Through the looking-glass: John Berger's groundbreaking book Ways of Seeing started life as a Seventies television series, repeated for the first time tonight. Tom Lubbock watched the man - and his extraordinary shirt

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Seeing comes before words. The child looks and recognises before it can speak.' Those two sentences - forthright, definitive, obscurely significant, not necessarily connected - are known to countless thousands. They are the opening words of John Berger's best-selling and most influential book, Ways of Seeing. It's a short book, distinctive for its bold, manifesto typography and its zippy collages of illustrations. Since it was first published in 1972, it's been reprinted and translated many times, and become a staple primer for almost anyone studying art, and a universal introduction to critical issues for the general reader. It lurks somewhere in almost every aspiring bookcase.

But viewing came before print. Ways of Seeing was first a series of four half-hour TV programmes, broadcast (twice) on BBC 2 in 1972. The book, as its cover announces, is the book of that series. Since then, though, the series hasn't been shown again. It's now being repeated on Saturday afternoons, starting today. (Tonight on BBC 1 you can also see a survey of Berger's whole career, A Telling Eye, produced, like Ways of Seeing, by Mike Dibb). Many who know the book won't have seen the series before. I hadn't myself. But they've had a reputation as, for their time, a groundbreaking piece of television. Berger was in his mid-forties when he presented them and - which in retrospect acquires a strange importance - he'd recently bought a shirt.

Certainly it is as television that the series is now interesting. Its points, and they are substantially the same as the book's, have been much repeated, elaborated, disputed - at any rate they've done their work. There's no doubt that they did break ground. Berger's arguments about the representation of women, the connection between painting, power and property, the language of advertising, have set a cultural agenda which is now almost the air we breathe. But the programmes have their own particular rhetoric. More than that, they are very conscious of being television; and, being so concerned with the way images can be used, they're very self-conscious about their own powers of persuasion.

They begin with a striking coup. Berger, in what looks like a gallery, walks over to Botticelli's Mars and Venus, takes out a knife and cuts out Venus's face. Ah, you think, so it must have been a reproduction, not the original - but you couldn't tell at first. And with that single gesture, Berger makes the main point of the first programme. The existence of photography and reproduction have radically altered our view of painting. Later he demonstrates the way television itself can transform a picture - by selecting details, by adding different kinds of music. But already we're aware of a tension. Television can't but manipulate paintings one way or another; but Berger's arguments themselves must manipulate them too.

The programmes try to keep this fact in view, sometimes pulling back to reveal the cameras and lights. But when the arguments get moving, such scruples are abandoned. There are montage sequences, with rapid juxtapositions of images, and effects that are almost subliminal, riding over any doubting of the connections suggested. It is an advertising technique at full throttle. But then again, when it comes to those few paintings which Berger believes transcend prevailing cultural norms - a self-portrait by Rembrandt, an interior by Vermeer - strictures about reproduction are more or less forgotten. We are offered the image in direct and silent contemplation.

Not that the possibility of doubt isn't often registered. Every programme has a 'don't take my word for it' moment. Berger will say: 'I am controlling and using for my own purposes the means of reproduction needed for these programmes. I hope you will consider what I arrange. But be sceptical of it.' Of course the invitation is an awkward one, a little coercive in giving permission where no permission should be needed - or perhaps a covert acknowledgement that things don't quite add up, are meant chiefly to provoke questions. For the problem with Ways of Seeing's arguments is not that they're contentious, but that they're in detail not followable. The main question they provoke is: what exactly is being argued? In Berger's elliptical and aphoristic assertions, often several quite different lines of thought are pursued at the same time as if they were a single thread. The result is not so much provocative as mysteriously suggestive, as if there were some larger truth behind it all which can't quite be revealed.

There is one occasion when other voices are introduced, in the second programme, about representations of women - reflecting Berger's awareness that he's been speaking on behalf of women too long. About two-thirds through, he says he's shown what he's done so far to 'five women', and asked them to discuss it. The discussion occupies the rest of the time. A clear gesture of openness. But the 'five women' remain unnamed until the closing credits. They are women. And Berger himself actually sits in on the discussion - in fact he chairs it, with complete confidence in the non-prejudicial nature of his own presence.

Finally, and you see it before any words are spoken, there is the shirt. Television dates like no other medium. After all, men wore strange shirts in films from 1972 too, but for some reason the cinema doesn't bear the marks of its age. And in a series which dwells on what the passage of time does to how we see things, on images of desirability and possession, on the power of advertising, you can't now but wonder at what made someone want that garment. It's a slim-line number, with a vertical pattern of linked bangles. It is never changed throughout the series, worn continually, a conscious statement of some sort. Informal? Sexy? Neutral? It becomes increasingly obtrusive and fascinating as the programmes proceed.

This sounds a stupid point. But the programmes' power depends so much on Berger's very direct, personal and bodily address to the viewer. The montages alternate with pieces to camera in which Berger simply stands in mid-shot, before a blank blue background, speaking, gesticulating, one to one. His unadorned physical presence is crucial. It is the token of the sincerity and the seriousness of his case (and a sense of conviction has always been Berger's most powerful weapon). But the cost of physical presence is that you must look like something. And it's not Berger's taste as such, which was clearly of its time, that signifies, but the fact that it was of its time; the way that Berger, surveying all history and culture from as it were an outside position, finds himself so signally enmeshed in a historical and cultural moment.

Of course it's the kind of thing that, at the time, no one can be fully conscious of. But I take the shirt as an emblem of the more general fact that Ways of Seeing, though so attentive to the power of images, and striving to persuade, while drawing attention to its own persuasive designs, inevitably has its blindspots. Here is one rhetorical device whose effect was quite out of its hands. Our own ways of seeing have changed in ways that could neither be controlled nor predicted. Our own situation is naturally just as vulnerable.

Enlightenment will never save us from our shirts. On the other hand, I suppose that no one more than Berger has taught us to notice such things.

(Photograph omitted)