, there is such a conversation in the film ‘Certified Copy’.
It also further observed in the book that,
‘Original paintings are silent and still in a sense that information never is. Even a reproduction hung on a wall is not comparable in this respect for in the original the silence and stillness permeate the actual material, the paint, in which one follows the traces of he painter’s immediate gestures. This has the effect of closing the distance in time between the painting of the picture and one’s own act of looking at it. In this special sense all paintings are contemporary.’
The essay touches upon copyright and elaborates how it is not simple. When something is ‘protected’ by copyright or even revered as ‘original’, the essay says that,
‘…This touches upon questions of copyright for reproduction, the ownership of art presses and publishers, the total policy of public art galleries and museums. As usually presented, these are narrow professional matters. One of the aims of this essay has been to show that what is really at stake is much larger. A people or a class which is cut off from its own past is far less free to choose and to act as a people or class than one that has been able to situate itself in history. This is why – and this is the only reason why – the entire art of the past has now become a political issue’.
I thought about women, dalits and others instantly. How true. And how important it is, to situate oneself in history. What classes, castes and sexes have had this privilege? The answer is obvious and the results too.

There is a chapter about portrayal of women in art. The sentence made into this note because I am writing while in SRFTI where there is no course or class which covers gender in cinema. This chapter was something new to me. I had never thought of portrayal of women in this manner. It was as if the book had put in words a lot of muddled thoughts I had always had about this topic.
‘She has to survey everything she is and everything she does because how she appears to others, and ultimately how she appears to men, is of crucial importance for what is normally thought of as the success of her life. Her own sense of being in herself is supplanted by a sense of being appreciated as herself by another.
Men survey women before treating them. Consequently how a woman appears to a man can determine how she will be treated…If a woman throws a glass on the floor, this is an example of how she treats her own emotion of anger and so of how she would wish it to be treated by others. If a man does the same, his action is only read as an expression of his anger. If a woman makes a good joke this is an example of how she treats the joker in herself and accordingly of how she as a joker-woman would like to be treated by others. Only a man can make a good joke for its own sake.
One might simplify this by saying: men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only the most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves. The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed female. Thus she turns herself into an object – and most particularly an object of vision: a sight’
This reminded me of and explained the behaviour of many women in SRFTI with respect to the sexual harassment cases. It is this turning of themselves into objects that makes most women react the way men would like them to react. Laugh when ‘rape jokes’ are cracked or crack some by themselves. Sexual harassment and feminism are unreal. That is the philosophy that ‘cool women’ shall abide by.
‘The second striking fact is that the woman is blamed and is punished by being made subservient to the man. In relation to the woman, the man becomes the agent of God’
This is the reason why I believe that God was created by man and is believed to be male too. This is also why I think belief itself is inherently patriarchal.
About nudes,
‘When the tradition of painting became more secular, other themes also offered the opportunity of painting nudes. But in them all there remains the implication that the subject (a woman) is aware of being seen by a spectator.
She is not naked as she is.
She is naked as the spectator sees her’
Vanity by Memling 1435-1494

After reading this I thought a bit and formed my own theory of nudity in films, especially female nudity in films. I think female nudity should exist when the woman is not being watched. In porn there are often times when the female actor looks at the person watching them. That is, even while acting in a porn film, the male spectator is anticipated. Female nudity in films remind me of this ‘porn glance’. I have started thinking of male nudity and how it is never ‘seen’ and is always just ‘is’. Female nudity can be just ‘is’ only when we portray nude women who are not nude for the spectator. Similarly think of a situation where male nudity is shown as ‘the spectator sees him’. Toying with these ideas. 

The book later asks us to compare the expressions of ‘La Granade Odalisque by Ingres 1780-1867 and ‘a model for a photograph in a girlie magazine’. [I don’t know what is meant by a ‘girlie magazine’ except that it is a name for magazines which have pictures of women to be consumed by men. Here I am substituting the 'girlie magazine' photo with a similar one of a model from a fashion magazine, ]

La Granade Odalisque by Ingres 1780-1867

‘Is not the expression remarkably similar in each case? It is the expression of a woman responding with calculated charm to the man who she imagines looking at her – although she doesn’t know him. She is offering up her femininity as the surveyed.’
I think this is true about women who walk the ramp and the positions they assume while at it, the postures in which models pose for stills, the selfies that celebrities put up etc. ‘Pout’ is something which I feel falls into this category but delighted that men have also taken to liking it and are using it. I remember some photos of Abhishek Bachchan, Shahid Kapoor etc doing a pout. I am not that optimistic to believe that they are aware of the stereotyping they are breaking but are, nevertheless, doing so. Ideal situation would have been when such postures altogether were dismantled but that does not seem practical at this point. I also believe that this became possible only due to new media. If it was not for internet pout would have remained another of these ‘femininity’ postures. 

 This idea is further elaborated here
‘It is true that sometimes a painting includes a male lover.
But the woman’s attention is very rarely directed towards him. Often she looks out of the picture towards the one who considers himself her true lover – the spectator-owner’
Bacchus, Ceres and Cupid by Von Aachen 1552-1615

And this is what gives the spectator-owner his ultimate gratification. The woman could be with a plausible rival (a sexual rival in the form of a male lover in the painting/porn/film) but is never owned by him because she is looking at the spectator-owner. She is his. It is this thrill of ownership that pervades all art and nudity especially when it comes to women. What the book says over here is further proof to this fact. Taking the example of ‘Les Oreades’ by Bouguereau 1825-1905, it says,

Les Oreades by Bouguereau 1825-1905
 ‘…Men of state, of business, discussed under paintings like this. When one of them felt he had been outwitted, he looked up for consolation. What he saw reminded him that he was a man.’
Speaking of exceptions in the tradition of nudes, the book observes that
Danae by Rembrandt 1606-1669

‘… In each case the painter’s personal vision of the particular women he is painting is so strong that it makes no allowance for the spectator…He cannot deceive himself into believing that she is naked for him. He cannot turn her into a nude. The way the painter has painted her includes her will and her intentions in the very structure of the image, in the very expression of her body and her face.’
The example given is ‘Danae’ by Rembrandt 1606-1669

Speaking of today,
‘In the art-form of the European nude the painters and spectator-owners were usually men and the persons treated as objects, usually women. This unequal relationship is so deeply embedded in our culture that it still structures the consciousness of many women. They do to themselves what men do to them. They survey, like men, their own femininity…
Today the attitudes and values which informed that tradition are expressed through other more widely diffused media – advertising, journalism, television.
But the essential way of seeing women, the essential use to which their images are put, has not changed. Women are depicted in a quite different way from men – not because the feminine is different from the masculine – but because the ‘idea’ spectator is always assumed to be a male and the image of the woman is designed to flatter him.’
In the beautiful chapter on oil paintings are some observations.
‘The art of any period tends to serve the ideological interests of the ruling class…a way of seeing the world, which was ultimately determined by the new attitudes to property and exchange, found its visual expression in the oil painting, and could not have found it in any other visual art form.
Oil painting did to appearances what capital did to social relations. It reduced everything to the equality of objects…’
Average work and a masterpiece are differentiated thus
‘…The average work – and increasingly after the seventeenth century – was a work produced more or less cynically: that is to say the values it was nominally expressing were less meaningful to the painter than the finishing of the commission or the selling of his product…’
Publicity or advertisements have been subjected to extensive study in the final chapter. See here.
‘…Publicity is not merely an assembly of competing messages: it is a language in itself which is always being used to make the same general proposal. Within publicity, choices are offered between this cream and that cream, that car and this car, but publicity as a system only makes a single proposal.
It proposes to each of us that we transform ourselves, or our lives, by buying something more…
Publicity persuades us of such a transformation by showing us people who have apparently been transformed and are, as a result, enviable. The state of being envied is what constitutes glamour. And publicity is the process of manufacturing glamour.’
There is no other way in which this business of publicity could have been explained better. The psychology is further explained here
‘It is important here not to confuse publicity with the pleasure or benefits to be enjoyed from the things it advertises. Publicity is effective precisely because it feeds upon the real. Clothes, food, cars, cosmetics, baths, sunshine are real things to be enjoyed in themselves. Publicity begins by working on a natural appetite for pleasure…The more convincingly publicity conveys the pleasure of bathing in a warm, distant sea, the more the spectator-buyer will become aware that he is hundreds of miles away from that sea and the more remote the chance of bathing in it will seem to him... Publicity is never a celebration of pleasure-in-itself. Publicity is always about the future buyer. It offers him an image of himself made glamorous by the product or opportunity it is trying to sell. The image then makes him envious of himself as he might be. Yet what makes this self-which-he-might-be enviable? The envy of others. Publicity is about social relations, not objects. Its promise is not of pleasure, but of happiness: happiness as judged from the outside by others. The happiness of being envied is glamour.
Being envied is a solitary form of reassurance. It depends precisely upon not sharing your experience with those who envy you. You are observed with interest but you do not observe with interest – if you do, you will become less enviable…The power of the glamorous resides in their supposed happiness:…It is this which explains the absent, unfocused look of some many glamour images. They look out over the looks of envy which sustain them.’
I have chosen the advertisement below to illustrate this.

The essay further compares oil paintings and publicity images and draws these conclusions.
‘Publicity is the culture of the consumer society. It propagates through images that society’s belief in itself. There are several reasons why these images use the language of oil painting
Oil painting, before it was anything else, was a celebration of private property. As an art-form it derived from the principle that you are what you have.
It is a mistake to think of publicity supplanting the visual art of post-Renaissance Europe; it is the last moribund form of that art.’
Speaking of how publicity always tries to sell the past to the future it says,
‘Publicity needs to turn to its own advantage the traditional education of the average spectator-buyer. What he has learnt at school of history, mythology, poetry can be used in the manufacturing of glamour. Cigars can be sold in the name of a King, underwear in connection with the Sphinx, a new car by reference to the statues of a country house.
In the language of oil painting these vague historical or poetic or moral references are always present. The fact that they are imprecise and ultimately meaningless is an advantage: they should not be understandable, they should merely be reminiscent of cultural lessons half-learnt...
Lastly, a technical development made it easy to translate the language of oil painting into publicity clich├ęs. This was the invention, about fifteen years ago, of cheap colour photography. Such photography can reproduce the colour and texture and tangibility of objects as only oil paint had been able to do before. Colour photography is to the spectator-buyer what oil painting was to the spectator-owner.’
When I thought about it, I also felt that the theories about oil painting in the beginning of the book could be applied to colour photography. Oil painting indicated the privileges of some from that era. Colour photographs of families of a certain period of time, therefore definitely indicate the privileges and notions of the ruling class during that time.
Continuing about oil painting and photography,
‘Both media use similar, highly tactile means to play upon the spectator’s sense of acquiring the real thing which the image shows. In both cases his feeling that he can almost touch what is in the image reminds him how he might or does possess the real thing.’
Speaking about the spectator-owner and the spectator-buyer,
‘The purpose of publicity is to make the spectator marginally dissatisfied with his present way of life. Not with the way of life of society, but with his own within it. It suggests that if he buys what it is offering, his life will become better. It offers him an improved alternative to what he is.
The oil painting was addressed to those who made money out of the market. Publicity is addressed to those who constitute the market, to the spectator-buyer who is also the consumer-producer from whom profits are made twice over – as worker and then as buyer. The only place relatively free of publicity are the quarters of the very rich; their money is theirs to keep.’
Like how the very rich are never addressed in publicity. All of us know how the main target is the middle class and everybody under the upper class. See here how it is explained.
‘Money is life. Not in the sense that without money you starve. Not in the sense that capital gives one class power over the entire lives of another class. But in the sense that money is the token of, and they key to, every human capacity. The power to spend money is the power to live. According to the legends of publicity, those who lack the power to spend money become literally faceless, Those who have the power become lovable.’
See here in the ad below. I also remember an ad film which had men becoming faceless as the man wearing the brand of perfume being advertised passed them.

Now to publicity and sexuality. I think it is more of sex than sexuality, though.
‘Publicity increasingly uses sexuality to sell any product or service. But this sexuality is never free in itself; it is a symbol of something presumed to be larger than it: the good life in which you can buy whatever you want. To be able to buy is the same thing as being sexually desirable; occasionally this is the explicit message of publicity…Usually it is the implicit message, i.e. if you are able to buy this product you will be lovable. If you cannot buy it, you will be less lovable.’

In my opinion it is not about being lovable either. Sex and sex appeal are the key words. Like in the example of deodorant advertisements what is being explicitly stated is that you (always a male) will get to have sex with women like the ‘sexy women’ always featured in the advertisements. Those of you who will use this product will get to have sex. Those of you who don’t, won’t. And one major change that has happened after this essay was written is that the message is now almost always explicit and never implicit.There is nothing unsaid in the example below.

And the reason why publicity thrives?
‘Publicity speaks in the future tense and yet the achievement of this future is endlessly deferred… It remains credible because the truthfulness of publicity is judged, not by the real fulfilment of its promises, but by the relevance of its fantasies to those of the spectator-buyer. Its essential application is not to reality but to day-dreams.
‘…The pursuit of individual happiness has been acknowledged as a universal right. Yet the existing social conditions make the individual feel powerless. He lives in the contradiction between what he is and what he would like to be. Either he then becomes fully conscious of the contradiction and its causes, and so joins the political struggle for a full democracy which entails, amongst other things, the overthrow of capitalism; or else he lives, continually subject to an envy which, compounded with his sense of powerlessness, dissolves into recurrent day-dreams.
…The gap between what publicity actually offers and the future it promises, corresponds with the gap between what the spectator-buyer feels himself to be and what he would like to be. The two gaps become one; and instead of the single gap being bridged by action or lived experience, it is filled with glamorous day-dreams.
‘No two dreams are the same. Some are instantaneous, others prolonged. The dream is always personal to the dreamer. Publicity does not manufacture the dream. All that it does is to propose to each one of us that we are not yet enviable – yet could be.’
And we will also get to know why our society also largely refuses to be in the group which tries to overthrow capitalism and establish democracy. It is because
‘…Publicity turns consumption into a substitute for democracy. The choice of what one eats (or wears of drives) takes the place of significant political choice. Publicity helps to mask and compensate for all that is undemocratic within society. And it also masks what is happening in the rest of the world.
Publicity adds up to a kind of philosophical system. It explains everything in its own terms. It interprets the world.’
See how freedom is being defined in the advertisement below to further understand how publicity turns consumption into a substitute for democracy.

The connection between publicity and capitalism is explained further. It is true that publicity has only one message and that is the message of acquisition. It is constantly asking you to acquire things. And it sounds very familiar to me, as a woman because our society, relationships etc are increasingly about acquiring. People in love think of exhibiting ways of saying that they belong to someone else, or that they have been acquired. A woman’s body in India bears marks which proclaim that she has been acquired. Like the sindoor (vermilion) on her head or a ring on the males, in some cultures. Relationships are increasingly becoming about possessing and ownership, very capitalist notions. See here:

‘Publicity is the life of this culture – in so far as without publicity capitalism could not survive – and at the same time publicity is its dream.

Capitalism survives by forcing the majority, whom it exploits to define their own interests as narrowly as possible. This was once achieved by extensive deprivation. Today in the developed countries it is being achieved by imposing a false standard of what is and what is not desirable.’

This is what the book gave me. I am sure it will give something or the other to everyone who reads it. There are always things that you miss even when you are watching with rapt attention.

View all my reviews

No comments:

Post a Comment