Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Visual Cultures 1

A classic TV series and a canonical text, John Berger’s Ways of Seeing is an excellent introduction to the complexities of visual cultural. Part one of this series draws heavily on the ideas of the German critic and philosopher Walter Benjamin (1892-1940). His essay is called ‘Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ (1936) and is available in a collection called Illuminations (and on the website below). Benjamin questioned ideas about originality and authenticity. Berger’s use of Benjamin’s arguments is not only relevant to discussions of painting, photography, animation, film and television, but other areas of mass culture: the internet, computer games, magazines, newspapers, CD-ROMs amongst other visual cultural artefacts. When transmitted the images meanings are multiplied and fragment into other meanings and often jostle for attention alongside other images and pieces of information under gaze of a mass audience. Berger encourages us to view images as a language that can be manipulated to communicate all kinds of ideas.

Before this ‘technological age’, the invention of the camera and even before the invention of the printing press by Johann Gutenberg, images adorned the walls and stained glass windows of churches, their meaning singular. This was as Berger suggests the age of pilgrimage: we went to the images; they did not yet travel to us. Information came from one source and it resided in one place at one time, the camera, digital technologies and television changed all of that.
Berger, John Ways of Seeing London: British Broadcasting Corporation Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1972

Texts of interest and linked to Berger and his book:
Clark, Kenneth Civilisation: a personal view London: British Broadcasting Corporation, 1969
Web sources:

John Berger Homepage:

Daniel Chandler Semiotics for Beginners, Denotation, Connotation and Myth

The Marxist Internet Archive: Benjamin, Walter The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, 1936

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