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Modern life is surrounded by images. We see images in newspapers, billboards, television, and even in mobile phones. The images that are presented all around us are open books that chronicle the history and the social binding of society. Images help us understand not only the message in it but also about the culture. This paper discusses how images help to create social history. The paper will also discuss how images make a social distinction between men and women and how the commercial pillage objectifies the latter to validate certain long-standing social constructs.
Ways of Seeing is a seminal work by John Berger published in 1973 that propounds that academics have obscured the meaning of images. The main argument posed by Berger is that what we see is influenced by what we understand. In other words, what we see is influenced by what we know and believe (Berger 8). Images are the vehicle to create certain responses, which are actually the connection the brain makes to the image and the construct related to that image. Thus, an image, when separated from time and place will hold little meaning to the observer for she will have no reference to derive its meaning. This idea reverberates the theory presented by Roland Barthes who points out that we never encounter images in its literal purity for they are always painted with a symbolic message (Barthes 42) Production of images has changed over the years and this has changed the perception man has about them. For instance, the first visual representation of images was that of things that were not present. However, when the historical value of the image was discovered, men started depicting images that were already there in order to create a path towards the continuity of its legacy. This is a process of cultural “mystification of the past” (Berger 16). However, the invention of photography changed the way images were viewed. Camera, especially, movie camera, changed the way time-space singularity was a predisposed character of all previous images. Further, photography also broke the uniqueness of images as they could be reproduced in large numbers. Thus, art stopped being an object of elitist indulgence, converting to a strong socio-political instrument of the masses.
Visual images are often used, especially commercially, to elicit certain responses in the viewer. Images marketed commercially to have an explicit role of representing images of social discourse. The social image of men and women in visual advertisements are burning records of social gender roles established by society. Publicity images are meant to elicit the desire to purchase the product that would make the buyer an object of envy for others. Therefore, the aim of the publicity is to show men or women in the images as objects of envy so that they can transform the buyers into objects as well. The image of a woman, when represented in the pictures, is shown as objects of desire. The product and the woman in the image become the symbol of desire and envy. The objectification of the female body is a tool that advertisers often use, but this is not a singularly modern phenomenon. During the Renaissance, when artists started painting nudes, they were mostly female subjects. Thus, the idea of shame and chastity became an object of display. They became a constant reminder of the social codes, and women, who were historically discoursed to be the epitome of social propriety, were displayed naked not on their own right but as an object of display for the pleasure of the masculine eye. Thus, the nakedness in the paintings was not an expression of the female subject’s feelings but that of the male viewer. Thus, Berger points out that distinction between nakedness as an expression of personal feeling and that of the viewer, thus, distinguishing between nakedness and nudity:
To be naked is to be oneself. To be nude is to be seen naked by others and yet not recognized for oneself. A naked body has to be seen as an object in order to become nude. (Berger 54)
Thus, the depiction of women and the state of their clothes depended on the painter. Kenneth Clark presents a similar idea about nudity and nakedness (5-6). However, Paola Tinagli differs from this definition describing it as a typical Anglo-Saxon idea (5). Berger points out that when a painter paints a woman he cares for, she is usually depicted partially clothed, thus, naked, while women who are still-life objects for a painter’s study, she is nude (Berger 55). This persistent masculine attitude towards the depiction of images of nude women has been inherited by the modern mass media. Jacques Derrida considers the frame as a discourse of the object that is painted, thus reinforcing the idea that the female subjects in the paintings are objects and the viewers judge them based on the social discourses (17). Publicity images today use women as objects for display. Women are models to be observed by the viewer and depicted solely for the pleasure of the (male) viewer’s eyes.
Images present a social history and we see images as we have learned to view them. Words are secondary and come afterward. Thus, images last longer and create a great influence on the psyche of the viewer, instilling immense influence.
Barthes, Roland. “Rhetoric of the Image.” Image, Music, Text, translated by Stephen Heath, Fontana Press, 1977, pp. 32-51.
Berger, john. Ways of Seeing, Penguine, 1977.
Clark, Kenneth. The Nude: A Study in Ideal Form: A Study in Ideal Form. Princeton University Press, 2015.
Derrida, Jacques. “The parergon.” October, vol. 9, 1979, pp. 3-41.
Tinagli, Paola. Women in Italian Renaissance Art: Gender, Representation and Identity. Manchester University Press, 1997.