Disclaimer: I have previously received PR products (free review copies) from Penguin.
A slightly different review today, because today I’m reviewing a non-fiction book, rather than a novel. Now, sometimes I find non-fiction reviews really hard to write, and sometimes I find them easy. So, please bear with me a bit and see how this one goes! This was a book my boyfriend bought me for my birthday in September, because we enjoy going to art galleries together (not that we’ve had chance to do that this year), so I wanted to learn a bit more about art history.
The book, Ways of Seeing, is based on a short series of 30-minute films broadcast on the BBC in 1972. Berger created much of the series, hence the book having his name on the cover, though there were also other contributors, namely Michael Dibb, Sven Bloomberg, Chris Fox and Richard Hollis. Dibb directed the series, while all the people named worked on the book. For some reason I don’t understand, the book is typeset in bold, so be prepared for a different visual experience even when looking at the text itself. Of course, a book about art would not be complete without images of the art, so you can also expect to see lots of the different artwork discussed in the book as well. Sadly, the book is rather small, and the images are quite tricky to see. Sometimes there are several images to a page, and they’re all reproduced in black and white, which makes it rather hard to see the details of the image. Of course, you can always look up the artwork if you so wish to see a larger, colour image, but for what the book is discussing, the images in it suffice to illustrate the point being made. While there are, therefore, some aspects of the book’s presentation that I would describe politely as ‘less than ideal’, I did like that, at the back, there are several blank pages, still numbered, with the heading “To be continued by the reader…”. My interpretation is that this is space for the reader to add to the book in some way — with further reading, observations of their own or reproductions of images.
The book is split into 7 short, digestible sections, alternating between written essays and pictorial essays. The pictorial essays link to the written essays very well, so when you’re reading the written essays, you can flick back to the pictorial essays for additional examples of the kinds of things being discussed, though there is at least one image on almost every page. Throughout the book, Berger addresses Walter Benjamin, the depiction of women in art, oil paintings, and advertising. The most interesting for me was definitely the latter, given my interest in politics and the ways capitalism works (or to be more accurate, I am interested in the ways capitalism does not work), and that’s definitely a chapter I’m interested in reading more about. For that reason, I’m a bit sad that there isn’t a list of further reading provided with this book, because I was expecting there to be one at the back. All of the essays were really interesting, however, and I do now have several sticky tabs in various places throughout the book, marking passages I particularly enjoyed, or marking an idea I want to research further.
The writing is really easy to follow, which I was grateful for as someone who hasn’t read much about art before. I was familiar with a lot of the ideas discussed, but not in the context of art, so it was very interesting for me to read about the ways art plays into these ideas, and the ways in which it perpetuates or challenges them. For many people, art is seen as something that can be very subversive, and that’s the way I tend to think about art, but this book did make me realise that art can also be extremely conservative in many ways. The advertising chapter was particularly interesting, as it discusses the idea of art representing the present, while advertising represents the promise of a future, yet advertising borrows heavily from art in the ways it depicts images.
I thought Ways of Seeing has a great balance between images and text, which is tricky in a book like this. Too few pictures and you risk failing to illustrate your point, but too many images (particularly thinking about here images interspersed with text), gives a very disjointed reading experience. While there are some images within the written essays, I mentioned earlier the pictorial essays, and flicking back to them. Obviously, it is up to the individual reader how much they choose to do this, and whether they want to read through the text and then look at the art to illustrate the point, or whether they want to flick back and forth as they read.
Overall, Ways of Seeing is a great introduction to the world of art, and some of the politics around art. My main issue with this book is that it does not offer a suggested list of further reading. There are also some ideas I would have liked for it to explore further, especially relating to advertising, art, and class. I will be doing my own research to find some follow up texts, but if you know of any you think I would enjoy, please drop them in the comments.