Seeing, Saying, Doing: John Berger’s Ways of Seeing and Sir Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation

Written by Evelyn Goessling 

Edited by Tara Allen Flanagan & Lucia Bell-Epstein

“Who will win in an agonistic encounter between two authors, and between them and all the other they need to build up a statement? Answer: the one able to muster on the spot the largest number of well aligned and faithful allies.

Bruno Latour, “Visualisation and Cognition: Drawing Things Together,” 1986
Sir Kenneth Clark in the monastery of Cluny, France.

In 1969, art historian and museum director Kenneth Clark’s art history series Civilisation made its debut on the public-service network BBC2. Three years later, in 1972, art critic and author John Berger’s Ways of Seeing,another art historical program, launched on the same channel.By presenting their arguments regarding the history of art through the medium of broadcast television, Clark and Berger successfully attracted the viewership and attention of an audience hitherto ignored by academic programming: regular British civilians, many of who, thanks to the British manufacturing boom of the mid-60s, now had color televisions in their home. Civilisationwas broadcast on Sunday nights at 8:15 pm while Ways of Seeingwas broadcast during a later timeslot on Saturday nights at 10:05 pm. The popular time slots of both shows allowed many people to watch, particularly working-class families who had leisure time on weekend evenings. Clark and Berger’s use of television as an educational medium serves as a logical starting point for deeper investigations that examine how forms of imaging and narrative are used in art historical argumentation. The success of Civilisationand Ways of Seeing, two art education programs that launched on a public service television channel shortly after the channel began broadcasting in color, demonstrates that questions of evidence are fundamentally questions of display and perception. Television, as a medium, has the unique capability of manipulating through the sensory elements of different kinds of movement, music, and emotional appeals, which allows it to appeal to demographics that traditionally lack access to or initiative to seek out academic media.   

Radio Times, a magazine produced by the BBC that listed the channel’s broadcasting schedules, described Civilisation as a show wherein Kenneth Clark “examines the ideas and values which to him give meaning to the term Western Civilisation.”[1] Clark travels across Europe to visit the sites of great works of art and architecture, providing a broad historical and geographic perspective of the meaning of the term civilisation and the artistic, architectural, and literary productions of various exemplary civilisations. Each episode begins with Clark introducing his thesis on a period of art. In episode three, “Romance and Reality,” Clark claims that the Gothic style’s use of fantasy and romantic motifs, notable in many great works of art, is representative of a contemporaneous belief that true reality is based on a prescribed ideal order. Clark expands upon this idea by pointing out examples in various paintings and buildings while seamlessly transitioning between subjects by way of his erudite narration. In one example from the aforementioned episode, Clark introduces the sixteenth century French tapestry The Lady and the Unicorn. He claims that the figures of the unicorn and the lion are symbols for lust and ferocity, and that they are seated with arms raised in a display of deference for the central female figure, who symbolizes chastity. Clark states that the scene is an allegory for the power of ideal love and the “irresistible power of gentleness and beauty,” an idea that he says can be traced back three centuries. “We can begin to look for it,” Clark muses, “in the north portal of Chartres [Cathedral],” which is a French Gothic cathedral from the 12thcentury.” The camera cuts to a shot of the spires of the cathedral and pans slowly down and to the left, so that the audience can see Clark walk up the steps and into the portal. Although Clark’s tour of civilisation through art is poignant and ambitious, as seen in his tackling of subjects such as Gothic romance allegories,  he does not pander or doubt the understanding of his viewer base. With careful explanation of specific examples, Clark acts as lecturer and tour guide for his wide audience. 

Upon careful analysis of the format of the two shows, I determined that the greatest contrast between Civilisationand Ways of Seeingis that the former analyses a work from the history of art history, whereas the latter is primarily a show about the discipline of art history itself. Radio Times’s summary of the first episode of Ways of Seeing highlights the show’s careful attention to modern art and formal aesthetics: “John Berger suggests that the fact of photography has changed the way we see the art of the past and that a painting’s impact depends on the conditions in which it is seen.”[2] Berger begins Ways of Seeing by introducing ideas from Walter Benjamin’s 1935 essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” and proceeds to examine how new technologies of reproduction have shaped modern society, self-perception, and the art market. At the end of the episode, Berger makes a self-conscious directive to his audience and cautions them to “remember that I am controlling and using for my own purposes the means of reproduction needed for these programmes. …with this programme, as with all programmes, you receive images and meaning which are arranged. I hope you will consider what I arrange, but be skeptical of it.”[3] Berger’s argument is meta-visual: the audience should be skeptical of photography, and particularly its use in television and advertising; and therefore also be skeptical of Berger’s thesis, because it is presented on television.[4] Berger expects critical analysis from his viewers, whereas Clark assumes a more passive audience who are eager to absorb his cultural wisdom like a sponge.

According to historian Arthur Marwick, the production of Civilisation and Ways of Seeingand their subsequent success was connected to Britain’s post-war booms of technology, economy, and the “cultural revolution” of the 1960s.[5] The UK’s broadcasting and media institutions influenced and were affected by this revolution. In his book British Society Since 1945, Marwick claims that Britain’s new “high-spending consumer society” did much to build up and sustain advertising on television, which, as a relatively new technology, had “a special veneer of appealing to and being influenced by youth.”[6] Media institutions, namely the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) and Independent Television (ITV) competed for domination over the cultural and economic capital of the burgeoning television industry which served as a site for new technology to impact artistic methods.[7] This competition for industry dominance served as a much-needed push for the BBC, who were often criticized by the press for pre-war conservatism and a preoccupation with “‘high culture’ and moral improvement.”[8] As a result of this competition, new channels and more adventurous programming were added, such as BBC2’s first colour broadcast in 1967. By mid 1968, nearly every BBC2 program was in colour.[9] Civilisation utilized this new colour technology and television’s ever-increasing presence in the homes of British citizens in a “massively ornate and extremely expensive” production.[10]Color was effective because viewers could better understand and admire artworks reproduced in color rather than black and white, and using color provided more opportunities for art analysis. One press release boasted of “eleven countries and 117 locations visited;[11] works in 118 museums and 18 libraries shown.”[12] New possibilities of production, including colour technology and large travel and licensing budgets, expanded the scope of CivilisationWays of Seeingwas not as visually striking, perhaps due to the program’s increased focus on art criticism over historical education, but took a more radical approach to the television medium by making direct arguments about ways in which images control and drive modern consumer culture. Berger thus presented areas of cultural study to the general public that in 1972 were in their very beginning stages.[13] In the almost five decades since Ways of Seeing, it is still rare to find programming on a similar scale of popularity that attempts to demystify the cultural institutions of our society. Art history is largely confined behind university doors and museum offices. A comparison of two of the original art history programs may shed light onto their successes and failures, and prompt art historians today to consider their own mediums and methodologies. 

There are several aspects of British cultural and political infrastructure that informed the presentation Ways of Seeing, which is radical in its use of media as well as argument.The rise of a liberal class of intellectuals in 1960s Britain led to a broader societal turn that highlighted the rise of social isolation within industrialized contemporary Britain.[14] Berger, as a realist painter and a Communist art critic, experienced this revivification and began to write about art not as “something separate from the political life of society,” but as “something which not only had a vital connection with but was an essential part of the content of that society.”[15] One example of social and cultural alienation of the 1970s was that the art market calculated the aesthetic value of artworks not by their formal elements or social relevance, but “in terms of its cash equivalent.”[16] Berger takes up the urgent issues surrounding the intersection of art, economy, and society in his argument that modern advertising, following European oil painting, had become the ideal medium to celebrate the “ability to buy and furnish and to own.”[17] As evidence, Berger shows countless examples of paintings of fruit, livestock, furs, books, instruments, rugs, and furniture. He disdainfully says this about Holbein’s The Ambassadors (1533): “There is not a surface in this picture which does not denote wealth […] They are two men convinced that the world is there to furnish their residence in it.”[18] Through an analysis of Berger’s approach to televised art criticism, a visual and technical analysis of mass media images could reveal their consumer agendas, just as a similar analysis could reveal historical and cultural details about a painting. By contrast, Clark generally focuses on giving history lessons rather than tools for critical analysis. For example, Clark’s discussion of Holbein in one episode is limited to the history of his relationship with the Dutch humanist Desiderius Erasmus and his circle of friends, including Sir Thomas More. Clark’s notes on Holbein’s 1527 painting of More and his family is that “they don’t look oppressively intellectual; but alert, sensible people of any epoch.” It is unclear from Clark’s commentary how the viewers may arrive at a conclusion about the intellectual status of figures in a sixteenth century Dutch painting. It is also unclear what this conclusion means in terms of art history, or even in terms of Clark’s broader perspective of civilisation in general. 

Berger states that one should be particularly wary of television’s manipulation of media and message because “paintings are essentially silent and still, the most obvious way of manipulating them is by using movement and sound.”[19] He illustrates this point with a reproduction of Brueghel’s The Procession to Calvary(1564). The physical dimensions of the television set combined with the number of horizontal lines of resolution are very limiting when trying to view the painting as a whole, all at once.[20] The camera may help get a closer look, but by zooming in, “the comprehensive effect of the painting can be changed.” By focusing on Christ carrying the cross, the painting looks like a “straightforward devotional picture,” or by panning across the horizon, “it can be shown as an example of landscape painting,” or, focusing on background figures, “details can present it to you in terms of the history of costume or social customs.”[21] Throughout Ways of SeeingBerger teaches his audience how to read the visual language of television for hidden and possibly sinister schemas, empowering them to make their own judgements about art, rather than be beholden to so-called experts. This is effective because many people consume art through a lens, whether it is television or, today, a computer screen, and by teaching within a familiar context, Berger makes art and art history more accessible. 

 In Civilisation, Clark makes a communitarian and humanistic appeal to his audience by using movement and music to evoke the grandeur of civilisation’s great art works. Kristie S. Fleckenstein posits that “community is constituted as much by the images we see and the visual conventions we share as it is by the words we speak and the discourse conventions we share.”[22] By using television for his argument, Clark is able to utilize two visual conventions that then frame his audience as a global community connected through art: the ubiquity and frequency of images of great works of art and architecture, and dramatic devices of film that were becoming more and more recognizable through increased practice watching films and television. In Episode Five, titled “The Hero as Artist,” Clark makes the point that with the Renaissance came the new conception of the world as made up of ‘giants and heroes.’ To illustrate the grandeur of this era as a cultural touchstone, the audience is taken on a rapid-fire tour of some of the great works of the civilisation. First on the screen is a low angle shot of Michelangelo’s David.[23] As the camera pans[24] around his head and shoulders, the viewer sees beautiful highlights on the perfectly smooth stone of the sculpture’s cheek and jaw. Organ music plays boldly in the background—a song in a minor key, featuring quick scales and dramatic chords— which emphasizes the magnitude of this piece, and the others that will follow. After David, there is a low angle shot of the Notre Dame Cathedral, which slowly tilts upwards[25] to reveal its massive height. Then, the camera pans across one woman’s face in Botticelli’s Spring Primavera.Next comes the Vatican, Saint Paul’s Cathedral, and the Arc de Triomphe. All the while, the organ becomes increasingly urgent, with complex scales and dissonant chords. It is unnecessary to explain the significance of each image, or even identify them by name,[26] Because, as Fleckenstein explains, some images, like of David or the Primavera for example, may be “co-opted and absorbed by the culture so that it becomes a habitual part of a member’s personal and cultural existence, so deeply ingrained that, like perception, the social construct of the real is difficult to recognize.”[27] Clark mediates a broader feeling of pride and concern for what he defines civilisation by utilizing his audience’s habits of image and sound perception. 

In Ways of Seeing, Berger explicitly invites his audience to consider the subconscious effects that music has on the viewing experience: “How often do you consciously notice the music played over paintings on television? Yet music and rhythm change the significance of the picture.”[28] He demonstrates with Caravaggio’s The Supper at Emmaus(1601), first putting on music from an Italian opera. The song is an anxious conversation of some kind. As different characters sing, the camera, close up on the painting, pans from figure to figure, as if they, too are having an anxious conversation although there is no evidence of it—their mouths aren’t even open. Then Berger plays a religious chorale, and the camera zooms out to show the whole picture. The song gives the scene great spiritual significance, and all of the sudden the central figure looks like Jesus.

The accessibility of art and art history are prevailing questions in Civilisation and Ways of Seeing. For both programs, the obvious and important effect of bringing art history to television is that it may show great works of art to people who have never seen them, and those people may also participate and engage in art historical knowledge production that usually is heavily guarded between the covers of dense, heavy, and expensive art books, university doors, or museum trips.[29] After considering the content and methodology employed by both programs, it is evident that Berger does more work than Clark to make art and art history not only accessible, but truly relatable and convincing by practicing what he preaches about the importance of skepticism. In the second episode of Ways of Seeing Berger traces the painterly tradition of the female nude to its modern contingencies in fashion photography. Adding a seminar approach to his visual and linguistic methods, he then asks a group of five women: “how [do] men see women, or have seen them in the past, and how [does] this influence the way women see themselves today?”[30] By bringing in his audience to respond, Berger makes space for the more quiet voices to be heard.[31][32] This pays off in several ways: it possibly makes his argument more relatable to a female audience, and it demonstrates that anyone can and should participate in art historical knowledge production. In fact, the inclusion of more diverse perspectives makes the argument stronger. Clark also stays true to his convictions to the end of Civilisation, whenhe makes a self-conscious confession of his old-fashioned mindset as “a stick in the mud.”[33] He concedes that some of his moral and intellectual preferences are dated, but necessary, because “in spite of recent triumphs of science, men haven’t changed much in the last 2000 years. And in consequence, we must still try to learn from history … One may be optimistic, but one can’t exactly be joyful at the prospect before us.”[34] Find a way forward while constantly looking back—Clark sets this as a challenge for the viewers of Civilisation, and it looks very asinine when compared to the conclusion of Ways of Seeing. Clark made an important precedence for Berger in his turn to the television format, but this is where his innovation ceased. Berger, on the other hand, by tearing open the conventional approaches to audience and media, prepared British and later international audiences with the tools and the confidence to break free towards a culture of true innovation.


[1]. BBC. “Civilisation: 1: The Skin of Our Teeth,” Radio TimesIssue 2363, (1969): 13, http://genome.ch.bbc.co.uk/schedules/bbctwo/england/1969-02-23

[2]BBC. “Ways of Seeing,” Radio Times Issue 2513, (1972): 17-19,  http://genome.ch.bbc.co.uk/schedules/bbctwo/england/1972-01-08.

[3]John Berger, Ways of Seeing,produced by Mike Dibb (1972; London: BBC2, 2012), YouTube video, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IaWhX54jstU

[4]As in, metatextual, applied to visual discourse in which one image makes critical commentary on another image.

[5]Arthur Marwick, British Society Since 1945(London: A. Lane, 1982), 124.

[6]Marwick, 114-115, 127. 

[7]Marwick, 127. 

[8]Tim O’Sullivan, “Post-war Television in Britain: BBC and ITV,” in The Television History Book,ed. Michele Hilmes (London: British Film Institute, 2003), 32. 

[9]BBC, “1966: BBC tunes in to colour,” On This Day, 2008, http://news.bbc.co.uk/onthisday/hi/dates/stories/march/3/newsid_2514000/2514719.stm

[10]Geoff Dyer, Ways of Telling: The Work of John Berger (London: Pluto Press, 1986), 95.

[11]Sir Kenneth Clark, Civilisation,directed by Michael Gill (1969; London: BBC2, 2014), YouTube video, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IaWhX54jstU. On these site visits, Clark often acts as a friendly virtual tour guide, offering short and eloquent personal impressions of the experience of being there, so that the audience may get a sense of the same feeling and thus impart some ontological value of the place. For example, as he walks across Versailles’ huge courtyard, he says, “to this day, I enter this huge unfriendly courtyard with mixed feelings. Panic and fatigue—as if I were going into an alien world.”

[12]Dyer,Ways of Telling: The Work of John Berger,95. 

[13]Dyer, 96.

[14]Marwick, 125. 

[15]Dyer, 28. 

[16]Dyer, 96. 

[17]John Berger, Ways of Seeing, produced by Mike Dibb (1972; London: BBC2, 2012), YouTube video, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IaWhX54jstU

[18]Berger, Ways of Seeing.

[19]Berger, Ways of Seeing.

[20]Brian Winston, “The Development of Television,” in The Television History Book, ed. Michele Hilmes, (London: British Film Institute, 2003), 12. Old-style televisions used a cathode-ray tube (CRT) filled with a photo-emissive substance that would give off light when stimulated by an electric current. Electrons were then was directed by electromagnets to sweep across the screen, line by line, thus forming the image. These are referred to as lines of resolution. Over the years the sensitivity of CRTs was improved, which meant a higher number of lines of resolution that produced better, more detailed images. In 1956, color sensitive tubes were added to the operation. In 1972, Japanese state broadcaster NHK developed the new standard of 1,125 lines of resolution. 

[21]Berger, Ways of Seeing. 

[22]Kristie S. Fleckenstein, introduction to Ways of Seeing, Ways of Speaking: The Integration of Rhetoric and Vision in Constructing the Real, ed. Kristie S. Fleckenstein, Sue Hum, and Linda T. Calendrillo (Anderson, SC: Parlor Press, 2007, 5. 

[23]Karina Wilson, “Camera Angles,” Media Know All, 2013, http://www.mediaknowall.com/camangles.html. A low angle shot is when the camera is positioned below the object and pointing upwards at it. This “may make it inspire fear and insecurity in the viewer, who is psychologically dominated by the figure on the screen.” 

[24]Wilson, “Camera Angles.” “A movement which scans a scene horizontally. The camera is placed on a tripod, which operates as a stationary axis point as the camera is turned, often to follow a moving object which is kept in the middle of the frame.”  

[25]Wilson, “Camera Angles.” “A movement which scans a scene vertically, otherwise similar to a pan.” 

[26]This limits the audience’s ability to follow up on or further research Clark or Berger’s claims. The luxuries of research technology that I used when writing this essay in 2018 did not exist in a 1969 or 1972. By watching both programs on YouTube, I was able to pause, fast forward, rewind, and turn on closed captioning to help further my research and corroborate details on Berger’s and Clark’s argument. Google’s search algorithms were also helpful when my search terms were vague, partial, or misspelled. 

[27]Fleckenstein, 8. 

[28]Berger, Ways of Seeing. 

[29]Berger, Ways of Seeing.Berger specifically targets art books with the sharp criticism that the art book, which usually includes images as well as text, is problematic because “often what the reproductions make accessible, a text begins to make inaccessible.” As an example of this inaccessibility, Berger quotes a long, verbose, and obtuse excerpt of an art expert’s interpretation of Frans Hals’s Regents of the Old Men’s Almshouse (1664). Berger says that this is “mystification,” “as though the author wants to mask the images, as though he fears for the directness and accessibility.”

[30]Berger, Ways of Seeing. 

[31]This episode is a hefty criticism against Kenneth Clark’s 1956 book called The Nude: A Study in Ideal Form, which by that time had become an extremely popular modern classic. 

[32]Berger, Ways of Seeing. Berger makes a point to note that all the paintings and photographs of women he showed as evidence were entirely silent, and that he had been speaking for them. 

[33]Clark, Civilisation

[34]Clark, Civilisation. 


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