On Seeing

By Moksha Agarwal 2021-06-04

“The relation between what we see and what we know is never settled”


-John Berger, Ways of Seeing


In the opening sentences of his 1972 book, Berger differentiates the act of seeing from the process of knowing. He says, “Each evening we see the sun set. We know that the earth is turning away from it. Yet the knowledge, the explanation, never quite fits right.” 


Seeing, Berger insists, is an act of choice. At any given moment, we’re bombarded with a range of visual stimuli, but “we see only what we look at.” This act of choice, in turn, constitutes our present, defining the relationship between us and our surroundings. Knowing, for Berger, is not synonymous with seeing. It is in fact something that influences seeing. Whether you choose to gaze at a caterpillar nibbling a leaf or trace the steps of a man crossing a busy street is affected by your values, beliefs—what you know. 


When it comes to visual studies, this relationship between seeing and knowing takes center stage. Every work of art, be it a sculpture, painting, photograph, or film, presents a sight or a series of sights. Each sight is an act of choosing. The creator chooses to present a certain perspective and the viewer chooses to fixate on a certain element. What follows is interpretation—a mental exercise that is informed by one’s knowledge, as well as one’s physiology, psychology, politics, and the precise moment in time when the artwork is seen, experienced, and evaluated.


As a student of visual studies, one must understand and appreciate the complexity of seeing. One must embrace its uncertainty, plurality, and multidisciplinarity. In the end, a good interpretation must “be grounded in reasons and evidence, and should provide a rich, complex, and illuminating way to comprehend a work of art.”