Ways of Seeing Art – through Critical Theory

In the following post I will use other sources of Critical Theory (from Marx to Ranciere, among others) to construct more dimensions into our project, and it will be useful for our three case-studies. Specifically, to follow our thesis that perception of sexuality in artistic representation is inherently fragmented due to the subjective reception of spectatorsI deal with the ideas of spectatorship, authorial intent, commodity fetishism, and democratic praxis. My peers can continue from this research to develop their own case-studies, although I recommend expanding this reading list. 


In his 1967 well-known treatise The Society of the Spectacle, Guy Debord introduced the critical theory of Spectacle, in which people living in modern consumer societies had an automatically passive approach to life. Completely alienated from our work production and turned into machines to watch and consume, ‘the more [we] contemplate, the less [we] live’ (Debord, 23). As mentioned in my previous post, Berger’s Ways of Seeing was a way to break with this passive engagement, this passive interpretation of viewing, specifically in art. In other works, Ways of Seeing is a method to avoid The Society of the Spectacle (much as Debord’s movement of the Situationist International, which were in favour of active approaches to every day living).

In The Emancipated Spectator (2008), Jacques Ranciere comes back to this idea in a direct and goal-oriented way. His book seeks to be a final call for the emancipation of the spectator, to the awakening of a passive audience. He calls it emancipation, because it’s an active movement towards freedom, specifically ‘intellectual’ freedom. Ranciere points out that a passive spectatorship automatically generates a dichotomy of knowledge: the ones that create and are active are the ones that know about the work of art; and the ones that are passive are the ones that don’t know, and so they are alienated. But he emphasises that viewing can also be active, if we ‘if we interpret, compare, link what we see to other things we have seen, experienced, dreamed in other places. There are distant spectators and active interpreters (Ranciere, 13). If the audience is active, that dichotomy of knowledge mentioned before radically changes because ‘a work is not transmission of the artist’s knowledge or inspiration to the spectator. It is a third thing whose meaning is not owned by no one. […]’ (Ranciere, 15) and, therefore, interpreting spectators can apply their own knowledge into the work, just as Berger implies in Ways of Seeing. In other words, the separation between viewer and art work needs to be trascended because the idea of interpretation is more important for active engagement than authorial intent (we will go back to this idea in the next section).

However, perception, as we argue, is inherently fragmented because it depends on subjective reception from each spectator. So, interpretations depend on the individual. Phenomenology is a branch of philosophy which deals with this idea of personal perception. Famous thinkers of this current are Husserl, Heidegger, Sartre, Merleau-Ponty and others. ‘Literally, phenomenology is the study of “phenomena”: appearances of things, or things as they appear in our experience, or the ways we experience things, thus the meanings things have in our experience.’ (Stanford Education, web). Therefore, Ways of Seeing could be interpreted under this scope, as Berger undoubtedly shares this idea that art interpretation depends on the way we experience it. This is also related to the concept of qualia, defined to be individual instances of subjective, conscious experience. The term qualia derives from the Latin meaning “of what sort” or “of what kind” in a specific instance like “what it is like to taste a specific apple, this particular apple now”. 

Furthermore, psychology has also explored the subjectivity in perception. The subjective character of experience is a term in psychology and the philosophy of mind denoting that all subjective phenomena are associated with a single point of view (the individual). The term was coined by Thomas Nagel in his paper “What Is it Like to Be a Bat?” Subjective character of experience implies that the perception of all things, concepts, and “truths” in the universe differs between individuals: we all live in different worlds, each of which may have things in common, because of our unique perspectives on our worlds. The only thing to which one can hold oneself is something one has experienced or perceived. The paper basically explains that bats have their own way of perceiving and therefore their own way of experience that humans would have a hard time comprehending, and this is obviously due to their physical characteristics and their environments. ‘Our own experience provides the basic material for our imagination, whose range is therefore limited’ (Nagel, 439) so even though we might have all the information about a certain thing (for example, how bats perceive) we can’t experience what they do. Same even if we have all the information about something past, we can’t experience it again and so our perception of their material culture is necessarily different than theirs. 

There is also scientific research that supports this inherent fragmentation of perception depending on experience. In Cultural Effects on Visual Perception, Masuda summarises the scientific empirical work done in the recent decades that shows that culture and human psychological processes are considered to mutually influence one another. He argues that ‘mainstream psychology has generally assumed that psychological processes are universal and that the main role of psychology is to investigate these universal aspects of human beings. Visual perception, attention, and even visual illusion have, therefore, been understood mainly in terms of the underlying optical mechanisms and characteristics of visual information hardwired in the human brain and shared by human beings in general’ (1); however, this is proven wrong by the inter-cultural work cited by Masuda. For example, he explains the experiments on visual perception given to people of different cultures and they responded differently (despite of race and gender).  

As mentioned in my previous post, this is one of the main theses (if not the main) of Ways of Seeing, and my case-study is a clear example of this, especially the main panel. Depending on how we see it, we can interpret even opposite meanings. I will develop this further in a final post about my particular case-study.


While thinking about the project and the argument that perception of art is inherently fragmented because it depends on the subjective interpretation of the viewer, an obvious question was, what is the role of authorial intent then? To what extent is meaning decided upon a piece of art? If only the perception of the spectator matters and it’s value for the present, worrying about the context of the piece necessarily generates a negative mystification?

A theory that is in favour of disregarding the authorial intent when engaging with a work of art is the famous Death of the Author, first developed by Roland Barthes is his 1967 essay of that title. The essay focused on literary analysis and criticism, and he famously argued that the ‘text belongs to its audience, not the author’. Traditionally, criticism focused (in all the arts) in authorial intent until the critical theory of the 1960s, of which Barthes’ is representative. From Barthes on, however, critical theorists shifts the focus to the work in itself, and especially the relationship between the piece and the audience – not, as it was before, the author and the audience. According to Barthes, focusing on the author has no value because the ‘the author is a modern figure, produced no doubt by our society insofar as, at the end of the middle ages, with English empiricism, French rationalism and the personal faith of the Reformation, it discovered the prestige of the individual, or, to put it more nobly, of the “human person” […] the image of literature to be found in contemporary culture is tyrannically centered on the author, his person, his history, his tastes, his passions’ (Barthes, 2). In other words, the author was a construction and imposed by the elite to set a fixed meaning to their works of art.

As he summarises, ‘once the Author is gone, the claim to “decipher” a text becomes quite useless. To give an Author to a text is to impose upon that text a stop clause, to furnish it with a final signification, to close the writing’ (Barthes, 5). In pages 28 and 29 of Ways of Seeing, Berger specifically explains how the elite has monopolised art and its meanings until the era of mechanical reproduction and concludes that ‘art, with its unique undiminished authority, justifies most other forms of authority, that art makes inequality seem noble and hierarchies seem thrilling’ (29); therefore, allowing authority to control art is dangerous not only because it causes passive spectators, but also because it creates a complacent and controlled society.  Barthes also thinks that the author has been treated as a God, and the meaning it gave to his/her work was treated as final and fixed because it was surrounded of an aura of secrecy and the only active relation the audience could have with the work is to unpack this secret (even though it was implicit that they would never been able, because it was a divine creation). This is also what Berger calls “mystification” in Ways of Seeing. Furthermore, as Berger (and Debord and Ranciere), Barthes believes that a free audience that engages actively with the works of art is the audience necessary to create a better society and individuals: ‘the birth of the reader must be ransomed by the death of the Author’ (Barthes, 6). 

Foucault famously expanded Barthes work outside Literature to other types of production. He focuses again on the role that the work in itself has, outside of the context of its creation, ‘the work, which once had the duty of providing immortality, now possesses the right to kill, to be the author’s murderer’ (Foucault, 1).  He explains that, contrary to historical believe since the Renaissance, ‘the author is not an indefinite source of significations that fill a work; the author does not precede the works; he is a certain functional principle by which, in our culture, one limits, excludes, and chooses; in short, by which one impedes the free circulation, the free manipulation, the free composition, decomposition, and recomposition of fiction’ (Foucault,14). According to him, hence, the author is an ideological figure and people assign meaning to a work for who made it instead of what is really present in that work.  

But, if we kill the author, should we kill the historical context of the work as well? After all, we have established that for Berger and the critical theorists of the 1960s, the most important thing of a work of art was the value it had for the public in the present moment. I think that this is important to highlight: the value of context depends entirely on the reason of approaching the piece. For example, it is very different if we aim to engage with art as audience than if we want to approach a piece of material culture to understand a specific period, and both of these are compatible. For instance, Berger obviously emphasises on the Ways of Seeing that are useful for our personal and social development in the present, but he also understands the value the pieces had in its time and why they were made like that. This is noticeable when he talks about oil paintings in the third essay of Ways of Seeing (83-112). So, if we approach a work as an starting point to talk about a period, then it’s important to know about the context and even the author but if we just want to experience art and live it now, with its value for the present then it is really not necessary.  

In conclusion, I think that the idea of death of the author can help us break with imposed meanings from historical authorities, and make us engaged freely with art while finding use for it in our present moment for us as individuals and as society. Furthermore, for the art historian or the person that seeks to analyse a work of art for its value as proof of material culture, understanding that meaning changes depending on the material conditions of the audience’s time period can help them understand that they also have to deal with the ways that the audience of that specific period engaged with their culture (Who had access to this art? What did they perceive? What was their value? How does it compare to the value now?).


So far I have explored spectatorship and how it challenges authorial intent when engaging with art works. In addition to this, in order to understand the shift in the interpretation of art, we must address (at least briefly) commodity fetishism. After all, art works nowadays (and since, as Berger shows in Ways of Seeing, the advent of capitalism and the invention oil painting) are seen as high-level commodities rather than public objects. Before, following Berger’s ideas and the cited critical theories, I argued that art works should be analysed according to the value it has for the individual and society. I realise that the term value is quite ambivalent, especially when dealing with art, because it can be read as monetary value – even though I meant more pragmatic and intellectual value. This is exactly what commodity fetishism is: the perception that what it is involved in the production of an object are not social relationships, but economic relationships of market exchange.

Karl Marx was critical of this view of objects as mere inter-exchange because each work (artistic or not) was the result of social relations and the active production of a human being. For Marx, seeing objects created by humans as mere commodities was alienating, because it was against our social nature as producers. Indeed, seeing art as mere objects that represent monetary value is completely alienating for us, because we can fail in seeing a real connection with our society. For this reason, commodity fetishism is very much connected with the wider debate of artistic perception. Art works are not commodities (the belief that they are is also why originals are mystified according to Berger), but part of humanity’s heritage and a language to connect people throughout time and space.

In his essay, Revolutionary Undoing, Berger explains that ‘art historians with a social or Marxist formation have interpreted the art of the past in terms of class ideology. […] It now appears that in the later stages of capitalism this has ceased to be generally true. Art is treated as a commodity whose meaning lies only in its rarity value and in its functional value as a stimulant of sensations’. So, commodity fetishism can also occupy the functional value of stimulation. Precisely for this reason, it is important to engage actively with art and see it as a public right which’s value is that it stimulates our intellect as individuals in a society. 


In the end, we can conclude that Berger’s thesis in Ways of Seeing and these works of critical theories is that art should be more accessible for common people. If perception of art is fragmented because it depends on subjectivity, and any imposition of a true and unique meaning is just authoritarian and aims to create a passive audience (and society), then freedom of interpretation and engagement is the productive intellectual value that can create better individuals and societies. This is what I refer to as democratic praxis. 

In his essay, The Author as Producer, Walter Benjamin (one of the references for Berger in Ways of Seeing) proposes that ‘when it examined a work of art, materialist criticism was accustomed to ask how that work stood in relation to the social relationships of production of its time. [But what if instead of asking] how does a literary work stand in relation to the relationships of production of a period, [we ask] how does it stand in them?’. By this, he meant to explore the technique of the work rather than the context around it, sort of a first step of what Barthes and Foucault would propose later on about the Death of the Author. However, I think that the question should be: how does the work stand today? So, we should examine how our perceptions can create value for that piece of art nowadays. This way, we will democratise art in its final stance and we will de-mystify the works and finally separate their meaning to the elites and authority. We will stop seeing art as commodities that don’t belong to us, and start seeing it as part of our personal and social heritage.  

Berger, along with the critical theorists mentioned, had the ultimate goal to fight against alienation and create a more active public. As Marx first stated in his Theses on Feuerbach, the most important political turn of modern time is a democratic (from below) praxis, a stop to contemplation and a start of active practice. Of course, this must come both from the individual but also from society, because ‘human nature is not inherent in its individual, in reality it is the ensemble of the social relations’. In fact, just by having social relations and engaging in this kind of activities as a group we are being active, because ‘all social life is essentially practical’. The conclusion, then, is still the same: we have for too long only interpreted the world, and the point is to change it. Engaging with our cultural heritage active is one of the first steps to do this.


Barthes, Roland. Death of the Author, 1967. <http://www.tbook.constantvzw.org/wp-content/death_authorbarthes.pdf>.

Benjamin, Walter. The Author as Producer, Verso, 1966. <https://yaleunion.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/Walter_Benjamin_-_The_Author_as_Producer.pdf>.

Berger, John. ‘Revolutionary Undoing’ from 1969, in Landscapes, Verso, 2016.

Berger, John. Ways of Seeing, Penguin Books, 1973.

Debord, Guy. The Society of the Spectacle. New York Zone Books, 1994.

Foucault, Michel. What is an Author?, 1969. <http://seas3.elte.hu/coursematerial/HarasztosAgnes/Foucault_WhatIsAnAuthor.pdf>

Marx, Karl. Theses on Feuerbach, 1845. <https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1845/theses/theses.htm>.

Masuda, Takahiko. Cultural Effects on Visual Perception, 2009. <https://www.researchgate.net/publication/299611215_Cultural_Effects_on_Visual_Perception>.

Nagel, Thomas. ‘What Is It Like to Be a Bat?’ The Philosophical Review, vol. 83, no. 4, 1974, pp. 435-450.

Ranciere, Jacques. ‘The Emancipated Spectator’, in The Emancipated Spectator, trans. by Gregory Elliott. Verso, 2009, pp. 1-23.

Stanford Education. Phenomenology. <https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/phenomenology/>.

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