The Seminal TV Series That Changed How We See

Fifty years after its debut, Ways of Seeing still offers valuable lessons for how to explore—and question—the visual world around us.

GIF illustration of classical art portraits and blinking eyes
Adam Maida / The Atlantic; Corbis / Getty

The BBC miniseries Ways of Seeing opens with a close-up shot of the British art critic John Berger standing in front of a large framed painting—Botticelli’s Venus and Mars—hanging in a museum. “This is the first of four programs in which I want to question some of the assumptions usually made about the tradition of European painting,” Berger intones in voice-over. On-screen, he pulls a box cutter from his pocket and begins slicing into the painting. As he removes the face of Venus, the hole left behind reveals a blue wall where the back of the frame should be; we have not, in fact, been looking at the wall of a museum, but rather, a rudimentary set constructed inside a recording studio. This visual doubles as a concise summary of the show’s premise: In art, and in life, things are rarely as they appear.

Ways of Seeing, which first aired in 1972, is an undeniably humble project: four 30-minute episodes, filmed with very little in the way of a production budget (the plain blue wall revealed in the opening gag serves as the background for most of Berger’s monologues). The program seems to be an indirect response to more traditionalist narratives of art history, in particular Civilisation, another BBC show from just a few years prior. Berger, whose Marxist influence put him at odds with much of the fine-art world, seemed to see uncritical veneration in those narratives, which obscured both the true intentions of the painters and the social order to which they belonged. So he created his own series, an audacious rejoinder intended for a general audience in which he freely explored topics such as the role of the female nude in the European painting tradition, the importance of situational context to the art-viewing experience, and the aspirational nature of advertising photography.

The result is neither the most exhaustive nor the most sophisticated of art-history curricula; Ways of Seeing is rough around the edges, rushed in some places and overly repetitive in others. And yet these flaws seem to contribute to the show’s charm and appeal. Berger’s intended audience might be one that is not yet deeply knowledgeable about art. But his brilliance was in understanding that beginners, too, deserve to be treated as intelligent, capable of thinking sharply even as they encounter unfamiliar concepts for the first time.

The modest show was an unexpected hit, lauded as groundbreaking by critics and beloved by audiences. Now, 50 years later, the series and its book companion are still frequently assigned in undergraduate art-history classes, and its unsentimental yet approachable style has made it a touchstone for those who write about art, beauty, and advertising. Berger’s most famous quip recently appeared as an epigraph in the supermodel Emily Ratajkowski’s essay collection on the discontents of being famously and professionally beautiful: “You painted a naked woman because you enjoyed looking at her, put a mirror in her hand and you called the painting Vanity, thus morally condemning the woman whose nakedness you had depicted for your own pleasure.” In much of the Western canon, Berger argued, the positioning of the female nude suggested that she was being captured not on her own terms, but rather in a state of performance, her personhood mediated by the painter’s desire.

Berger’s popular appeal owes in part to his resistance to what he called “false mystification”—the convoluted, jargon-laden way in which experts often write about art, with little consideration for what sorts of context might benefit the general viewer. In one scene, Berger quotes at length from an art historian’s description of paintings by Frans Hals, noting with polite contempt that “it’s as though the author wants to mask the images, as though he fears their directness and accessibility.” With each painting he studies, Berger invites us to examine not only what appears within the frame, but also everything around it and behind the scenes—the materials with which the work is constructed, the lives and social statuses of the painter, the subject, and the commissioner. Where Civilisation’s Kenneth Clark, in his book Landscape Into Art, sees little more than an “enchanting” landscape in Thomas Gainsborough’s masterwork Mr. and Mrs. Andrews, Berger uncovers something more: That painting, he argues, is intended to lionize its commissioners by celebrating their status as property owners.

Similarly, although some viewers might assume that the depictions of beauty and fashion in classical portraits were the height of aspirational allure, Berger argues that the concept of glamour didn’t truly exist in that tradition. “When everybody’s place in society is more or less determined by birth, personal envy is a less familiar emotion,” Berger says, “and without social envy, glamour cannot exist.” His eagerness to overturn conventional wisdom can occasionally lead him toward fanciful assertions, such as his implication that some young schoolchildren he recruits to observe a painting are better at ascertaining its context than art historians. But more often, he strikes gold: Through his Marxist and feminist treatments, the ideological resonances of each painting, hidden by time and acclaim, begin to leap out from the canvas.

If Ways of Seeing has a major fault, it is Berger’s failure to clearly cite the critics and historians whose work he converses with and builds upon. Nowhere is this oversight more egregious than in the episode devoted to a critique of the female nude. Berger does not engage with any feminist theorists by name; instead, he conducts a panel discussion with five women (unidentifed until the end credits), who offer their insights. The scene’s structure would suggest that these are random women without expertise in the subject matter; in reality, they are feminist writers, critics, and artists in their own right. (One of them, Anya Bostock, was also Berger’s partner.) While this particular instance smacks of the same male-centering that Berger himself denounces as “absurd,” the insufficient credits matter beyond not paying homage. For an educational program, shepherding viewers toward further, more advanced criticism in art history and theory should have been a top priority.

Despite this shortcoming, Berger largely succeeds in opening his viewers’ eyes, all while encouraging them to use the ideas presented as scaffolding for their own inquiry. And many scholars have since followed his lead. Ways of Seeing’s influence can be directly traced to a number of recent British art-history series, including Mary Beard’s Shock of the Nude and James Bridle’s New Ways of Seeing. A review in The Guardian of Civilisation’s 2018 remake noted that “the ghost that hovers over Civilisations is not … that of Clark, but that of Berger.” The program has also proved influential outside the realm of art history and criticism—the feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey drew on Berger’s ideas in her essay that popularized his now-ubiquitous phrase, “the male gaze.”

In the social-media sphere, Berger’s stylistic choices and balance between accessibility and nuance have been imitated in the ever-ballooning YouTube video-essay genre, as well as on TikTok. These entries vary widely in quality. Many are far more facile than even Berger’s simplest arguments, while others are dogmatic in a way that shuts down independent thinking rather than encouraging it. But occasional glimpses of the Bergerian balance can be found in this domain. Although she may or may not be directly inspired by the critic, Abigail Thorn, a British YouTuber, makes sprawling, theatrical video essays that engage rigorously with a range of writers and philosophers, clearly summarizing and expanding upon their work (unlike Berger, she includes onscreen citations for her sources). On TikTok, the Australian art-history buff Mary McGillivray approaches the Western canon and pop-cultural subjects with a distinctively feminist, historicizing lens. In fact, McGillivray notes on her website that, growing up, she “dreamed of becoming the next Mary Beard or John Berger.”

And we need people like Berger urgently, to help us parse a new visual landscape. Far from limited to the purview of fine art, Ways of Seeing serves as a blueprint for untangling the meanings of the hundreds or thousands of images that bombard us every day. Berger could not have predicted the exponential rate at which images are constantly recontextualized on social media, or the false scarcity and commodification imposed on digital images by NFTs, but his method of inquiry is one that, even 50 years later, can help us embark on our own investigations of visual culture. Any image, after all, can be carefully framed in support of a particular narrative. “With this program, as with all programs, you receive images and meanings which are arranged,” Berger says at the end of Ways of Seeing’s first episode. “I hope you will consider what I arrange, but be skeptical of it.”