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(Some) Ways of Seeing

The book I am writing is making me look at all manner of things. When you set yourself the task of answering a question as broad as, ‘what is the space for reflection in our lives today,’ this is almost unavoidable. But so far, nothing has seen me meander more around the labyrinthine rabbit warren I have exposed myself to in writing this book than the current chapter. It looks at our opportunities for reflection that come through engaging with art, but I think it's sent me in all directions because this is really about exploring what opportunities we are given to experience the world differently.

By this, I do not just mean that we come to understand the world through paintings, or through music, or films, or books. This is all true and I write about these, but it is about something broader. it is about understanding all experience as having an aesthetic dimension to it. At one point, this would have been less bizarre than it seems. There is a much, much older sense of the term ‘aesthetics’, from back before it referred to a nostalgia-laden meme, descriptions of clinics that promise to making your skin look 10 years younger, and (perhaps less on people’s radar today) a branch of philosophy. In this earlier sense of the term, aesthetics encompassed all of our sensory experiences, of artworks or otherwise.

So yes, I have chatted to people who create space for philosophical reflection in galleries and museums through getting people talking about paintings and whatnot. But I also have something to say now about the role of aesthetic reflection when it comes to bedside manner, to creating television for plants, and what all this has to do with a man who ran for office and won, all while he secretly did so as a work of art. (You see my rabbit hole predicament.)

In the 1930s, this earlier, broader conception of aesthetics got a revival thanks in part to the American philosopher John Dewey (if you’re curious, delve into this – he also suspects we lost sight of this conception because of galleries and museums). When you take this wide-angle perspective, you can, as some have done in recent years, theorise about the aesthetic qualities of ‘everyday’ objects and experiences; their beauty, their ugliness, and their neutrality, but also what our perception of them tells us about ourselves, our relation to others, and to the world around us.

While some of this research will strike some as indulgent, like the aesthetics of laundry or of doing the dishes (both of which I think are intriguing and far from indulgent), other things more incontrovertibly pose aesthetic questions. For example, the aesthetics of wind farms is a topic in the news whenever there is a local objection to them being built, because of their effect on a view. People take thinking about this seriously enough that not only has it led to philosophical reflection but empirical urban planning research too.

For my own part, I am so convinced of the connections between aesthetics and everyday experience that I am tempted to argue it’s the most prevalent, most accessible, and most natural form of public philosophy and of greater reflection more generally available in our lives. But for my justification, you’ll have to wait for the book I’m afraid! For now, I want to bring into your perception a few more examples that show how our lives are – or can become – rich with space for aesthetic reflection.

A TV studio of one’s own

“Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at.”

So spoke John Berger, the art critic and writer, in the opening shot of the second episode of his BBC series Ways of Seeing in 1972, which introduced viewers to ideas from art history, art criticism, and aesthetics. The episode focused on the historical portrayal of women in European art, and in the first half he introduced various critiques and questions in response to particular artworks. In the second half of the show, he then brought together five members of the public, all women, to reflect on the show’s first half. He does this because he tells us it began to seem absurd to him that the only women his TV audience would be seeing were in paintings and so were “silent, mute.”

Berger asked the women gathered to comment “not so much on the programme [so far], but rather on the questions raised by it.” What ensues is 15 minutes of fascinating discussion as the group reflect on a range of topics: their sense of distance from the depictions of women in art history; how nudity is interpreted; the performance of gender; the different ways men and women experience narcissism; women’s experience of passivity and activity in the world and; the relationship between the history of art and the then-growing Women’s Liberation movement.

That the show’s themes should continue to have resonance today is obvious enough from the topics I just listed, but people also still discuss the show itself. Reflecting on the episode in her book Dressed: The Philosophy of Clothes in 2022, the critic, academic, and broadcaster Shahidha Bari argues that Berger’s opening line is as “difficult to disprove as it is infuriating”, since it contains a kernel of truth but not the whole picture. For Bari, Berger overlooks “the various permutations of seeing and being seen” that exist beyond the male gaze. She argues that a richer picture emerges when you attend to the decisions women make about their appearance which show the “autonomy and resistance of which they are capable”. For example, she points out, women can and do dress for themselves, or indeed for other women. 

Bari is interested in Berger’s show because of its relevance to her book’s investigation of clothing, but Ways of Seeing gained popularity with a wide audience for reasons that went beyond this particular topic. It brought discussions about art and aesthetics to a new audience in an accessible manner, through references to historical and contemporary artworks and visual culture.

What fascinates me is that Berger was not simply lecturing to the viewer in this episode (nor so in the other episodes) about what others have said about art. He explicitly wanted to make viewers reflect on what they were seeing and to be part of, or continue, the conversation. This was an early example of the power of modern media to illustrate what probing, often philosophical, reflection and dialogue can look like to, and among, members of the public. In my book I am looking at this topic in-depth (with much debt to a brilliant book by US historian Tamara Chaplin), but suffice it to say here that this episode of Ways of Seeing is one of the best examples of this genre of 20th and 21st century media.

In passing over to these members of the public, the show is illustrating that you do not need to gather a group of academics, politicians, or other public figures, to have insightful discussion and that there is actually a lot to be gained by just gathering members of the public for this. There are some overlaps here with attempts going back to the 90s to broadcast discussions from political, deliberative engagements with the public (see a young Blair getting involved). It's still being done - here’s one from last year in Ireland. But these are large scale affairs which enjoy far smaller audiences, and given their purpose the conversations are less, productively, sprawling than that in Ways of Seeing (this is not a dig – such examples have their own benefits and these get a look in too in my book).

Berger’s decision to split the show in this way is a decision to create multiple spaces for reflection: for the show’s creators, for the women in the show, and lastly for we as viewers. He presents us with many ways of seeing why questions of aesthetics matter to our lives and to the lives of others, and how spaces can be made for these questions.

Artists in high places

The 1995 book Art with People brings together a range of essays from artists, academics, council and charity workers and more which help trace the development of community-based arts in the UK from the 1960s onwards. This was a period which saw greater attempts to involve the public in the creation and display of art in public life. In so doing, these contributors reveal how infrastructures that support people to reflect on the aesthetic dimensions of their lives can be created (and destroyed).

In one essay the artist David Harding details the story of the Artist Placement Group (APG). The APG, which formed from a collective of artists in London in 1965, “placed artists in non-art settings, such as businesses and institutions to make art out of that experience”. As the art historian and critic Claire Bishop describes, these included:

“The video artist David Hall [who] was placed at British European Airways and Scottish Television; the performance artist Stuart Brisley at the Hille Furniture Company; Lois Price at the Milton Keynes Development Corporation; John Latham at the National Coal Board, and the hospital of Clare Hall, Cambridge; the sculptor Garth Evans at the British Steel Corporation. Subsequent placements included Ian Breakwell […] at British Rail and the Department of Health; artist and musician Andrew Dipper at Esso; artist and musician David Toop at London Zoo.

Not only were the placements a wide-ranging experiment, so too were the artists’ tasks. Harding explains that artists and institutions were “brought together for a short initial period with no predictable outcome on either side”, known as ‘The Open Brief’, before the ‘Feasibility Study’ which “contained the artist’s proposal for the remaining period of the placement”.

Reading documentation of what APG-placed artists did, their own recollections, and the intentions of its founders, it is clear that a key part of the work was to make use of the perspectives of the artists. By this I mean their aesthetic capabilities in the broader sense of perception I mentioned at the start; their ability to notice things others don’t, or look at familiar things in an unfamiliar way, as opposed to (just) their skills in painting, sculpture, and so on.

Controversially, Harding reports, the Arts Council of Great Britain and the Gulbenkian Foundation imitated the idea with the now more familiar ‘artist-in-residence’ concept. In Harding’s assessment this approach, though sometimes successful, generally reverted to a more traditional idea of putting the artist in a separate studio space amidst the organisation to work on something in isolation, rather than to bring their perspective to bear on the work of the organisation itself.

The activities of the artist Ian Breakwell placed in the-then Department of Health and Social Security, shows this difference starkly. Breakwell, in an initial placement, did work that shed light on mistreatment and poor conditions of patients at Rampton Secure Hospital, while he later on played a role in the Department’s development of the now widely-adopted health and social care tool of reminiscence aids; objects and activities which support those with memory loss conditions.

Reflecting in 1979, Breakwell writes that in a placement the artwork was not “the end products” but “the whole process." The APG created space for (aesthetic) reflection by placing those attuned to this in daily life in new environments, with a view to developing a way of working with others that could include others in this space. This is far more collective endeavour than creating a space apart for the artist to sit in solitary reflection, left to use only the more visible expressions of their aesthetic skills – their brushes, chisels, and pens – over that invisible capability of their perception itself.

Making space to see

In Berger’s Ways of Seeing, he makes space for the public to reflect on the aesthetic dimensions of life, in a TV studio and in our homes, albeit in response to artworks themselves. The APG similarly made space in workplaces for employees but without artworks even being the starting point.

These examples bring out the variety of ways space for aesthetic reflection can be made beyond the obvious. True, in some of the examples of public philosophy I discuss in my book, facilitators of aesthetic reflection are found in galleries and museums, but as I alluded at the start that they are to be found elsewhere, bet that in hospitals and in political office. Not that this is lost on people who create space for reflection in traditional art environments. The public philosophy practitioners I have interviewed who have done this in museums have also done so for laboratories, for example.

But as Berger and the APG make clear, and these later examples I profile in my book exemplify too, the power of creating space for aesthetic reflection is that it doesn’t necessarily need a connection to artists, or even an artwork, to begin; it can start anywhere, given the right opportunities and the right prompt. It is ultimately about looking differently at the world if you’re given a chance. So, for what it’s worth, let me give that to you now. What do you see?

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