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Book 1

  1. Berger, John — Ways of Seeing (149 pages)
Page count
149
book cover: Ways of Seeing.

I am drawn to the world of art but find understanding or appreciating what I see a challenge. I can tell you whether I like a work of art but have difficulty going beyond that. I do not enjoy museums or galleries because I find them stuffy, tedious, and impenetrable. Museums (and a lot of books about art) place art on a high pedestal and clothe it in academic language, browbeating into me a sense that I must admire these classics, that I am a lesser person if I do not, and assigning an artificial value to them.

John Berger's Ways of Seeing, based on a four-part BBC television series of the same name, clears away a lot of the clutter. (View Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4 on YouTube.) As the title suggests, the 7 chapters are about different ways of seeing art, about helping one see past all the cruft built up around it. Two essays are purely pictorial. Of the non-pictorial chapters, the first, based on Walter Benjamin's famous essay, "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," discusses how the meaning of any painting has become ambiguous in a world where prints of the painting have become ubiquitous; any meaning is now dependent largely on context, such as accompanying words, sounds, images, etc. The second looks at the distinction between nudity and nakedness, focusing on the female nude in oil paintings and how, despite any artistic quality, they exist as a way for male audiences to enjoy, objectify, and own them. The third demonstrates the various levels at which paintings can be used to denote property, ownership, and status. And the final chapter looks at how advertising capitalizes on art in order to engender a sense of glamour and desire.

I found Ways of Seeing a refreshing, unpretentious, and insightful approach to art criticism and echo the sentiment that anyone who has an interest in the world of art should familiarize him- or herself with these essays.

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