Watching Ways of Seeing

When I heard that the writer and art critic John Berger had died, I thought about how enlightening I’d found his book Ways of Seeing when I first came across it in the late 1970s. The book had developed out of a TV series he made for the BBC in 1972, and the second of its four half-hour episodes was devoted to ‘Women in art’. Watching this now is an interesting experience for anyone interested in the second wave. (If you’d like to watch it yourself, you can find it here.)

In the first half of the programme, Berger offers an analysis of the nude in European painting. It’s a feminist analysis: its central point is that the female nude is an object representation-16-728rather than a person, depicted as passive and available for the enjoyment of the male spectator. Another memorable point is about the common convention of showing a nude woman gazing at herself in the mirror. Men paint women’s bodies for their own and other men’s pleasure, then add a mirror to communicate that the women are vain and narcissistic. Hypocrites, says Berger.

But then, after about fifteen minutes, he stops analysing paintings and observes that it’s a bit odd to make a programme which is full of representations of women displaying themselves to men, but does not feature the thoughts or words of any actual women. So, he announces, he has shown his 15 minute analysis to a group of five women, and asked them to respond to what he’s been saying.

The rest of the programme shows the five women and Berger in conversation. He’s pretty restrained, so it’s largely the women’s contributions we hear. They’re interesting both for what the women have to say–they talk about their own reactions to the paintings and their own experiences of ‘looking at themselves being looked at’–and as an example of what a serious feminist TV discussion looked and sounded like in 1972.

The whole thing does feel very retro–it has a lot of long didactic speeches to camera, and they’re delivered in a rather stilted, formal manner. (Connoisseurs of 1970s style will also appreciate the graphic design and background music.) But as I watched the second half, I kept thinking: when do we ever see a serious discussion among five women on TV now? All-female discussion programmes do exist (the obvious example is Loose Women), but they’re generally designed as undemanding daytime entertainment featuring media personalities or ‘celebs’. Today it would be unthinkable for any TV programme maker to let five unnamed women just talk, and listen politely to one another, for 15 uninterrupted minutes. A contemporary producer would want familiar media faces, and would probably choose the participants with an eye to making the discussion a ‘debate’.

The format used in 1972 seems incredibly old-fashioned because it doesn’t observe these conventions. No one involved seems remotely concerned about making it ‘accessible’ or ‘entertaining’. Yet there’s something refreshing about watching a TV discussion among people who are just exploring ideas rather than trying to score points in an argument, and who aren’t slick media performers. Their conversation is feminist in spirit as well as content–and since most feminist conversations (as opposed to written texts) have not been preserved for posterity, that makes it especially interesting as a piece of second-wave history.

The analysis still resonates, too.

1197141Cranach the Elder, The Judgment of Paris, 1530; Victoria’s Secret, 2012