Alistair Cartwright reflects on the life, work and ideas of John Berger, prompted by a new exhibition in London devoted to the radical art critic and writer
'Art and Property Now' is located in a side wing of Somerset House, which at the time of writing was hosting London Fashion Week in its main courtyard. The exhibition documents the life and work of the critic John Berger, covering 60 years from the 1940s: from his youthful days as a painter, to his radicalisation and engagement with Marxism, to his involvement in the movements of 1968, and his lifelong work as a writer and art critic.
The first picture in the exhibition, a satirical drawing by Peter de Francia, says a lot about the sympathies and enmities that Berger shared with his painter friend. It's a gallery scene, a private view with its assortment of well-dressed guests. A few abstract sculptures are dotted around and in the middle is a spindly figure on a plinth - perhaps a Giacometti. A woman is peering at the figure. The shape and poise of her body speak of wealth, while the sculpture speaks of poverty.
You could imagine this image paired with any number of quotes from Berger's early essays. Statements like: 'the privileged are not in a position to teach or give to the underprivileged. Their own love of art is a fiction, a pretension. What they have to offer is not worth taking.'1
Or concerning dealers: 'if you could fuck works of art as well as buy them, they would be pimps'2 . Or - perhaps the closest fit - from the first page of his book on Picasso: 'the so called Blue Period […] because it deals pathetically with the poor, has always been the favourite amongst the rich'.
The painter of modern life has no kings to glorify - in this sense he is liberated. But unlike the Medieval or even the Renaissance artist, the modern one has to sell his work as a commodity - and in this sense he is doubly enslaved, to the whims of the market and the hypocrisy of false consciousness. From the first couple of rooms in the exhibition you get the impression that the young John Berger was deeply, maybe painfully, in touch with this condition.
This is the man who, in 1972, used his Booker Prize acceptance speech to describe the origins of Booker-McConnell's wealth in the slave trade, before announcing his intention to give half his prize money to the Black Panther Party. To think of this speech airing live on the BBC is quite incredible. Its electrical charge would have played havoc with the aura of the archive pieces in Somerset House, let alone the news segments in the intermission.
Ways of Seeing
You get the same impression if you watch the exhibition's selected clip from Ways of Seeing, the TV series that Berger made the same year. We see Berger walk up to a painting in a museum, take out a stanley knife and cut a square around the head of one of the figures; he rips out the square, and the scene cuts to a printing press turning out postcard-sized reproductions of the cropped image.
This is before the title screen of the first episode. The next three in the series are a brilliant video essay on the power of images: how they trap women in the gaze of men, how they mould the material world into something that can be possessed, and how they trigger our dreams, nightmares, visions and beliefs.
If you read around the circumstances of Ways of Seeing, you get to know something about Berger's position in the history of culture. Like Robert Hughes who died in August, Berger is one of the last of a certain type of cultural figure. Hughes might have been a liberal whereas Berger is a Marxist, but both of them offer a radical yet humanistic commentary that is not marginal but has been thoroughly present in the mainstream.
They came after the height of the avant-gardes, but before any subculture had risen to a peak of visibility; after Cubism, Surrealism and Dada, but before Punk or Hip Hop. In political terms, they are contemporaries of the moment when the left occupied the greatest portion of the democratic ground permissible within the system, the moment of social democracy.
This isn't to say that Berger's criticism is lacking a polemical edge. Ways of Seeing was a counter-attack on the conservative art historian Kenneth Clarke and his Civilsation series. I remember having to watch Civilisation at school, the multimedia companion to EH Gombrich's book, The Story of Art. Encountering Ways of Seeing a couple of years later at art school - now on every first year reading list - was like having someone wipe away the cobwebs on a window to show you the world outside.
In the crudest sense, though, Berger's programme wouldn't have got made - and his profile generally wouldn't have been what it was - if it wasn't for the growth of public arts funding after the Second World War, emerging as it did along with the welfare state as part of the post-war settlement with labour. This cultural phenomenon and institutional circumstance allowed Berger to assume his role as educationalist.
Modernism and the mainstream
Part of what he was doing in Ways of Seeing was to popularise the most advanced theories of modernity and visual culture that were going. The same could be said about a lot of his early essays, which are daringly brief and brilliantly clear. The first episode of the programme ends by acknowledging the influence of Walter Benjamin's essay, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.
More generally, it reflects the interest developing around theories of the image and theories of film and photography. But again Berger occupies an in-between space. His key critical work comes after Clement Greenberg preached the formal purity of the medium, but before the critical postmodernism of Rosalind Krauss, Benjamin Buchloh or Hal Foster.
This historical condition partly explains why he wasn't an unreserved champion of the modern. He lamented 'the extraordinary degree to which most twentieth century art ignores any direct reference to the twentieth century environment', and he was a staunch defender of social realism.
But you can tell just as much if not more from looking at the paintings and sculptures in the exhibition - by artists he was friends with or who he wrote sympathetically about. As a student at the Central School he was a painter of the Lucien Freud and Francis Bacon generation. According to one of the little panel texts, he was often mistaken for Freud wandering around London.
But his sincerity was more intense than theirs. On reflection you can see it in the pictures. Despite similar features, Freud is a dandy whereas Berger looks more like a shepherd.
The difference is there in his early tastes too. He prefered the unglamorous, lumpen, intransigent qualties of emigre British artists like Leon Kossof and Peter Peri. Peering into the surfaces of these paintings and sculptures, there's a strange combination of warmth and solidity, softness and hardness. High Modernism has usually kept these qualities as far apart as possible (which isn't to say it always succeeded).
But here the two halves are absolutely fused. The surface of a painting by Kossof looks like frozen winter mud, but underneath there is a highly wrought structure. Or rather the structure is right there in the surface itself. The same stuff which tends to obliterate its subject ends up reforming it in the same moment - like ice riding on its own melting. Similarly, Peter Peri's sculptures are cast out of concrete but they hold air and warmth in the same way that pumice stone does.
It's the same quality, attitude or spirit that Berger discovers in the archetypical Modernist if ever there was one - in the thick walls of Le Corbusier: 'Such architecture offers only tranquility and human proportion. For myself I find in its discretion everything which I can recognize as spiritual. The power of functionalism does not lie in its utility, but in its moral example: an example of trust, the refusal to exhort.'3.
A unique perspective
His historical perspective, reinforced by his Marxism, combined with his personal ambivalence to put him at a slight distance from the modern, or to make him look at it askance, to interpret it in his own particular way. His overriding humanism is woven together with this condition.
If you scan through a list of his copious essays, one thing that strikes you is the historical diversity of the subjects: Piero della Francesca next to Oskar Kokoschka, Frans Hals next to Pierre Bonnard, Antoine Watteau next to Fernand Leger, or the Chauvet caves next to the North American Free Trade Agreement. The epithet that Marx borrowed from the Roman playwright Terence - 'nothing human is alien to me' - could well apply to Berger.
He has never been at the cutting edge theoretically or aesthetically. For example, you find nothing in his writing about the radical developments in 1960s Conceptualism, or Institutional Critique a decade later. But not having time for fashion seems to have gone hand in hand with a complete immunity to dogma. At the beginning of the second episode of Ways of Seeing, Berger tells the viewer he won't pretend to the clairvoyance of a child. Yet in his writings he came as close to that kind of vision as was perhaps possible for someone familiar with the machinations of politics and the determinations of economics.
If you wanted to take a child to a museum or a gallery, and have the experience be enlivening rather stupefying, a few lines from one of Berger's essays would be a useful thing to carry with you. Like this one about a drawing by Van Gogh:
‘The gestures come from his hand, his wrist, arm, shoulder, perhaps even the muscles of his neck, yet the strokes he makes on the paper are following currents of energy which are not physically his and which only become visible when he draws them […] the energy of a tree's growth, of a plant's search for light, of a branch's need for accommodation with its neighbouring branches… My list is arbitrary; what is not arbitrary is the pattern his strokes make on the paper. The pattern is ilke a fingerprint. Whose?’4
The fact that Berger is able to write about artists whose reputations are utterly worn out by cliche, is testament to his power of insight. It's also a quietly perverse act of subversion. He writes about pictures that you see hanging on the walls of a Pizza Express, or printed on a tourist's umbrella, and describes them like they were the first stirrings of an insurgency.
In Shape of a Pocket (2001), you find essays on Degas, Frida Kahlo and Michaelangelo alongside an exchange of letters with Subcommandante Marcos and a story about Antonio Gramsci.
His own politics, like his criticism, has similarly taken the refusal of dogma as a cardinal principle. To the extent that in 1956 he was in the strange position of someone who had never joined the Communist Party but was now expressing solidarity with the Soviet Union over the Hungarian uprising - at a moment when the repression carried out by Soviet troops was causing many to leave the party. It was as if his urge to swim against the tide had led him into dubious waters.
However, his sympathy for the Soviet Union did not last much longer. In 1968 he was in Prague, this time writing on the side of the uprising.
Sincerity in a cynical age
Of course you don't have to know any of this to get something from Berger's work. But the nature of his writing is that in a sense it demands openness to the irregularities of a personality, and of the world. Or rather it asks for these things (there is no demand, no exhortation). The writing simply asks you to pay attention to the slow holism of life.
That's the lesson Berger learns from Courbet, the painter whose mix of radicalism, humanism and naturalism perhaps has the most in common with the essayist:
'The Light plays on them kindly because all light is welcome that reveals the form of one's friends. […] The basic structure is always established first, all modulations and outcrops of texture are then seen as organic variations - just as eccentricities of character are seen by a friend, as opposed to a stranger, as part of the whole man'.5
Reading Berger's essays is a lot like the experience of receiving a letter from a friend. There is the same sincerity and directness, the same generosity of interest and the same nativity of thought. Paraphrasing some of the last words of the art theorist and revolutionary, Ernst Fischer (again someone he had a lot in common with), Berger writes:
'The categories we make between different aspects of experience - so that for instance some people say I should not have spoken about love and the Comintern in the same book - these categories are mostly there for the convenience of liars.'6
Berger's historical condition might be a peculiar one - an in-between time of culture - but the humanism that he developed out of this condition is as relevant as ever. And in this way his writing finds its critical value, by opposing the convenience of liars. His sincerity is not fashionable but in our cynical culture I think we need it now more than ever.
1. Art and Property Now', in John Berger Selected Essays, ed. by Geoff Dyer (London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2001), p. 106.
2. Art and Property Now', in John Berger Selected Essays, ed. by Geoff Dyer (London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2001), p. 104.
3. Le Corbusier, in John Berger Selected Essays, ed. by Geoff Dyer (London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2001), p. 179.
4. Vincent', in Shape of a Pocket (London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2001), p.89.
5. 'The Politics of Courbet', in John Berger Selected Essays, ed. by Geoff Dyer (London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2001), p. 64.
6. 'Ernst Fischer: A philosopher and Death', in Why Look at Animals? (XXX), p. XXX.
Alistair Cartwright is an activist with the Stop the War Coalition and a member of Counterfire.
More articles from this author
- New research shreds Johnson’s 'Covid-secure' workplaces
- The Spirit of ’46: how mass occupations won the battle for homes
- Supply chains: a neoliberal crisis
- Coronavirus: 8 demands we should make on the government
- Time to take a stand: the crucial case of Julian Assange
- When exposing war crimes becomes a crime: the case of Julian Assange
- Iran: stop this war before it starts