We not only live in a capitalistic society, but one in which virtually all its inhabitants are consumers. Consumers purchase commodities. Berger wants to raise the consciousness of viewers of these paintings that they are not merely "masterpieces," but commodities. Or, in the case of oil painting, visual representations of commodities.
On the pseudo-academic side, Berger isn't making artistic observations as much as social commentary. He gives not-so-subtle hints that he's basically a communist and talks about how European Art serves the purposes of the elite (from feudalism to capitalism) to oppress "the majority." There is even an entire chapter talking about art oppressing women. People often look down upon the objectification of women in advertising, and how we regularly degrade women for the pleasure of a few, treating women as objects or bodies only. But then we look back on the nudes of the Renaissance or other periods and think, how beautifully made! This is truly art, after all, and not the same moral level as an underwear ad or porn. Berger destroys these myths. Yes, Rembrandt's nudes are much more artistically done than anything in advertising, but Berger shows a convincing link between the treatment of women in art of that time and art of this time. If one expands the definition of art in the modern period, the similarities are extraordinary. In Ways of Seeing Berger carefully traces how art has been used as a method of control, in general and towards women in particular. How those beautiful nudes we now see in museums were usually in wealthy men's private collections where only they could observe them- much as Playboy is today. How even the medium (oil, watercolor, film) changes the way information is forced upon us and control is asserted. It is illuminating to see an ad that obviously objectifies women, and then to see the exact same picture next to it, but of a famous oil painting that the ad was based on.
Ways of seeing has some interesting ideas, but without thoughtful coherent expansion. It had some insights, but overall, I found myself quite disappointed by it. Dedicated to attacking the viewpoint of the privileged lite creators of high-art standards of correctness with very little basis for such attacks, ways of seeing seems to be filled with implicit assumptions that are neither inherently obvious nor easily divined from the context of the text.
In the first essay, Ways of Seeing attacks art history, quoting pages of an art history book on Frans Hals, saying that it demonstrates mystification by focusing on technical aspects such as contrast and texture. Yet Berger does not make clear why the privileged perspective of Hals work that focuses more on the nature of the painting itself than the message it conveys is less correct than some other way of interpreting Hals work. While he claims such methods of interpretation and analysis of art are tools of the privileged ruling class to enforce their privilege, this fact does not make such methods of interpretation and analysis less correct than methods that are not used as tools for enforcing ruling class hegemony.
His attacks on the baselessness and viciousness of art history are especially grating given the glibness of his own analysis of art: in the middle of essay 5, Berger asserts, after handily dismissing mythological paintings as vacuous, that paintings of the poor "assert two things: that the poor are happy, and that the better off are a source of hope for the world," based on the evidence that the poor people in painting are smiling. In the end of essay 5, he says that an early painting by Rembrandt "as a whole remains an advertisement for the