New Ways of Seeing: How Art Designs Life, for Better or Worse

In 1972, British art critic John Berger presented Ways of Seeing, a groundbreaking series (and, later, a book) that took a hammer to traditional views of Western art, and smashed them into pieces. Swapping romanticism for realism in a feminist framework, Ways of Seeing contextualised art not just as an experience, but as the guidelines by which we render views on such issues as beauty, and the role of women in society. It changed the way we understood art, as well as ourselves.

Late in 2016, design house Tiffany & Co. released a web series entitled New Ways of Seeing. As you’d expect, the similarity of the titles is by no means a coincidence.

New Ways of Seeing takes broad inspiration from Berger’s series in order to shine a light on the value of art, and how that value is defined via a collection of upbeat short videos.

As of March 9, three of the five videos in the collection have been released.

 

In episode one, American critic and three-time Pulitzer Prize nominee Jerry Saltz compares the origins of cave art to how we digest art through modern technology. The frolicking beat of the video never makes way for any serious discussion – a few artists offer their definition of art in a bite-sized sentence, which is only responded to via a quirky close up of Saltz hamming it up for the camera – but there are some important ideas to be found within.

Most notably, Saltz references the age-old question of whether art can save the world. Much to the chagrin of artists everywhere, he says that it can’t, but that art changes the world by changing how we see things.

It’s a critical distinction. In the second episode of Ways of Seeing, Berger took aim at the female nude. Men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at.” 

Art focusing on a woman’s naked form changed how those who looked upon it perceived the value of women. Women saw themselves as objects. Men objectified them. It wasn’t intentional, but it was subliminal, and the damage was done. Art cannot undo this damage, but it may play its part in rectifying it.

 

Episode two is a lot lighter, giving viewers a look inside the artistic community within the context of the Whitney Biennial, an exhibition that brings together the best contemporary artists of the year.

Artist, performer, and filmmaker Miranda July hits on the most important point in the video: in a society where artists feel increasingly isolated, events like the Biennial serve as a reminder that art is a community, and the struggle to create is not entirely a solitary one.

 

The third and most recent episode expands on a point touched on by Saltz in episode one; namely, digital not just as a delivery system for art that exists around the world, but a medium unto itself.

More exploratory than descriptive in tone, it’s a lot slower than the other episodes, and probably the most disappointing. While it’s interesting to hear what drives the artists in profile, it provides only a cursory overview of the medium as a whole. Perhaps that’s because it’s dealing with a relatively new topic, but it doesn’t manage to provide the core value of the series: understanding.

It will be interesting to see which direction New Ways of Seeing goes in future episodes. While it is by no means as critical nor deep as its spiritual predecessor, it does a fine job of reflection on the world of art as it is today, and how it will continue to influence

To learn more about New Ways of Seeing, and to view the remainder of the series, click here.

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