What John Berger Saw:

Robert Boynes, Susan Fereday, Elizabeth Gertsakis, Dean Golja, Paul Hoban, John Hughes, Tim Johnson, Peter Kennedy, Peter Lyssiotis, Polixeni Papapetrou, Gregory Pryer, Anne Zahalka, Constance Zikos, The exhibition features a collaborative work by John Berger and UK artist John Christie. Canberra School of Art Gallery 10 September - 6 November 1999 Australian Tour 2000-2001

The aim of this exhibition is to present work by contemporary Australian artists which can be seen to reflect the ideas of the English art critic (also novelist, essayist, poet and painter) John Berger.

The assertion on which the rationale of the exhibition depends is that Berger's 1972 television series Ways of Seeing fundamentally "altered the way we think about art". It is a bold statement and initially I was sceptical. The argument is not so much that Berger's ideas directly influence artists as that the ideas he disseminated have become so integral to how we think about art that we have forgotten that it was Berger who set us thinking in the first place. Certainly, his ideas are not usually quoted in critical responses in discussions of the artists who appear in the exhibition: he is not fashionable now in the way that say Foucault, Barthes or Boudrillard is.

Ways of Seeing was essentially polemical, a response to Kenneth Clark's 1969 television series Civilization, in which Western art history was read in terms of the history of ever greater achievements by isolated men of genius: being polemical, it consists of persuasive statements which are not always fabulously well supported.

The popularity of Ways of Seeing was, however, enormous. Berger is, as Merryn Gates, the curator of the exhibition, puts it "an expert educationalist". He is passionately determined to get his point across (whenever I see documentaries about Berger what always strikes me about him is an almost painful earnestness). Though the series and book grew out of his own earlier writings and continued the thinking of others what is important is that Ways of Seeing, through the television series and the subsequent book - put out in paperback and immensely readable - reached a vast audience. I imagine it was virtually impossible to avoid Ways of Seeing in the 1970s - it was a key text in art schools. It is still to be found on reading lists and on a lot of bookshelves (and its owners claim to have read it).
So what does John Berger say that was so radical in 1972 and why does it remain relevant?

Berger is a Marxist, and one of his fundamental ideas is the relationship of art to property in a capitalist society: that "to have a thing painted and put on canvas is not unlike buying it and putting it in your house". Art becomes a metaphor for power and art derives its aura from the fact that it is consumable. He talks also about the way that our seeing art has fundamentally shifted since the invention of the camera and the ability of art works to be endlessly duplicated.
The image of a work of art becomes information which can be manipulated, combined with images from popular culture, and used in a way that has little or nothing to do with the paintings original independent meaning. Berger's other long discussion is in the area of sexual politics: an awareness that the way that women are presented in art and popular culture is essentially different to men: "men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at". That these issues have dominated art through the 1970s - 1990s doesn't need to be argued.

Unfortunately, there is not space in a review of this length to illustrate the way that in each artist's work issues relating to Berger's concerns are manifest: in most cases the connection is clear - sometimes the influence is close, other times more oblique and unexpected - both in the art works included in the exhibition and in tracing the development of the artists' practice. In nearly all cases, the exhibition is comprised of well-established 'mid-career' artists whose works are made within well-articulated theoretical and/or social frameworks: this show gave me the opening to assess their work in a different context. For Berger, a painter himself, sight was the primary sense and his writing is consistently based on evaluative reflections based on looking at specific works of art. To look freshly at what we think we know. The artists in this show are concerned with doing this: the exhibition visitor also.

The fold-out catalogue and the video footage of John Berger gives an audience which is not familiar with Ways of Seeing a good idea of what John Berger did see. The exhibition is convincing in its basic assertion that John Berger's role in shaping the landscape of contemporary art practice has been central and long lasting.

Support independent writing on the visual arts. Subscribe or donate here.