Saturday, May 21, 2011

John Berger – "Ways of Seeing" – Summary (2): ways of seeing in European art

John Berger - "Ways of Seeing" - summary and review
part 1 - 2 - 3

In "Ways of Seeing" John Berger analyzes nude depictions of woman in the European artistic tradition. The first depiction of a woman discussed by Berger is that of Eve from the story of the Garden of Eden. Berger holds that the consciousness or nakedness in the story of Adam and Eve was the result of different ways in which man and woman looked at each other following the eating of the fruit from the tree of knowledge, and the subsequent subordination of the woman to man's rule. Renaissance art stresses to moment of initial shame in which Adam and Eve cover themselves with fig leaves, but Berger notes how their shame is from a third observer, not from each other. Eve's embarrassment is retained in late secular art with the woman's awareness for the fact that she in being gazed at. And as Berger puts it: she is not naked for herself; she is naked as the viewer sees her.  

Berger also notes the hypocrisy of using the mirror to represent women's vanity – first we paint a naked woman for our own pleasure of watching her, and then we place a mirror in her hand and criticize her for enjoying her own figure.   

In the representations of Greek Mythology Paris the young man has to decide which of the gods is the prettier, and thus their appearance becomes a contest (the ancestor of the beauty pageant). Winning the contest means surrendering to the viewer's gaze. Berger notes that other cultures do not hold the same attitude towards female nudity.

In other words, ways of seeing are for Berger in fact ways of subjecting, and these differential ways of seeing/subjecting which distinguish a man's stance in the world for that of women's have a long history in western culture and are, at least partly, the cause of gender differences which persist even in the feminist era, because this is something much deeper than just formal equal rights. 
Ways of Seeing: Based on the BBC Television Series

John Berger - "Ways of Seeing" - summary and review
part 1 - 2 - 3

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