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John Berger’s Ways of Seeing Discussion Questions

One of the first points John Berger makes is that the act of seeing something is not as objective as we might at first think. Instead, he argues that what we see is conditioned by habits and conventions. What does Berger mean when he says that the process of seeing is not “natural,” that it is shaped by habits and conventions? What kinds of habits and conventions shape the ways we see and how do they do this?

John Berger states that the act of seeing is not as objective as we think. He makes this argument by explaining we are conditioned to see the world in a different perspective than people over one hundred years ago because of photography and technology. Our habits and conventions, according to John, go beyond just what the eye sees at the moment. Because now our eyes can see things that are miles away with the use of cameras, our entire perspective of the world has changed as human beings. He claims that before the invention of cameras, people could only perceive what was in front of them and their personal experience. He explains that because now we can view art outside of it’s intended environment, as part of a building or church, or museum, we do not get its original purpose because we are conditioned to see things in terms of modern perspective.

How does Berger describe the term “perspective”? How does the concept of artistic perspective make “the eye the center of the visible world” and why is this significant when we think about what artworks like paintings mean for viewers?

Berger describes the term perspective as the opposite of a lighthouse with the light condensing into to the eye instead of branching out. He explains that perspective is the focus of what the eyes see, which then forms our reality.  We carry this perspective with us everywhere we go because our eye travels with us. As humans, our perspective differs for each of us and our reality differ as well.  Berger describes this from a strictly visual sense but it remains just as relevant for all of our senses of the world. The significance of this perspective in terms of painting is that our visual perspective of a painting defines our reality of the meaning behind the  artwork.

According to Berger, how has the camera changed our sense of perception? How has this device brought paintings and other images into the context of our lives? How does this differ from attitudes toward art that existed before the camera was invented?

The invention of the camera completely changed our sense of perspective because now we can see things in places our eyes have never traveled to. It has changed the context with which we view art because we can now see a painting or piece of art in a different setting from the artist intended setting, thus giving us a different perspective of the art.  Before the camera was invented you could only see a piece of art in 1 place. The invention of the camera allows us to remove the art and see it in our normal life settings.  Berger is stressing an importance of the surrounding settings of art which now in the age of photography can differ from its original setting.

Berger describes the experience of being in the presence of an authentic artwork–at a museum, for instance–in terms of “stillness” and “silence.” What does he mean by this? According to Berger, why is seeing an artwork in a museum different from seeing it on a screen or in a book?

Berger explains the stillness and silence of an authentic artwork as a pureness. He believe this silence and stillness are the most important thing about these paintings. He sees it as a way of seeing the picture that transcends time. The action in the painting are all simultaneous. We can see it in its unadulterated form. He explains this is only possible once it’s “false mystery and false religiosity” created by its monetary value. He blames this on the camera making them reproducible. Seeing a painting in a book or on screen allows the reproducer of the art to maniupulate the images and meanings of the picture and eliminate the silence and stillness of the art.

What does Berger mean when he describes reproductions of paintings becoming a “form of information?” Paraphrase what he means by his idea of “talking with reproductions.” What is the significance of this?

Berger talks about how paintings can become a “form of information”.  This is because they are placed in context and in competition with other information and media alongside it. Its meaning is transformed based on its surroundings. It can become ambiguous.  He explains that people can talk using reproductions. People can intentionally change the meaning of the reproductions and use them as their own artist language. By placing them alongside their own art or other reprints they can use them to create the meaning they are looking to purvey. It is significant because it shows a positive aspect of this ambiguity created by reprroducing the paingting. By creating a new meaning. One can take a piece of art and manipulate it as they feel fit to create their own new original work of art which can illicit new feelings.

Write one analytical question you have about this episode of Ways of Seeing.

How can we make art accessible to the everyone without losing its silence and stillness and without manipulation?

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