Ways of Seeing – John Berger

I’m a dumb person.

When I was at university for my undergraduate degree I took a wide berth of classes. At the time I was stupid enough to think that with enough dedication one could go about learning everything, and that other, more hardworking people than myself, had successfully gone about accomplishing that task. And while I was at it I took some art history classes, because I just assumed that was something than needed to be done in order to be considered a well educated person.

I really loved those classes. All of this is to say that I am not the most ignorant person in the world when it comes art history, although I am still lingering towards the back of the line, I am sure. I learned just enough to have opinions, have preferences, and to have some idea of what the academic discourse of art history looks like. It wasn’t a whole lot of aesthetics, and it was much more history than I originally though. And of course, it was devoid entirely of any of that Higher Truth and Meaning™ I was so desperately looking for.

John Berger’s book Ways of Seeing proposes a methodology for how to look at painting so that we can understand them in an illuminating context. That makes this book not art, not history, but politics. There is nothing wrong with politics, but it is not a book on the philosophy of aesthetics that I thought it would be.

When I was writing my Master’s thesis my advisor brought to my attention a sentence I considered to be perfectly innocent (and perfectly unoriginal, I had then and still do see similar sentences making the same exact assertion a priori) but she found to contain a then unproven assertion. It was thankfully not important, and so I removed it without too much of a fight. But that established for me what I for sometime considered to be academic rigor. Reading some of the essays in this book, I wonder where that rigor has gone to. It isn’t that I think the assertions this book is making are wrong, but I am troubled by the very fact of the book having assertions to begin with. I have seen much better para-academic writers begin by assuming much less, and helping you through the journey to arriving to where one needs to be to understand the point being made. Here, it seems to be assumed a priori that you are on board with everything being said.

This not only isn’t the case, but it feels insulting to read.

Frankly, I have no idea. And I am happy this way.

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