John Berger’s ‘Ways of Seeing’ had a profound effect on how society looks at art. Its challenge is the way that we see art and mirrors the exploration of art and creativity that takes place at the Stuart Low Trust’s Art programmes 

Stuart Low Trust provides art workshops in partnership with the Estorick Collection of Modern Italian Art, an art gallery in Islington. These art workshops not only enable participants to make artworks, but to explore art, its context and develop their own conceptions.  

Delivering our activities differently  

As a result of Coronavirus (COVID-19) the Stuart Low Trust are trying to deliver our activities differently. Whilst we cannot replicate the 'making' element of these workshops online, we would like to continue the exploration of art.    

In 1972 John Berger presented ‘Ways of Seeing’ a miniseries examining how we look at art.  We invited our participants to explore ‘Ways of Seeing’ over the course of 4 weeks, followed by a Zoom discussion about themes raised in the series and book.  

Ways of seeing  

‘Ways of Seeing’ changed how society looks at art and has contributed to feminist interpretations of culture due to its focus on the depiction of woman in paintings and according to Berger, its successor, advertising. 

The consensus in the group taking part in the Zoom discussion was that the programme was ‘of its time’; it's the type of TV we haven’t seen on our screens for many years, but the content is no less radical. The book continues to be disarming because it contains 3 picture essays- these have no written context or explanation and are without colour- forcing the reader to “read differently”.  

Femininity and the male gaze: what does this mean in a non-binary world?  

The Zoom discussion, coincidently, took place on the 50th anniversary of the Equal Pay Act, meaning that employers couldn’t pay women less than men for doing the same job, and so discussions of female depictions within art seemed like a relevant starting point.   

The discussions surrounding gender have shifted focus since the 70s, where gender was more binary to a society where lived experience of being a man, a woman, or neither, or somewhere in between is more relevant. As part of this broader conception of gender, we explored the relationship between femininity and gender.  

We considered whether femininity was the exclusive domain of women, as it was when the programme was originally made, or whether aspects of femininity can be enjoyed by those of all genders. Furthermore, we pondered what this means for art, in particular whether the Berger’s idea of the male gaze, ie viewing the world from a masculine, masculine, heterosexual perspective, seeing women as women as sexual objects for the pleasure of the male viewer was still as prevalent today. As time was limited, we couldn’t fully explore these themes and left these questions tantalizingly unanswered.  

Art and how we see it? 

The art industry is perceived as pure and organic, but on closer look is in fact driven by factors not relating to the talent or ideas of an artist, but rather the mood or intentions of curators (and wider market drivers) 

Can we enjoy art in it’s purity and react only to its aesthetics properties? Or is it important that a viewer interprets art by taking into account historic context, the intention of the artist, the physical context in which it’s being seenand the medium 

We agreed that whilst being informed is very important to seeing in general, we should try to remember that art can also be interpreted however you wantReacting to a piece of art without any contextual knowledge is a personal interpretation of it’s own; there isn’t a right or wrong to it. The most important thing is having an awareness of how easily our thinking can be manipulated by what we see, how, and where. 

Are Instagrammers the new generation of artists?  

Not wishing to shy away from big topics, we turned our attention to question what is art. The tension between the art world deciding that a piece can be called art and an artist calling their work ‘art’, is one that many people who create, feel. The intention to create was key to our definition of what could be considered art.  

For a picture, photo or film, this includes thinking about what is in the ‘frame’ and how this is captured. Berger considers advertising to be the heir of paintings, but since ‘Ways of Seeing’ was first created, a range of new visual media have developed, including social media.   

Social media users are encouraged to share visual images, particularly the platform Instagram which focuses on visual images. Celebrity influencers, individuals that can “influence” the buying behaviour of their audience, often talk about how long it takes to set up a shot for a product they are promoting. Not everyone is an influencer, but many social media users will routinely do the same when they are taking pictures of themselves or things of interest to their followers. They may take several pictures and decide which is the best one to use. Has the social media user become an artist and curator?  

Art galleries or art in unexpected spaces 

Whilst we didn’t reach a firm conclusion about whether images on social media could be considered art, we did agree that the conception that art is found in galleries is changing. There are positives associated with viewing art in a gallery space, including seeing famous pieces of art, or art by famous artists and seeing a piece of art in context. However, there is a new generation of artists and curators displaying exhibitions who are working in non-traditional spaces.  

From the street art of Banksy, to Stick drawing stick people on London buildings, London has iconic art woven into the fabric of its streets. With millions of people appreciating art, almost, by osmosis.  

Over the last year the Stuart Low Trust’s arts programmes have engaged with these by visiting the Frieze Sculpture in 2019 and the Loudest Whispers in February 2020. Both these exhibition spaces showcase art in unexpected places; the Frieze shows world renowned sculpture in Regents Park and Loudest Whispers presents art in a hospital waiting area. In addition, our art workshops take place at the Estorick, a Grade II listed Georgian town house that has been converted into an art space.  

Art, Participation and Marginalisation 

Our participants tell us that having art within the community combats the feeling of exclusiveness and marginalisation that people can feel when trying to engage with art. If you are someone who already feels marginalised, the art world is doubly marginalising, and more can be done to break down barriers. We came to the conclusion that artworks found in unexpected spaces makes art feel more democratic. More like anyone who wants to create art can do so. 

With such a lively discussion, that raised more questions than it answered, we will be holding another series of online art experiences. For more information and to get involved, contact [email protected] or ring 0207 713 9304. 

Written by 

Lorna Lewis- Operations and Communications Manager, Stuart Low Trust