I picked up this book for a multitude of reasons. Mainly because the cover was brilliant, the physical size of the book is perfect for twisting in your hands and it’s beautiful enough that I wanted to be seen with it.
The first page is remarkable. It starts with one sentence
“Seeing comes before words. The child looks and recognizes before it speaks.”
And then whitespace. I’m such a sucker for whitespace. This book should have had more whitespace. It’s set in a bold Univers font which is weird for the eye to read. And it’s all black and white. This is a book about seeing art that reproduces the pictures in grubby black and white images. I’m sure there’s something to say about that, but I can’t even.
Okay, so the book is 7 essays about art, seeing art and reproduction of art to in advertising. Two of the essays are just pictures. The photo essays are, literally, presented without context. That made me feel incredibly vulnerable as a reader. As though you are forced to see, before you’re ready.
“The relation between what we see and what we know is never settled. Each evening we see the sun set. We know that the earth is turning away from it. Yet the knowledge, the explanation, never quite fits the sight.”
Still, the mere act of reprinting these images in this order will create a narrative, which I guess is Berger’s point. The human brain foolishly looks for patterns and applies them to the world. The narratives are furthermore contextualized by being in a book all about seeing art. So yah, you become aware of the fact that you’re seeing and in this seeing creating a narrative. Even is the narrative is a bit trite and also immediately picked up on in the following, wordy essay.
This book is from the seventies based on a bbc-thing. The age of the book means that some of the attempted feminism does not hold up and I rolled my eyes a bit at some of the points he uncovered by his way of seeing. Women and men are presented different in art? Yeah, no shit.
“You painted a naked woman because you enjoyed looking at her, put a mirror in her hand and you called the painting “Vanity,” thus morally condemning the woman whose nakedness you had depicted for you own pleasure.”
(that’s still a baller quote though.)
In the end this book is far too short for all of the points he tries to claim. It is solely focused on the Western tradition of art which is never sufficiently designed. Other art traditions are brought in shortly to validate his point, but is never really quite examined. It’s a light read that more gives an idea rather than an academic argument. For this it can be really inspiring if you haven’t read much philosophy. However, if you’ve read Walter Benjamin don’t bother. In fact, go read that.