Ways of Seeing, By John Berger

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The Independent Culture

I first read this book as a student, 20 years ago, and it sparked off my interest in the kind of art criticism that feminist theory subsequently seemed to be exploring best.

This is not to claim that Berger (a man, for heaven's sake!) was responsible for a whole political movement dedicated to equality for women, or even for an academic genre devoted to analysing how women are looked at in art and society. But this volume, which was first published in 1972, is still a rare example of that much-claimed title, the trailblazer, and reading it once again I'm reminded of how much, perhaps more than ever, we're in need of a political context to be given to the depiction of women in art and culture.

Berger, of course, wasn't only looking at women – although his assessment, "You painted a naked woman because you enjoyed looking at her, you put a mirror in her hand and you called the painting Vanity", will stand as one of the most powerful statements ever made about the depiction of women in art and in society as a whole. Hierarchies of every kind were the target of this blistering Marxist critique, so the wealthy owners of art came under attack, and the patrons, as well as the producers and viewers of it.

In a world full of reproductions, the currency of art (as much as the currency of the human body) is so much a part of our culture that we barely notice it – except, perhaps, when a Damien Hirst is bought for millions of pounds during the beginnings of a credit crunch. Berger is a political reminder of what that exchange means. Put it on the school curriculum! Every adolescent should read it.

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