How John Berger helped us to be feminists

He’s the guy that coined the ‘male gaze’

John Berger was an art critic, a Booker Prize-winning author, a painter, a poet – and a feminist. His 1972 work, Ways of Seeing, revolutionised the way art was perceived. He died aged 90 at his home in Paris yesterday, January 2nd.

“The best moments in reading are when you come across something – a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things – which you had thought special and particular to you…. and it is as if a hand has come out and taken yours.”

So says Alan Bennett. John Berger’s Ways of Seeing radiates this sentiment in its entirety.

Deconstructing an act which is so basic, so fundamental to human nature – the act of looking – Berger made art make sense. Unlike so many critics, he did not shove opinions or convoluted theories down anyone’s throat. He simply encouraged us to open our eyes; bringing older works of art into the 20th – and now 21st – century, pointing out what no other critic had considered noteworthy: the world had changed. With the advent of mass media, Berger drew attention to all the new, different ‘ways of seeing’; his words almost became a lens to look through.

His ideas make so much sense, speak to us on so many levels – we’re almost amazed to think that no one had written them down before. What is so incredible about Ways of Seeing is that Berger doesn’t offer anything overtly radical or new, but instead turns a light on that which was previously in darkness.

Berger was primarily an art critic; Ways of Seeing is made more captivating in that it applies to art in its broadest sense. Its ideas can be applied to literature, film – even everyday life. Having watched or read Ways of Seeing, it is impossible not to appreciate art – and indeed life itself – in such immersive depth.

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And, in a world where ‘old white men’ are so often vilified and seen as the antithesis to a ‘feminist’, it is definitely worth pointing out that Berger’s Ways of Seeing was in many ways the precursor to Laura Mulvey’s Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema – i.e. the hugely influential essay which coined the term ‘the male gaze’. Berger just seemed to get it; his words on the stifling, suffocating nature of the male gaze are so concise and accurate: parts of Ways of Seeing almost read as a feminist manifesto.

He heavily criticised Renaissance painters for their eroticisation and objectification of women, one of the first to condemn the male gaze: ‘You painted a naked woman because you enjoyed looking at her, put a mirror in her hand and you called the painting “Vanity” …’

This barely scratches the surface of John Berger’s profound career. He was one of the first to note the impact of mass media, earning his place as one of the most influential critics of the 20th century – it is his massively broad influence, innumerable talents, and sheer humanity which will inevitably affirm his place as one of the most revered writers in the canon forever.

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