I started 2017 with John Berger on my mind. 2016 ended with a number of deaths, with Berger at ninety it wouldn’t be long. In November I went to the launch of A Jar of Wild Flowers. Then, over Christmas, I was given a couple of his books, Portraits and About Looking.
As many were, I was introduced to him through the book Ways of Seeing, actually my dad’s own dog-eared copy that he’d bought in the 1980s. It was the sight of the book that first caught my attention; it was small and thin, clearly easy to read, with enough pictures, but it was unlike others with its text that ran the length of the cover, and the surreal Magritte painting. My dad’s scrawled notes and sporadic underlining showed me it was a book to be used like a notepad, one to respond to, as well as read.
Years later I was able to watch the original TV programme, screened on BBC4. It’s a shock compared to contemporary arts programming, which still occupies the same position Berger was arguing against. In these, presenters muse in front of paintings and walk through the streets of Italy and Greece to find an artist’s studio, the bed they slept in, the specific point in the landscape they sat. This approach, somehow designed to make art relatable, still treats artworks and even the detritus of artists as relics to be simultaneously sought and unapproachable. Berger appears without introduction, when he does stand in front of a painting—Botticelli’s Venus and Mars in the National Gallery—it’s only to take a blade to it, cutting Venus’ face out of its frame, decapitating the work. Ways of Seeing is clear in its critique without assuming prior knowledge, it explains itself in an uncluttered language, but without condescension.
Appealing to the utility of art rather than its beauty is no longer unusual, but instead the only way neoliberalism can value art. Liberals are particularly fond of the arts as providing education, this education then places art and themselves above political concerns. Berger’s use of art differs, his is a specifically Marxist practice that goes hand-in-hand with theory informed by criticism. He is not only aware of the control of images and words, but recognises the asymmetric power relation between those who use and read them, and turns his images into tools with a purpose. Namely, to reverse the usage of art connoisseurship as a civilising tool of destruction. Distinctive in Berger’s approach is his refusal to appeal to his own authority, as a critic, or as an artist, above that of any other viewer. Berger ends the first episode of Ways of Seeing with a reminder,
With this programme, as will all programmes, you receive images and meanings which are arranged. I hope you consider what I arrange, but be sceptical of it.
Berger’s process is never his own, but a collaboration,
This book has been made by five of us, begins the introduction to Ways of Seeing. Berger’s work is inclusive of thought and democratic, in the sense of the word that Marxist practice ought to use. Berger’s willingness and understanding that criticism must turn to people outside of the art-world for interpretation is admirable. In the second episode of Ways of Seeing, focussing on the female nude in Western art, Berger convenes a discussion group of various women. Having shown them the unfinished episode, he sits aside to listen and watch their discussion over the issues raised and personal experiences. Too often, contemporary arts programmes reserve comment for personalities who speak on behalf of, summarise, and clarify the thoughts of others.
Being held with scepticism was easy for Berger, an outspoken critic of establishment art world figures and institutions. His obituaries by the BBC, the Guardian, and others obscure or omit his lifelong commitment to Marxism. They praise Berger’s love of art in spite of his dogmatic politics; which formed a barrier to his criticism that had to be overcome with age, rather than a guiding principle that informed him until the end. As Berger himself said,
we should be somewhat wary of a love of art, and he was always clear that his politics existed before art. Writing in the preface of Permanent Red,
Ever since I was a student, I have been aware of the injustice, hypocrisy, cruelty, wastefulness and alienation of our bourgeois society as reflected and expressed in the field of art. And my aim has been to help, in however small a way, to destroy this society.
I read of his death by text, from the same friend who had given me Portraits. We were due to meet anyway, and soon ended up in a pub. Throughout 2016 I hadn’t really found myself affected by the numerous deaths of cultural figures. There are few people I hold with high esteem—don’t meet your heroes, or better yet, don’t have any, even if you value their work. But John Berger’s death seemed somehow different and I felt the situation deserved some writing, given his significance to me personally—I wouldn’t have studied the history of art, wouldn’t have travelled to London, and wouldn’t be writing this now without Ways of Seeing. Prior to reading Berger’s combination of visual analysis and political criticism, art was a subject for the rich, galleries were boring at best, dangerous at worst, they were nothing but storage units for expensive objects that lacked use and meaning.
Berger’s death is socially significant in that it represents the passing away of one more communist, an essentially compassionate man whose work has affected, taught, and guided so many. Whose invective was reserved only for the circumstances that force people to endure misery. Worse, his death comes at a point when societies would benefit from precisely such people.