Ways of Seeing: How a book on art criticism led me to mindfulness

This week I’ve been reading John Berger’s 1972 publication Ways of Seeing. This seminal work on how we perceive images and how artworks are created and ‘read’ with an eye to the cultural context of the viewer, remains relevant and insightful today – not only when thinking about art, but more broadly, in relation to the ways in which we see and portray ourselves, and the way that we are seen by those around us.

In this blog I have touched on the idea of body image, as well as our perceptions, attitudes and treatment of our physical form, and it with a nod to this that I wanted to pull out a couple of quotes that I found particularly thought provoking and relevant in this context.

I’ve reflected on these a little below, but I would be really interested to hear how others respond to Berger’s words.

This quote comes from his essay on the female form:

‘A woman must continually watch herself. She is almost continually accompanied by her own image of herself. Whilst she is walking across a room or whilst she is weeping…she can scarcely avoid envisaging herself walking or weeping. From earliest childhood she has been taught and persuaded to survey herself continually…And so she comes to consider the surveyor and the surveyed within her as the two constituent yet always distinct elements of her identity as a woman…One might simplify this by saying: men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at.’

In the contemporary world, with social media pervading all aspects of our lives, this act of creating a vision of oneself is more ubiquitous than ever, and, I would argue, is no longer simply the preserve of women.

We are constantly creating and recreating images of ourselves, with photographs filtered and tweaked to offer an idealised picture. We often use this vision as the means by which we interact with those around us, and it is this version of ourselves that dictates how we want to be approached and treated by others.

This quote made me realise how hyper-aware I am of the way that I am perceived, and how curated the version of myself I portray to the world is. My accent, the way I dress, the conversations I conduct, the books I read, are often consciously or unconsciously adjusted with an eye to my ‘audience’. And this is something that I think many of us are guilty of to a greater or lesser extent. This made me wonder how liberating it would be not to be constrained by an internal ‘surveyor’; to live and act without concern for any audience.

The second essay that I found compelling was Berger’s work on publicity and it’s role in creating both desire and dissatisfaction.

‘Publicity is never a celebration of a pleasure-in-itself. Publicity is always about the future buyer. It offers him an image of himself made glamorous by the product or opportunity it is trying to sell. The image then makes him envious of himself as he might be. Yet what makes this self-which-he-might-be enviable? The envy of others. Publicity is about social relations, not objects. Its promise is not of pleasure, but of happiness: happiness as judged from the outside by others. The happiness of being envied is glamour…

The spectator-buyer is meant to envy herself as she will become if she buys the product. She is meant to imagine herself transformed by the product into an object of envy for others, an envy which will then justify her loving herself. One could put this another way: the publicity image steals her love of herself as she is, and offers it back to her for the price of the product…

I find this idea of being compelled to ‘buy’ your future ‘better’ self is at the same time both horrifying and enlightening. We are surrounded by images which push us to think of how to augment our future selves, often at the expense of engaging with our current experiences. We mentally buy into the lifestyle offered by the acquisition of a product and in doing so may take for granted, or even dismiss, the many advantages and wonders of our present circumstances.

Again this idea of appraising your lifestyle by the measure of outside perceptions is something that many of us are guilty of and which is destructive to our happiness and our relationship with others.

For me Berger’s words have highlighted the importance of living with integrity, mindfulness and appreciation of the present and aspiration dictated by ones own ambitions, unmitigated by fears or concerns over the perceptions of others. 

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