Skip to content

a media journal


Ways of Seeing

John Berger

What do we see when we look at a painting in a museum, or an ad in a magazine? There’s the colors and textures, the shapes and characters. But we also see how colors become emotions, and how characters represent stories. Art invites this conversation—this dialogue—on finding meaning, connecting realities, and imagining beyond. 

Museums, experts, and such try to provide answers, they give context and legitimacy, which at best limit the full potential of the art, and at worst are strategies to restrict creativity into boxes of commodities and assets. What they (the wealthy, the institutions) fear is the limitless realities that exist in creativity. 

Beyond the colors and shapes, there are the emotions and narratives, but beyond that? That is the boundless and limitless, these are the things that are both invisible and hyper-visible. This is seeing a painting in a museum and wondering how the setting affects its context. This is looking at oil painting and questioning its interrelatedness (along with most art forms) with capital. This is looking at a copy and questioning its value. This is looking at modern advertising and understanding it as the latest iteration of Western art, rather than separate from it. 

There is pleasure in unpacking these themes in of itself, similar to reading an interview or dissecting art with others, it provides background. It can help us develop a better critique of art, or enhance our enjoyment, but perhaps more crucially, it gets us closer to the essence of creativity. More than developing a deeper relationship with the art, these questions are part of the art themselves. The “value” of the art does not rest on the painting. It is in the process of making said art before there are any viewers. It is in the conversation that occurs between the artist, via the art, and the viewer. It is in the dialogue between two viewers that have seen that art. 

It’s at this level of seeing that we understand the fascination of objects in oil painting as an extension of wealthy art collectors exerting their status, we see the male gaze imposed on female characters in a painting, we see the way white supremacy, capitalism, and colonialism has and continues to define art. This way of seeing may seem many layers in, but they’re actually the most clear and coherent aspect of the art. “Seeing comes before words. The child looks and recognizes before it can speak.” A lot of the work here is not in analyzing further, intellectualizing more, but just in observing what is felt. 

We can see the way that copies are de-valued as a way to support the scarcity framework and prop up the value of limited commodities. We can see the way in which the desire to own and conquer by the rich dictates much of the content in Western art. We can see how art for the masses—advertising—is designed not only to sell a product, but sell the central premise that art can and should be a vessel to further capitalism, dangling past riches (nostalgia for what never was) with the promise of future possibilities (vacation to save you from work). 

All of this to distract us from seeing the present, from truly seeing beyond towards the realities that are true, that art and creativity is this shared interconnected energy that can’t be bottled into a product or asset. Copies can be just as impactful as originals and more accurately represent the shared flow of ideas and inspirations that exist. There are a multitude of questions and answers to any art, there are multiple truths to lean into. There are no boundaries or borders to where an art begins and where it ends. When we see and imagine beyond, capital will not be able to package, centralized power will no longer have control, and institutions will never be able to contain. That is what we see when we look.