Arts television programmes tend towards the ephemeral. They commemorate – sometimes no more questioningly than a press release – a new novel or stage play or film, before disappearing into production-company vaults. One of the most notable exceptions is Ways of Seeing, a 1972 series about western visual culture presented by the writer John Berger.
Controversial at the time – its focus on the tacit ideologies of Old Masters led one critic to liken it to "Mao's Little Red Book for a generation of art students" – it's now regarded not only as a landmark work of British arts broadcasting, but as a key moment in the democratisation of art education. Its 40th anniversary has been marked at a series of public talks and at a major Berger conference at King's College London.
Forgotten in these celebrations is the role of the series' director, Mike Dibb. Born in 1940, the son of an East Yorkshire GP, he was responsible for some of its most striking sequences – he added a "Trespassers Keep Out" sign on to the tree behind Gainsborough's Mr and Mrs Andrews (1750). He says today, however, that though "the book and television series were both extremely collaborative processes", the prevailing idea became that he was merely "the executor of John's ideas rather than a participant in the shaping of those ideas".
In a career spanning almost five decades, it's possible Dibb has shaped more ideas and offered more ways of seeing than any other TV documentarian of his generation. The films he made in the 1970s with the likes of Berger, Raymond Williams, CLR James and Peter Fuller played a large, if unheralded, role in introducing radical developments in critical and cultural theory to British audiences long before they became institutionalised within academia.
"Raymond Williams was a huge influence on me," he said. "I'd grown up in the world of the Third Programme, an intellectual middle-class space, and here was Raymond – just like Richard Hoggart in The Uses of Literacy – finding a completely different definition of culture, one that could be rooted in mining or in Welsh communities. He showed me the division between high and low was very artificial. CLR was the same: he was wise but grounded. His Beyond a Boundary wasn't at all an elitist piece of writing, but it was a book about cricket which made you think about almost everything historically, from Greek culture to imperial England."
Television between the mid-1960s and late 1980s was both safe haven and test site for left-inclined film-makers such as Dibb. "Can you imagine, even on ITV, you had Disappearing World, a long-form anthropological series, on at prime time? Or World in Action with radical 30-minute programmes every week? This was a period when TV had high ambitions and a lot of extraordinary things happened. They go on about making 'landmark series' these days; we had none of that self-consciousness. But we were full of idealism. And at the BBC we had a tremendous freedom, even if it was sometimes the freedom of indifference."
Dibb was an early advocate of the "film essay", now a fashionable term to describe documentaries driven by ideas rather than issues or human-interest stories. "I wanted to demonstrate that the film essay needn't have an inferior status to the written essay. In my 75-minute film about Don Juan you hear poetry about him, see images of him, explore his historical roots in Spanish culture: a rich brew. It might even give you more things than a written essay ever could. I'd like to feel my film might be as valuable a 75 minutes as you could possibly spend reflecting on the subject."
Jean-Luc Godard, about whom he made a film when the French director was in England to shoot his Rolling Stone picture Sympathy for the Devil (1968) – titled One Plus One in Europe – was a major influence. "It was his spirit, the confidence he gave me to be bold about the presentation of ideas and direct in the visual style. I was taken by his belief that a film is neither on the screen or in the audience: it should exist in that space between the audience and the screen. Yet I was also struck by how he refused the experience of people; he would use prostitution as a metaphor, but would never talk to a prostitute".
Dibb, who saw television as a public space, rarely used presenters, voiceovers or "expert" analysis to structure his films. Instead, he adopted what he calls a "molecular approach" that "created possibilities for connection". At once discursive and concrete, he only liked "exploring ideas if they were grounded in everyday experience".
In recent decades, Dibb has worked with the likes of Edward Said and Roger Deakin, and won an Emmy in 2001 for a film about Miles Davis. But many of his most valuable films – Beyond a Boundary (1976); Fields of Play, a highly original 1979 series exploring the philosophy of play; Memories of the Future (1984) about John Ruskin and William Morris – which were originally seen by millions of viewers, and whose topics and aesthetic strategies prefigure much contemporary moving-image art, have been missing in action.
Now seems the right time to revisit this secret archive of public broadcasting. It's an antidote to the celebrity-led, format-driven nature of so many arts documentaries made today. It shows that it's possible to produce TV that is both populist and experimental.
And it also refutes the cliché that the 1970s was a decade only of crisis and downturn. "Feminism, political theatre, Ways of Seeing: I wasn't thinking, 'what a terrible time'. It was very dynamic, activist, political. Creatively it was very exciting. Yet all they show on those television retrospectives are episodes of Top of the Pops."
Based on the BBC television series, John Berger's Ways of Seeing is a unique look at the way we view art, published as part of the Penguin on Design series in Penguin Modern Classics.
'Seeing comes before words. The child looks and recognizes before it can speak.'
'But there is also another sense in which seeing comes before words. It is seeing which establishes our place in the surrounding world; we explain that world with words, but word can never undo the fact that we are surrounded by it. The relation between what we see and what we know is never settled.'
John Berger's Ways of Seeing is one of the most stimulating and influential books on art in any language. First published in 1972, it was based on the BBC television series about which the Sunday Times critic commented: 'This is an eye-opener in more ways than one: by concentrating on how we look at paintings . . . he will almost certainly change the way you look at pictures.' By now he has.
John Berger (b. 1926) is an art critic, painter and novelist.born in Hackney, London.
His novel G. (1972) won both the James Tait Black Memorial Prize and the Booker Prize.
If you enjoyed Ways of Seeing, you might like Susan Sontag's On Photography, also available in Penguin Modern Classics.
'Berger has the ability to cut right through the mystification of professional art critics ... he is a liberator of images: and once we have allowed the paintings to work on us directly, we are in a much better position to make a meaningful evaluation'
Peter Fuller, Arts Review
'The influence of the series and the book ... was enormous ... It opened up for general attention areas of cultural study that are now commonplace'
Geoff Dyer in Ways of Telling
'One of the most influential intellectuals of our time'