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John Berger, Ways of Seeing: The Impact of Context

Francesca Catalano

Francesca Catalano, 29 June 2017

“The relation between what we see and what we know is never settled.” John Berger, Ways of Seeing.

Our experience of art is inherently affected by context; our own lived experience, our assumptions and expectations of art, our exposure to work of that type, our awareness of artistic techniques and styles and the social, political and economic conditions of the time and place in which we view it.

John Berger’s famous essay ‘Ways of Seeing’ explores the idea that where and when we look at something directly affects what we see. First published in 1972 the essay examines how, from the second half of the 20th Century with the advent of mechanical reproduction, we see artworks as nobody has before. An artwork can now become “detached from the place and time in which it first made its appearance”, and its meaning transformed and multiplied. 

Berger describes the reciprocal relationship between what we see before our eyes and what we know or believe. Our evaluation of the artistic quality and impact of an artwork is fundamentally influenced by context. 

“When an image is presented as a work of art, the way people look at it is affected by a whole series of learnt assumptions about art. Assumptions concerning: Beauty, Truth, Genius, Civilisation, Form Status, Taste, etc.”

At Culture Counts, we’re very interested in understanding how these relationships manifest. There are often assumptions made about the way that different audience segments experience and value artwork. Rather than rely on assumptions and anecdotes, why not try to make sense of how value judgements are made?

Capturing public feedback using standardised measures of quality and impact contributes to a big data set spanning diverse geographical locations, cultures and ethnicities. By studying this data, we can identify patterns, differences and consistencies that help us understand more about our communities and the impact of culture on their lives.

Metadata tags are applied to all evaluations within the Culture Counts platform, classifying them by location, artform and other pieces of information that give context to the data. By default, all surveys include standard demographic questions (age, gender, postcode) and many organisations also choose to include questions about identity and prior experience so they can better comprehend and classify their audiences.

Filtering and analysing quality and impact data by these event and audience classifications enables significant insight into if and how different contexts shape experience. This understanding can be used to develop and improve programs that reflect and respect different contexts, and resonate more deeply with diverse and varied audiences.

For example, using a common language to evaluate a touring event or exhibition enables contextual factors to be isolated and examined. If the same work has a different impact, big data can help us to identify if this might be a trend linked to the location, the demographic mix of the audience, or even the weather.  

Similarly, two separate organisations might present the same play or ballet or concerto; yet impact the audience in very different ways. Examining the results and the context generates insights into if and how changes could be made to increase impact.

Interestingly, big data from 80 Australian events has shown that there is no significant difference in the impact of the experience if an audience member has attended other work by the same organisation before. This suggests that artwork can still inspire or challenge people just as much if they’re repeat visitors, or that audiences aren’t more positively biased toward the work of organisations that they’re familiar with. These learnings about context may alter how organisations program for or market to their different audiences.

We all make value judgements every day. This is manifested in the events we attend, the goods and services we purchase, and the experiences we recommend to our friends and families. These judgements are entirely subjective and are driven by the things we see and feel and know. It is however, quite feasible that others have also been shaped by similar experiences. Collecting feedback and classifying information from a large proportion of the community means we can better understand how different contexts shape the things people value. This can help organisations to make decisions based on trends and patterns - rather than the opinions of a vocal minority - to reach a broader and more varied audience.

Image: Frans Hals, The Regents of the Old Men's Almshouse, 1664.

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