29+ quotes from Ways of Seeing by John Berger

Quotes from Ways of Seeing

John Berger ·  176 pages

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“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.”
― John Berger, quote from Ways of Seeing


“A woman must continually watch herself. She is almost continually accompanied by her own image of herself. Whilst she is walking across a room or whilst she is weeping at the death of her father, she can scarcely avoid envisaging herself walking or weeping. From earliest childhood she has been taught and persuaded to survey herself continually. And so she comes to consider the surveyor and the surveyed within her as the two constituent yet always distinct elements of her identity as a woman. She has to survey everything she is and everything she does because how she appears to men, is of crucial importance for what is normally thought of as the success of her life. Her own sense of being in herself is supplanted by a sense of being appreciated as herself by another....

One might simplify this by saying: men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves. The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed female. Thus she turns herself into an object -- and most particularly an object of vision: a sight.”
― John Berger, quote from Ways of Seeing


“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.”
― John Berger, quote from Ways of Seeing


“A man's presence suggests what he is capable of doing to you or for you. By contrast, a woman's presence . . . defines what can and cannot be done to her.”
― John Berger, quote from Ways of Seeing


“To be naked is to be oneself.
To be nude is to be seen naked by others and yet not recognised for oneself.”
― John Berger, quote from Ways of Seeing


“To remain innocent may also be. to remain ignorant.”
― John Berger, quote from Ways of Seeing


“When in love, the sight of the beloved has a completeness which no words and no embrace can match: a completeness which only the act of making love can temporarily accommodate”
― John Berger, quote from Ways of Seeing


“History always constitutes the relation between a present and its past. Consequently fear of the present leads to mystification of the past”
― John Berger, quote from Ways of Seeing


“To be naked is to be oneself.
To be nude is to be seen naked by others and yet not recognized for oneself. A naked body has to be seen as an object in order to become a nude. ( The sight of it as an object stimulates the use of it as an object.) Nakedness reveals itself. Nudity is placed on display.
To be naked is to be without disguise.
To be on display is to have the surface of one's own skin, the hairs of one's own body, turned into a disguise which, in that situation, can never be discarded. The nude is condemned to never being naked. Nudity is a form of dress.”
― John Berger, quote from Ways of Seeing


“The spectator-buyer is meant to envy herself as she will become if she buys the product. She is meant to imagine herself transformed by the product into an object of envy for others, an envy which will then justify her loving herself.”
― John Berger, quote from Ways of Seeing


“The happiness of being envied is glamour.
Being envied is a solitary form of reassurance. It depends precisely upon not sharing your experience with those who envy you. You are observed with interest but you do not observe with interest - if you do, you will become less enviable. In this respect the envied are like bureaucrats; the more impersonal they are, the greater the illusion (for themselves and for others) of their power. The power of the glamorous resides in their supposed happiness: the power of the bureaucrat in his supposed authority.”
― John Berger, quote from Ways of Seeing


“Oil painting did to appearances what capital did to social relations. It reduced everything to the equality of objects. Everything became exchangeable because everything became a commodity.”
― John Berger, quote from Ways of Seeing


“A woman must continually watch herself. She is almost continually accompanied by her own image of herself. Whilst she is walking across a room or whilst she is weeping at the death of her father, she can scarcely avoid envisaging herself walking or weeping. From earliest childhood she has been taught and persuaded to survey herself continually.
...
...
Every woman's presence regulates what is and is not 'permissible' within her presence. Every one of her actions - whatever its direct purpose or motivation - is also read as an indication of how she would like to be treated. If a woman throws a glass on the floor, this is an example of how she treats her own emotion of anger and so of how she would wish it to be treated by others. If a man does the same, his action is only read as an expression of his anger. If a woman makes a good joke this is an example of how she treats the joker in herself and accordingly of how she as a joker-woman would like to be treated by others. Only a man can make a good joke for its own sake.
One might simplify this by saying: men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves. The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed female. Thus she turns herself into an object - and most particularly an object of vision : a sight.”
― John Berger, quote from Ways of Seeing


“Women constantly meet glances which act like mirrors reminding them of how they look or how they should look. Behind every glance there is judgment.”
― John Berger, quote from Ways of Seeing


“Publicity is effective precisely because it feeds upon the real. Clothes, food, cars, cosmetics, baths, sunshine are real things to be enjoyed in themselves. Publicity begins by working on a natural appetite for pleasure. But it cannot offer the real object of pleasure and there is no convincing substitute for a pleasure in that pleasure's own terms. The more convincingly publicity conveys the pleasure of bathing in a warm, distant sea, the more the spectator-buyer will become aware that he is hundreds of miles away from that sea and the more remote the chance of bathing in it will seem to him. This is why publicity can never really afford to be about the product or opportunity it is proposing to the buyer who is not yet enjoying it. Publicity is never a celebration of a pleasure-in-itself. Publicity is always about the future buyer. It offers him an image of himself made glamorous by the product or opportunity it is trying to sell. The image then makes him envious of himself as he might be. Yet what makes this self-which-he-might-be enviable? The envy of others. Publicity is about social relations, not objects. Its promise is not of pleasure, but of happiness : happiness as judged from the outside by others. The happiness of being envied is glamour.
Being envied is a solitary form of reassurance. It depends precisely upon not sharing your experience with those who envy you. You are observed with interest but you do not observe with interest - if you do, you will become less enviable.
... ...
The spectator-buyer is meant to envy herself as she will become if she buys the product. She is meant to imagine herself transformed by the product into an object of envy for others, an envy which will then justify her loving herself. One could put this another way : the publicity images steals her love of herself as she is, and offers it back to her for the price of the product. (P. 128)”
― John Berger, quote from Ways of Seeing


“It proposes to each of us that we transform ourselves, or our lives, by buying something more.
This more, it proposes,will make us in some way richer - even though we will be poorer by having spent our money.
Publicity persuades us of such a transformation by showing us people who have apparently been transformed and are, as a result, enviable. The state of being envied is what constitutes glamour. And publicity is the process of manufacturing glamour. (P. 125)”
― John Berger, quote from Ways of Seeing


“This great artist is a man whose life-time is consumed by struggle : partly against material circumstances, partly against incomprehension, partly against himself... ... In no other culture has the artist been thought of in this way. Why then in this culture? We have already referred to the exigencies of the open art market. But the struggle was not only to live. Each time a painter realized that he was dissatisfied with the limited role of painting as a celebration of material property and of the status that accompanied it, he inevitably found himself struggling with the very language of his own art as understood by the tradition of his calling.
... ...
Every exceptional work was the result of a prolonged successful struggle. Innumerable works involved no struggle. There were also prolonged yet unsuccessful struggles. (P.104)”
― John Berger, quote from Ways of Seeing


“The bogus religiosity which now surrounds original works of art, and which is ultimately dependent upon their market value, has become the substitute for what paintings lost when the camera made them reproducible.”
― John Berger, quote from Ways of Seeing


“Men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves. The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed is female. Thus she turns herself into an object of vision: a sight.”
― John Berger, quote from Ways of Seeing


“Publicity images often use sculptures or paintings to lend allure or authority to their own message. Framed oil paintings often hang in shop windows as part of their display.
Any work of art 'quoted' by publicity serves two purposes. Art is a sign of affluence; it belongs to the good life; it is part of the furnishing which the world gives to the rich and the beautiful.
But a work of art also suggests a cultural authority, a form of dignity, even of wisdom, which is superior to any vulgar material interest; an oil painting belongs to the cultural heritage; it is a reminder of what it means to be a cultivated European. And so the quoted work of art (and this is why it is so useful to publicity) says two almost contradictory things at the same time: it denotes wealth and spirituality: it implies that the purchase being proposed is both a luxury and a cultural value. Publicity has in fact understood the tradition of the oil painting more thoroughly than most art historians. It has grasped the implications of the relationship between the work of art and its spectator-owner and with these it tries to persuade and flatter the spectator-buyer.
The continuity, however, between oil painting and publicity goes far deeper than the 'quoting' of specific paintings. Publicity relies to a very large extent on the language of oil painting. It speaks in the same voice about the same things. (P. 129)”
― John Berger, quote from Ways of Seeing


“Money is life. Not in the sense that without money you starve. Not in the sense that capital gives one class power over the entire lives of another class. But in the sense that money is the token of, and the key to, every human capacity. The power to spend money is the power to live.”
― John Berger, quote from Ways of Seeing


“Thus painting itself had to be able to demonstrate the desirability of what money could buy. And the visual desirability of what can be bought lies in its tangibility, in how it will reward the touch, the hand, of the owner.”
― John Berger, quote from Ways of Seeing


“Oil painting, before anything else, was a celebration of private property. As an art-form it derived from the principle that you are what you have.”
― John Berger, quote from Ways of Seeing


“Glamour cannot exist without personal social envy being a common and widespread emotion. The industrial society which has moved towards democracy and then stopped half way is the ideal society for generating such an emotion.”
― John Berger, quote from Ways of Seeing


“Publicity has another social function. The fact that this function has not been planned as a purpose by those make and use publicity in no way lessens its significance. Publicity turns consumption into a substitute for democracy.”
― John Berger, quote from Ways of Seeing


“Capitalism survives by forcing the majority, whom it exploits, to define their interests as narrowly as possible.This was once achieved by extensive deprivation. Today in the developed countries it is being achieved by imposing a false standard of what is and is not desirable.”
― John Berger, quote from Ways of Seeing


“The mirror was often used as a symbol of the vanity of woman. The moralizing, however, was mostly hypocritical.

You painted a naked woman because you enjoyed looking at her, you put a mirror in her hand and you called the painting "Vanity", thus morally condemning the woman whose nakedness you had depicted for your own pleasure.”
― John Berger, quote from Ways of Seeing


“To be naked is to be oneself. To be nude is to be seen naked by others and yet not recognized for oneself. A naked body has to be seen as an object in order to become a nude. (The sight of it as an object stimulates the use of it as an object.) Nakedness reveals itself. Nudity is placed on display.”
― John Berger, quote from Ways of Seeing


“One could put this another way: the publicity image steals her love of herself as she is, and offers it back to her for the price of the product.”
― John Berger, quote from Ways of Seeing


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About the author

John Berger
Born place: in Highams Park, London, England, The United Kingdom
Born date November 5, 1926
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