Art has often judged the judges, pleaded revenge to the innocent and shown to the future what the past has suffered, so that it has never been forgotten.
John Berger, 1985.1
In 1969 Kenneth Clark presented a 13-part television series called Civilisation. It ended with a comment on the events of May 68 in Paris: “I can see them [the students] still through the University of the Sorbonne, impatient to change the world, vivid in hope, although what precisely they hope for, or believe in, I don’t know.”
Three years later John Berger’s brilliant series Ways of Seeing gave him his answer. Clark belonged to an elite of cultural commentators—he had been a very young director of Oxford’s Ashmolean and of the National Gallery in wartime. In Civilisation he delivered a series of eloquent lectures on the great works of the past and the role of Western civilisation—the only one he considered. It was art as a special province of universal values, of qualities that could be described by a small select band for the benefit of the masses.
Berger’s answer was trenchant—art “makes sense of what life’s brutalities cannot, a sense that unites us, for it is inseparable from justice at last”.2 He spoke without the patrician academic hauteur of Clark, the friend of royalty whose biography, written by the ex-chairman of Sotheby’s James Stourton, has just been published.3 The tone of Berger’s presentation was conversational, an invitation to dialogue, to find a shared, democratic language in speaking about art. It was a definitive parting of the ways.
Where Clark unveiled the secrets of the work, seeing each one as a kind of puzzle to be solved, and stressing its unique, unassailable qualities, Berger began from the “seeing”. The work, any work, finds meaning in the space between the observer and the observed; what Clark saw as a member of the upper bourgeoisie, an inheritor of wealth born out of slavery (his family traded in cotton) and an Oxford graduate was not at all the same as someone from a wholly different background. Each time we look we bring to bear our memories, our values, our social experience: “The world as it is is more than pure objective fact; it includes consciousness… The art of the past is mystified because a privileged minority is striving to invent a history which can retrospectively justify it”.4
The single, authoritative eye speaks for the materially dominant class that defines the ideas and values in any society, disseminating its vision as a universal truth. What Frederick Engels described as the “bourgeois optimism” that defined the evolution of society as the achievement of its own purposes is expressed, for example, in those works that both depict property and are in turn things. Thomas Gainsborough’s Mr and Mrs Andrews, for example, shows a couple against a rural background. But it is not nature in its raw state that we see behind them, but land as property, nature owned by the Andrews family. Those paintings that depict bourgeois interiors whose walls are covered in pictures are not about art but about ownership, the possession of works of art which are in their turn signs of material value. They are in other words commodities, objects of accumulation, and the painting of them is just one more consumer good, multiplying its market value.
In the second part of the series Berger, fascinatingly, discusses the nude in art. In 2017 his arguments may seem familiar, but in 1972 they reflected an emerging debate driven by feminism, and still derided and dismissed then in a way that would have seemed a distant memory before Donald Trump’s arrival on the world stage. The nude in art is a convention that universalises the male gaze; it is woman as seen by men, displayed for men. She exists in and for the male gaze, her “sense of being in herself” appropriated by the dominant eye, which never itself appears. It is possession, and what is represented is property—like the land of the Andrews family, or the furniture of the bourgeois parlour. Berger quotes anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss on “the avid and ambitious desire to take possession of the object for the benefit of the owner”. The naked woman is observed as an object and appropriated by the seer. It is a relationship of power and powerlessness, since the gaze is not returned.
But Berger’s achievement here was not just to expose the conservative impulses in art history, but to rediscover a very different impulse embedded in art’s reflection on the world, albeit hidden or denied by the art establishment, who Berger described as the “clerks of the nostalgia of a ruling class in decline”. His excitement in discussing Cubism, in his seminal 1967 essay “The Moment of Cubism” (later reproduced in the collection Permanent Red),5 came from what he saw as its revolutionary impact. For the Cubists the visible arts are no longer what confronted the single eye but the totality of possible views taken from points all round the object. Reality was a contested space, and Cubism’s extraordinary achievement was to find a method of representation that could express that clash of visions: “the relations between what we see and what we know is never settled”—they are changed by human actions in the world.
The question of the value of art moves then on to a very different plane. For critics and the managers of art salerooms, value is monetary. A painting becomes more significant as its price rises—artistic and market value are one and the same. For Berger, as a Marxist, art’s value is very different: “Art, when it functions like this [making sense of what life’s brutalities cannot], becomes a meeting place of the invisible, the irreducible, the enduring, guts and honour”.6
In the text of Ways of Seeing Berger recognises the influence of Walter Benjamin, now widely read and recognised but much less familiar to Berger’s audience. The impact of Benjamin is in both the content and the form of Berger’s writing, in the blurring of boundaries between literature, art, philosophy and history and the discussion of the impact of film and photography.
In Benjamin’s view “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” loses its “aura”, its sacred status—untouchable and unique.7 It becomes accessible and immediate, but at the same time it may have the opposite effect. Berger explores the way in which advertising turns that aura on its head; if the authority of the painting is derived from a past now beyond reach, the advertising image denies the past as well as the future, creating that eternal and transitory present, the “reality-effect” that has become so familiar in contemporary television, Andy Warhol’s 15 minutes of fame, after which we simply disappear. Atomised and isolated, each life is approached in terms of its failure to reach the promised world of the advert, yet at the same time the way of life, the society as a whole, goes unchallenged.
Ways of Seeing was broadcast in the same year that Berger won the Booker prize for his novel G (Berger’s relentless productivity in so many areas was remarkable even then, and continued to be so until his death this year, at the age of 90). He caused considerable consternation when he gave half his fee to the London Black Panthers, given that Booker had made its first fortune out of the slavery of the sugar plantations. The other half he used to finance his next book, written with photographer Jean Mohr, A Seventh Man.8
Once again Berger would prove himself ahead of his time. The book is a series of interviews with migrants describing their lives and experiences. The key is that it is a gathering of their own words. “The oppressed”, he said, “are breaking through the wall of silence which was built into their minds by their oppressors”.9 The writer’s task is not to express sympathy or to speak on their behalf, but rather to provide an opportunity for them to speak directly, to work with them. Berger referred to it as moving from empathy to solidarity, a key term in his understanding of his own role as a writer. To stand with the oppressed, rather than for them—hence the important role of Jean Mohr’s photographs, in which the speaker looks directly at us.
Referring back to Benjamin once again, Berger preferred to describe himself as a “storyteller”:
“When someone goes on a trip he has something to tell about” goes the German saying and people imagine the storyteller as one who has come from afar. But they enjoy no less listening to the man who has stayed at home, making an honest living, and who knows the local tales and traditions…
Among those who have written down the tales, it is the great ones whose written version differs least from the speech of the many nameless storytellers.
[The decline of storytelling is not] a “symptom of decay” [but] only a concomitant symptom of the secular productive forces of history, a concomitant that has quite gradually removed narrative from the realm of living speech and at the same time is making it possible to see a new beauty in what is vanishing.10
Berger left Britain to live in Switzerland in 1962 before moving to his farm in the Haute-Savoie region of France ten years later, where he remained for the rest of his life. His three volume project, Into their Labours, began with Pig Earth (1980). He clearly embarked on it with Benjamin in mind. The project chronicled a peasant family, its traditions, its view of the land, of work, the harsh material struggle; it clearly set out to be a work “from within”, rather than the observations of a traveller. And it explored the secret subversions of the peasantry.
But there was a continuity. In all of his work Berger sought out the imaginative universes that are not restricted to those designated as artists, the official dreamers of a world where even dreams are colonised. Jean Mohr’s photographs avoid sentimentality on the one hand, and anonymity on the other. They are pieces of a story that the reader must construct.
The men coming out of the train into the Geneva station are real individuals, with real stories to tell, but we are not told them. We are told the general story of which they are instances, and they are given to us as just that, instances of a general argument. So, sympathetic as we surely end up being to the situation of these men, we cannot empathise… We are not meant to. In this, Berger and Mohr embody the kind of artistic practice Bertolt Brecht made famous, in which all the devices that dramatic artists usually use to grab our emotions are deliberately undercut and prevented from working, so that we may grasp the full weight of the political and sociological argument being made.11
The book was published 40 years ago, yet it speaks to this moment in history as surely as if he had meant it to: “To outline the experience of the migrant worker and to relate this to what surrounds him—both physically and historically—is to grasp more surely the political reality of the world at this moment. The subject is European, its meaning is global. Its theme is unfreedom”.12
Berger said that you cannot look through words on to reality, because words are not transparent. They create their own space, the space of experience. In A Seventh Man both text and images do that as if to demonstrate once again that meaning is an interaction, not a secret to be unearthed by a skilled archaeologist.
John Berger’s work covers an enormous range of activities—film, photography, novel, short story, television, painting, art history and more. And he worked untiringly until his death—writing, drawing, conversing and turning the earth of his small farm.
Writing about him is difficult for that reason. Or it would be, were there not through all his work a unifying theme, or impulse. To listen and to look; to be a witness, not analysing but responding to what is seen and heard. The character of his prose, which has irritated some and delighted others, comes from that relationship. It is poetic, sometimes dense, allusive and sometimes elusive too. But it is always an exemplary response. That should never be confused with a kind of slippery liberalism. He is, unconditionally, with the oppressed.
One of his last books—there were several published in the two or three years before his death—was Portraits, a chronological series of commentaries on art and artists. Berger always denied that he was an art critic. He was, of course, much more than that. Yet what he discovered in art and in many other creative responses to a capitalist world deeply hostile to the creative mind was, at times, the imaginative possibility of a different world, the ought against the is, in which the diversity of human activity would not be separated into consumer niches but reintegrated into the wholeness of human possibility, the totality of which Karl Marx spoke. He saw it tantalisingly in the early work of Pablo Picasso, and saw it abandoned or compromised as the market captured the greatest of artists—in his Success and Failure of Picasso. He saw it denied and suppressed in post-Stalinist Russia—in his Art and Revolution. And in his introduction to Permanent Red he returned to his lifelong concern:
I now believe there is an absolute incompatibility between art and private property, between art and state property… Property must be destroyed before imagination can develop any further. Thus today I would find the function of regular art criticism…to uphold the art market—impossible to accept”.13
Mike Gonzalez is the author of Che Guevara and the Cuban Revolution (2004) and, with Marianella Yanes, The Last Drop: The Politics of Water (2015).
1 From a short essay Berger wrote after the defeat of the 1984-5 miners’ strike.
2 Berger, 1985.
3 Stourton, 2016.
4 Berger, 1972.
5 Berger, 1975.
6 Berger, 1985.
7 Benjamin, 1970.
8 Berger and Mohr, 1975.
9 From Berger’s Booker prize acceptance speech.
10 Benjamin, 2016.
11 Becker, 2002, p11.
12 Preface to Berger and Mohr, 1975.
13 Berger, 1979.