Essay on Exploring Berger’s Theoretical Understanding of the World Around Us

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An image is but a “window through which we look out into a section of the visible world” (Richter, Wells & Kemp, 2008, p102). But what of this visible world and that of the viewer? To begin questioning “what we see and what we know” (Berger, 2008, p.7), is to watch 70s revolutionary broadcast Ways of Seeing by John Berger. The program, later adapted into a book, are both highly successful in liberating image, freeing them of what is merely seen. Berger's polemic venture into breaking the unseen vail of image, has consequently captured the unceasingly inquisitive eye to this present day. By exploring Berger’s theoretical understanding of the world around us, it allows one to begin analysing both self and image through contextualisation and introspection.

The series explores the integral role the invention of the camera has had on the way one perceives.

Since the creation of the camera, a visual is able to be captured in a specific way, as well as endlessly reproduced. He explains how these factors have majorly revolutionised the interpretation of the way we see traditional paintings. Instead of seeing a painting in a gallery surrounded by a specific atmosphere, the image can now be viewed out of its specialized environment and instead “on your wall at home” (British Broadcasting Corporation, 1972). Thus, changing your perception of the painting entirely. As this is integral to the way we see a painting, or any other visual for that matter, when an image is created encompassing these factors of contextualization, the viewer can become easily manipulated. “The camera saves a set of appearances from the otherwise inevitable supersession of further appearances” (Berger, 1991), meaning a photograph of something is just the start of what appears. Furthermore, in About Looking another critical discussion into “the way we see” (Berger, 1991), mentions how although the camera is a “public medium which could be used democratically” (Berger, 1991), the Nazis were one of the first to discover the exploits of the cameras transparent properties. This is only more prevalent where the everyday person is subject to an array of propaganda and messaging. Most commonly in advertising.

This imagery collected over time has created our contemporary visual culture. Through these visual mediums, society has been reflected creating a theoretical understanding of cultural representations of message. To illustrate simply, Warhol’s repetition of Marilyn Monroe on canvas, reflected both a new art movement (Pop-art), and consumerism in the late 1960s (Schroeder, 1997). Upon further interpretation, the work emulated societies demand of buying goods, and also a person’s traits/characteristics becoming a brand. Not only Berger, but as far back at Leonardo Da Vinci, sort to analyse the visual, “an image is merely a portal into both what the image represents, and ourselves” (Richter, I.A, Wells, T & Kemp, M, 2008). He had further progressed this by an example of a mirror. He explains how if a mirror were to be placed in front of another, each would reflect each other continuously, “that each thing transmitting its ‘image’ is able to receive into itself all the images of the things which are facing it” (Richter, I.A, Wells, T & Kemp, M, 2008). At the outset, such as Da Vinci, had already begun to question what is seen in a mirror and what of that reflected back, much like how you stand in front of a visual, only to be seen yourself.

Among several arguments presented by Berger, a main point presented to the viewer, is the idea of glamour, and what makes it so desirable. The writer explains how “the state of being envied is what constitutes glamour” (Berger, 2008, p.7), which consists of innumerable enviable topics, including others: lifestyles, appearances, jobs, and relationships etc. (Sturken & Cartwright, 2001, p213). Advertising, both then and now, use this idea of glamourizing, by liberating the consumers supposed dissatisfaction within their own lives (Sturken & Cartwright, 2001, p213). Glamour, as discussed further by Berger, has direct interplay with his ideologies of The Gaze. The gaze is the way the viewer sees the image at-hand, with relation to “dynamics of desire” (Sturken & Cartwright, 2001, p355). More specifically, his male gaze theory presenting that “men act, and women appear” (Berger, 2008, p. 41), which focuses on glamour, the gaze and gender.

The idea that the viewer is both observing and being observed, depending on the stance of the male or/and female, is where Berger builds an argument. He does this by presenting that “perspective centres everything on the eye of the beholder” (British Broadcasting Corporation, 1972) meaning an advert becomes an appearance or idealism of the image at hand and the persons perception of it. For instance, a Dior perfume ad shows an attractive celebrity looking seductively at the camera holding a dress against her nude figure.

(Cossu. E, 2017)

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The advertising plays on the idealism of the female consumer thinking, by buying this product, she’ll become more attractive like the featured imagery. While the ad represents a falsehood of consuming certain goods, the female figure is also objectified by the male gaze, subconsciously assuming the perfume will shape a female into this overly sexualised photo of lifestyle and product. Furthermore, the model, according to Berger, watches those who are watching her. She is well aware of her presence because she is “taught and persuaded to survey herself continually” (British Broadcasting Corporation, 1972), as its supposedly categorical to her success in life. This shows that not only the viewers gaze should be challenged, but also that of the person in the imagery, Natalie Portman in this case, to question if she is doing this just for the perception that the media will have of her. As well as this, Berger also discusses perception being affected by time and setting. The ads context would change If it were to be taken off of a billboard and instead reproduced as a picture for your screen, for instance through a camera. As this is the case, in modern day advertising, companies use this to their advantage as globalisation and reproduction of product and message, are easily accessible.

Ergo, these ideas of attracting the consumer through implied mystifications, build the bases to Berger’s argument that the public is preyed upon using these idealistic wants to be glamourous. Complementary of this, The Art of Seeing presents a supporting argument of how art, which can also be related to advertising, “challenges: image, its emotional impact, the intellectual references it carries (i.e. historical, cultural, biographical implications, and the communicative possibilities and opportunities it presents)” (Csikszentmihalyi & Robinson, 1990, p178) these as Berger’s theory focuses on, create a metaphorical corridor (British Broadcasting Corporation, 1972) between “the artist, his time, and within the viewer themselves” (Csikszentmihalyi & Robinson, 1990, p179). Arguably, The Art of Seeing goes on to further consolidate congruent arguments of Berger’s, that “without these there would be nothing to arrest the viewers’ attention…and so there would be no experience” (Csikszentmihalyi & Robinson, 1990, p178).

Ultimately, these ideas of what build up a painting or visual piece that induce an experience, depending on context, the individual and their preferences, promotes consumerism through perception of advertising. But is this moral? In both contemporary and past society, the female figures objectification has been periodically used and both discussed. The founder of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, stated that society and the individual are led by primitive, animalistic and sexual tendencies that are uncontrolled on a conscious level. Through application of this psychoanalysis, its plausible to suggest that society can be deceived into both literal and imaginative fantasy. Whether or not this method of advertising in both past and contemporary visual culture is validated morally or not, intrinsically the method is successful in capturing one’s attention. As an extension, by relating to contemporary advertising, Berger’s theory means to place the viewer into a state of questioning and self-awareness. Such as, how and what of the morality when viewing an image.

Later in the series, Berger starts to question publications of two entirely different worlds. One of which shows the reality of those less fortunate, and a fantasy of a better life, through consumerist advertising. He poses that these two worlds are disconnected through a magazine, resulting in “this culture being mad” (British Broadcasting Corporation, 1972). To concur, why appeal to the conscience of the public to help, and then propose goods to enhance their own lives instead. In so by doing this, is there a play on the audiences subconscious?

Interestingly, contemporary advertising can be used to illustrate several examples of this. Simply, by finding advertising in today’s society that plays with both worlds. The most prominent examples can be those of companies, such as The united colours of Benetton, which essentially benefit from connecting these disconnected worlds that Berger talks about using ads from the 70’s. Benetton is a global fashion brand that has featured: racism, sexism, homophobia, starvation, disease and war, as unconventional subjects of its advertising. The company since the 1980s (FashionNetwork, 2018) utilises these global issues to publicise their brand through shock value, as well as implicit support for the issue. Essentially, it provokes people to think (by association) that they are helping the issue by buying the brand. As a result, Benetton capitalises, but also raises awareness.

The idea that this marketing approach has tried to profit from giving the consumer a false sense of power over the situation depicted, is undeviating to that of Foucault’s definition of the gaze. Compared to previous perceptions of what the gaze is, as that of Jacques Lacan, Michel Foucault’s focuses on the “relationship of subjects within a network of power” (Sturken & Cartwright, 2001, p356). In terms of Benetton’s advertising technique, it relies on the consumers desire of power over the problem, artificially given to them by the company. Much like this, Dior’s perfume ad implements a similar tactic. The ad has also given the male viewer power over the female in the image as she is vulnerable. She is naked, seductively looking into the camera, surrounded by nothing. She appears to be an object to be owned by the viewer, much like woman in past European oil paintings. Furthermore, the female is also staring directly into the camera. As Berger mentions when discussing the gaze, also suggests a significance of power over the subject. “she looks out of the picture towards the one who considers himself her true lover – the owner spectator” (Berger, 2008, p56), a description of many oil panting’s which says directly, the owner and also spectator of the image. This implication of power suggests that the painting, much like how the female in the Dior ad, even in contemporary society where we have supposedly progressed from objectification, is still used to encourage consumerism. This is also implied in Practises of Looking “contemporary advertisements continue to sell products through traditional gender codes, by portraying woman in demure, seductive poses for a possessive male gaze” (Sturken, M & Cartwright, L , 2001).

In Benetton’s most recent controversial ad, Berger’s idea of mystified advertising, the gaze and evidently connecting the two worlds, are all encapsulated. The ad features several nude models all of different ethnicity and race. The idea behind the ad is that its 'Against civil war, urban violence of identity, ethnic conflict, religious wars, terrorism and all forms of resurgent racism” (FashionNetwork, 2018). Firstly, the two worlds become connected. Benetton has promoted its brand via association, meaning that the viewer identifies the brand with rapport and simultaneously glamorising themselves with a charitable and thoughtful nature. Moreover, a mystified vail of helping the cause, in reality, they also help the company profit from commercializing multiculturalism. Secondly, that although used in a completely different way to “post-Renaissance European paintings…where the female nude feeds male sexual desire and does not possess desire of her own” (Anapur, 2017), our contemporary visual culture has shown growth in distancing ourselves from objectification. Here can be argued that the intention of this ad is for the models to be looked at and valued for their exact appearance. The gaze should be of positivity and acceptance of all races. (Toscani, 2018)

To conclude, Berger’s theories start a series of questioning and presents statements that enhance the viewers perception and ability to question the world around them. In particular, visuals. The exploration into contextualizing, the camera, the gaze, gender, self-preference and mystification, shape our understanding of the physical and metaphysical world. From post-renaissance paintings to today’s visual culture, Berger’s arguments only build more congruency through there fermentation. As this is the case, advertising, such as Dior perfume and The united colours of Benetton ads, continue to have prevalence to theories in Ways of Seeing. For instance, Dior and Benetton’s use of the female and male gaze, power through the gaze, and the cameras role in reproduction and propaganda, as well other external factors of globalisation, and technology, mean image can be spread anywhere and everywhere to the masses. Resulting, in the image being interpreted through multidirectional fantasy. As supported by psychoanalysis, these advertising techniques which call on subconscious desires are successful in attracting attention. Following on from this, the viewer can be encouraged, much like the writer of this essay, to question other ulterior factors, such as the morality of this preying advertising. Ultimately for every visual “who could believe that so small a space could contain the ‘images’ of all the universe?... what tongue will it be that can unfold so a wonder?” (Richter, I.A, Wells, T & Kemp, M, 2008), the tongue of John Berger.

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