Originally a four part television series presented by John Berger and broadcast on BBC2 in 1972, ‘Ways of Seeing’ was later adapted into a book, and discusses aspects of traditional Western cultural aesthetics, often criticising it by uncovering buried ideologies within visual imagery. ‘Chapter 3 – The Nude’ discusses nudity within Western art, and more precisely, the role of the female nude.
Berger intricately examines the male gaze in both traditional European oil paintings and in the contemporary culture of the 70s. His argument can be summed up by the statement “men act and women appear”. He argues that women are taught from a young age to expect to be either constantly judged or admired when looked at, whilst men have the privilege of doing the looking. Women are under a constant pressure to be aware of their physical image and how men perceive them. Berger states: “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”. This comment aims to criticise the male artist or viewer, as he highlights a double standard within society; men want to leer at women, but also want to make sure the blame is placed on said females in order to retain the patriarchal sense of superiority over them. Such patterns can be found in today’s Western pop culture too; Robin Thicke’s song ‘Blurred Lines’ is a strong example of Berger’s argument. Not only does the music video feature fully clothed men surrounded by almost fully nude women, but the song’s lyrics reflect the point made in Berger’s previous quote. The lines “I know you want it” and “The way you grab me/Must wanna get nasty” both echo the sentiment of Berger’s words – the blame is being placed on the woman in this situation, it is obviously her fault that the male wants to “liberate her”, in the words of Thicke and co. Furthermore, “So I’m just watching and waitin'” reinforces this idea of the male as the spectator and the female as the spectacle.
Berger also discusses the posing and expressions of the female figures in oil paintings. As an example, he analyses ‘Nell Gwynne’ by Lely.
Of the painting, Berger says “It shows her passively looking at the spectator staring at her naked. This nakedness is not, however, an expression of her own feelings; it is a sign of her submission to the owner’s feelings or demands. (The owner of both woman and painting.) The painting, when the King showed it to others, demonstrated this submission and his guests envied him”, after earlier stating, about women in general, “Those who are not judged beautiful are not beautiful. Those who are, are given the prize. The prize is to be owned by a judge – that is to say to be available for him”. It is clear that Berger sees the women in such paintings as being there purely for the pleasure of the male audience, but one could argue the opposite. For instance, Nell Gwynne’s expression looks relaxed and knowing; one doesn’t necessarily get the impression that she lacks control in this situation. Say she looked shocked, embarrassed, or upset, it would be more clear that she is playing some kind of submissive victim role. Her body also appears calm and comfortable, as though she is choosing to offer her sexuality to the viewer. Perhaps there are times when women make the active decision to display themselves, rather than only doing so at the command of a man?
By the same token, one could then argue that the women in the ‘Blurred Lines’ video have made the same choice; they were not forced to take part after all. Maybe rather than assuming women only act in accordance to male desire, one could consider the radical notion that at times, they enjoy the sexual liberation of appearing nude, of having the power to tempt and tease the male audience but never actually give them anything more. Furthermore, one might say it is a rather outdated and ignorant view that a woman who enjoys sex and feels comfortable enough to display her sexuality must be flawed or “slutty”; the idea that female sexual liberation is synonymous with inferiority is sexist in itself.
This is why one must be cautious when relying on a text such as ‘Ways of Seeing’. Written 40 years ago, it is likely that theories and views expressed in the text are, to an extent, frozen in Berger’s time, and perhaps are less relevant today. Without a doubt, his writing would have been influenced by trends and opinions of his contemporary society, so it is important to bear in mind that some parts may be outdated. Also, the piece is likely to have a certain level of bias within it due to the fact it only presents the perspective of one person rather than a range of people. And of course, being male may have shaped Berger’s judgement, and his musings on the subject may differ to those of a female, for example.
I think Berger raises an interesting viewpoint, and I do agree with elements of his thesis. He is clearly an intelligent, observant man, so one should not discard what he says anyway, but I think he also hits on an important connection between the past and the present. I feel that a lot of the women shown in old European paintings were often in a more submissive role, as Berger argues, due to the status and treatment of women at the time. It was the norm for women to be seen as inferior to men in what was a much more severe patriarchal society, and so whilst it can be argued that the female subjects may have actually made the empowered decision to pose naked, the way in which they are often depicted and the context of the time they were living in suggest that most of the time, this wouldn’t have been the case. I also it is important to recognise that things are not so different now; women are still very much seen as objects for male enjoyment in today’s society. While I agree that women should be free to display their bodies and sexualities in whatever way they like, it is unavoidable that men will continue to objectify such choices even if the woman in question feels liberated and happy with her choice. This, for me, suggests the issue is not within the woman’s decision to bare her body parts or pose suggestively or dress provocatively, but that it is actually within the male reaction. Even today, in a time when people like to claim that we have come on leaps and bounds since the human race’s oppressive past, many men still feel entitled to the female form; it has become so ingrained in our societal subconscious that I feel it will take many more years of psychological unpicking and re-education in order to see a shift in this dynamic.
No matter what your position may be on issues of nudity in relation to gender, and the role it plays in art, it cannot be denied that Berger’s writing examines an interesting viewpoint on the subject, particularly in the way he relates traditional art to modern culture.