Ways of Seeing by John Berger and New Ways of Seeing

John Berger passed away on 2 January 2017, (New York Times, 2 Jan, 2017), and reading about his life reminded me about his impact on my art education.  Berger was a British art critic, amongst other roles, and the host of the television series Ways of Seeing.

Ways of Seeing is a 1972 BBC four-part television series of 30-minute films created chiefly by writer John Berger and producer Mike Dibb.  Berger’s scripts were adapted into a book of the same name.  The series and book criticise traditional Western cultural aesthetics by raising questions about hidden ideologies in visual images.  The series is partially a response to Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation series, which represents a more traditionalist view of the Western artistic and cultural canon. (Description taken from Wikipedia).

I first came across Ways of Seeing in the early 2000s at art school, and it rocked my world.  It made me look at everything with a new need to understand and deconstruct the layers.  It really appealed to my youthful inner conspiracy theorist and detective instincts, especially after the September 11 terrorist attacks.  Trust nothing on face value.  Question everything.  What is the hidden meaning and what/who has orchestrated you to come to this idea.  A painting was no longer only different coloured paint on a canvas, it became a work with multiple layers of meaning to peel away to understand completely.  Who made it?  When was it made?  Why was it made?  Which critic wrote about it?  Why does it hang in this gallery?  Who decided to buy it?  Why did the museum buy it?  Was there a political agenda?  Let alone the concept of the reproduction of the image.  Being a photography student at the beginning of the wave of digital photography entering the mainstream (pre iPhones, imagine!), this blew my mind.  Context, meaning, death of the author, copyright… And these concepts are applicable now more than ever with the internet and social media.  Images are copied and replicated at an alarming rate.

The series is very dated, for the classroom.  Not sure if a student would also be able to resist John Berger’s lisp.  Even I cant but help imitating it after watching an episode. There is the text, Ways of Seeing, which could be brought into the classroom, and snippets of the series could be used to initiate discussion. It is in itself now a classic. And like classics, sequels, remakes and homages are spawned to honour them. Welcome New Ways of Seeing. The New York Times T Brand Studio and Tiffany and Co. have come together to create a new five part series called New Ways of Seeing.  To view all episodes visit http://paidpost.nytimes.com/tiffany/new-ways-of-seeing.html.

New Ways of Seeing, Episode One: Art Contains Multitudes presented by Jerry Saltz

The series is so new, that only episodes one to three have aired yet. The series is essentially presenting the same principle, almost picking up where the last series left off. The episodes are short, catchy, and easily digestible for the classroom.  It is almost like an advert for the episode, with short snippets of interviews and soundbites of information. Episode three deals with art in the digital age, and is presented by Tavi Gevinson, the young Rookie editor.



Ways of Seeing by John Berger and New Ways of Seeing

The Frames

The many layers of meaning in an artwork are deconstructed by examining it through The Frames.  These frames are Subjective; Cultural; Structural; and Postmodern.  The frames operate in tandem with the conceptual framework, as students learn how each frame sets up different relations between artists, artworks, the world and the audience. Students learn that the frames provide alternative ways for interpreting and explaining meanings and why artists (including themselves) and audiences (including themselves, teachers, art critics, art historians and the general public) take on different points of view of what is of value, (N.S.W. Board of Studies, 7-10 Creative Arts Syllabus, N.S.W., 2003, p.24).

The Four Frames disaram, 7-10 Creative Arts Syllabus, N.S.W., 2003.
The Four Frames diagram, 7-10 Creative Arts Syllabus, N.S.W., 2003.

The Subjective Frame – personal and psychological experience: 
This frame allows the student to explore the feeling and deeper meaning that the artwork inspires in the viewer and what the artist intended. It is the me me me frame, and there is no right or wrong, as everything that is subjective is personally felt. Once students begin to understand this frame, it often becomes their favorite one as it allows them to talk about themselves.

The Cultural Frame – cultural and social meaning:
The cultural frame looks at the artist’s role with the artwork,.  The same exact artwork either produced by a little girl or a middle aged man will have different cultural meaning behind it.  The frame is also aligned with the world, in regards to the relationship of society and politics and communities and family and economies and identity and culture.  Everyone is shaped by their experience and conditions, and through the cultural frame the experience, conditions and the particular culture of the meaning of the artwork is examined. This is the frame where the social and political commentary of artworks are explored. This can be an exciting frame to explore issues of gender, diversity, science and the environment.  Find a cultural subject that is relevant to your class and use that as a ways to explore the frame.

The Structural Frame – communication and the system of signs:
How is the artwork structured?  What methods of communication have been used, the visual signs, to get the message across?  Is it a painting, video, or lithograph, or all three? What visual elements has the artist used to convey a message?  If the artist has used words, what language are the words? And on and on and on…. Like the game Jeopardy, at first you are describing the structure of the artwork in a series of questions – what colour is it? Etc Etc.  Then in the later Syllabus Stages, the questions and investigation delves a bit deeper – is that tungsten or LED lighting used in the studio? How did the artist achieve that affect with the paint?

The Postmodern Frame – ideas which challenge mainstream values of histories:
Now, should this be the post-postmodern frame? Where are we now? Are we in Po Po-Mo? That aside, the Po-Mo frame is the frame where the type of art is viewed in the art world context.  Where does the artwork fit into the historical timeline of art, be that a cubist or abstract artwork, and what is it saying about the art world?  What is the artworks grand narrative, is it making a satirical comment on politics?  Or is it appropriating another artists work, to mean something completely different?  Visualization diagrams of art history can help students identify the links and movements between the different artist styles, and why they were popular at the time in relation to the cultural frame, in regards to art history.  The Alfred Barr (first director of MOMA) map of modern art is a beautiful diagram of 50 years of art history.

Dust jacket with chart prepared by Alfred H. Barr Jr., of the exhibition catalog, Cubism and Abstract Art, by Alfred H. Barr Jr., 1936. Offset, printed in color; 10 1/8 x 7 3/4” (25.7 x 19.7 cm). The Museum of Modern Art Library, New York. Digital Image © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA / Art Resource, NY.

Original image source: http://www.jeffersonbailey.com/speak-to-the-eyes-the-history-and-practice-of-information-visualization/


The Frames

The Conceptual Framework

The Conceptual Framework is how students start to grasp the bigger meanings in artworks. It provides a context of questions, a framework, that students can apply to artworks to start to deconstruct and unravel layers of meaning and interpretations of those meanings.  It can be the beginning of understanding that the world is a vast and complex place that could very well be a fishbowl, balancing on an elephants back, floating out in space, on top of a whale.  That anything can mean everything, and nothing, all at the same time.  But for sanity in the classroom questions tend to be structured around more tangible and relational areas of understanding and explanation.

The Conceptual Framework is represented by a diagram that is very masonic in its appearance, the mythical triangle of meaning.  It places the artwork in the center of the triangle (or on top of the pyramid of power!) and has the world, audience and artist at each point, being the four agencies (or concepts).  All four concepts interact and converge, which creates meaning for an artwork.

The Conceptual Framework is understood from exploring the four concepts from within the four Frames, which are the Subjective, Cultural, Structural and Postmodern.  Add in art making/practice and you have the trifecta of the Creative Arts Syllabus.  Most students will happily slop around with paint (‘Don’t pour so much out! It’s a waste!‘ is a phrase I have said very very often), but engaging them to open up with discussion and to understand the concepts and frames on how to questions and view art is harder.  But once they have a clear understanding, they can apply the concepts, viewpoints and questions to other subjects (e.g. in English when reflecting on a novel) and it allows students to be more reflective and critical in their understanding.

The Conceptual Framework diagram, 7-10 Creative Arts Syllabus, N.S.W., 2003.
The Conceptual Framework diagram, 7-10 Creative Arts Syllabus, N.S.W., 2003.

The World:

The Audience:

The Artist:

The Artwork:

The Conceptual Framework