Anything that moves

John Berger (1926-2017): The legend who gave the world new ways of seeing art

The critic engineered a refreshing shift away from snobbish connoisseurship towards a politically engaged reading of art.

1972 was a good year for John Berger. That year, he won Britain’s most prestigious literary awards, the James Tait Black Memorial Prize and the Booker Prize, for his novel G. He donated half the Booker award money to the Black Panthers in protest against Booker-McConnell’s historical exploitation of workers on sugar plantations in British Guiana. The rest went into research for a book on migrant workers in Europe called A Seventh Man. G is largely forgotten, and though A Seventh Man was praised in its time and remains relevant in ours, Berger’s major achievement had nothing to do with either volume. 1972 was the year he wrote and presented a four-part television series titled Ways of Seeing, later published as a book of the same name. It revolutionised how art is viewed, and how it is written about. Its accessible style countered the pomposity of experts who dominated the field in that era.

In the first scene, the author (dressed in a very 1970s shirt that he wore through each episode for some reason) approached the Renaissance artist Botticelli’s painting Mars and Venus, pulled out a knife and cut out the face of Venus. The provocative gesture was used for more than just shock value. While indicating that art was not to be treated as something sacred, it simultaneously introduced the main focus of the segment, the manner in which the proliferation of photographic reproductions (of which the vandalised Botticelli was one) affects our understanding of paintings.

Ways of Seeing proposed that art ought to be understood as an aspect of contemporary culture rather than in isolation from it. Indeed, the book’s last chapter dealt with the nature of advertising rather than the interpretation of paintings. Berger’s perspective, along with that of a few other pioneering theorists, inspired the growth of an entire academic discipline distinct from traditional art history called visual studies.

The vanities of high art

In Berger’s view, high art partook of the vanities, prejudices and struggles associated with daily existence. He argued persuasively that the renaissance nude reflected the unequal relationship between men and women. Class, race, gender, the biographies of artists and their political attitudes were as crucial to interpreting artworks as formal evaluation.

If Ways of Seeing was a refreshing shift away from snobbish connoisseurship towards a politically engaged reading of art, in some ways the pendulum has swung too far since its publication. In the writing of today’s curators and theorists, political analysis is now foregrounded to the point that the quality of the work of art itself virtually disappears. While this unfortunate development is in some ways Berger’s legacy, his own writing always emphasised the value of communing with individual artworks. Unlike the German Marxist Walter Benjamin, whose writing deeply influenced Ways of Seeing, Berger comprehended the difference between original works and mechanical copies.

“Original paintings are silent and still in a sense that information never is,” he wrote. “Even a reproduction hung on a wall is not comparable in this respect for in the original the silence and stillness permeate the actual material, the paint, in which one follows the traces of the painter’s immediate gestures. This has the effect of closing the distance in time between the painting of the picture and one’s own act of looking at it. In this special sense all paintings are contemporary.” Trained as a painter, and a practising artist all his adult life, Berger held on to ideas of creativity and imagination that Ways of Seeing was instrumental in dethroning, and which his disciples hold in contempt.

A letter from the Alps

Aside from being a long-standing admirer of Berger’s work, I have a minor personal connection with him. In 1998, I was appointed editor of Art India, a quarterly devoted to contemporary Indian art. My friend Ranjit Hoskote was the magazine’s consulting editor. He attended a conference in Europe that summer and while talking about it later, mentioned as a highlight his meeting with Berger. I was envious, but that envy was soon superseded by excitement. Do you think he might write something for us, I asked. Ranjit informed me that Berger lived on a farm in the French Alps with no internet connection and no phone that he knew of. Despite the technological barriers, it was an opportunity not to be missed, and the two of us wrote to the great art critic explaining what our publication was about and requesting him to contribute.

It was a very long shot, because Berger had little connection with India aside from having championed the work of FN Souza in the 1950s, when Souza was a young émigré in London and Berger a slightly younger critic. Near the date I was to close my first issue, Ranjit received a letter from Berger (who had obviously been impressed by their conversation) containing a typewritten essay and permission to carry it alongside its publication in the journal Race and Class for which it was composed. The essay, which appeared the following year in the Guardian, used a famous painting by the early renaissance artist Hieronymous Bosch as a metaphor for discussing globalisation and the Zapatista uprising in Mexico’s Chiapas state. It was a quintessentially Bergerian constellation of ideas, demonstrating he retained his passion for art and politics even as he sought connection with the rhythms of the earth on his remote farmhouse. That fire didn’t stop burning till his death on Monday at the age of 90, and will continue to burn in the many books he leaves behind.

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