The critic and writer, who died this week, gave a new perspective on how art defines humanity, says Catherine Slessor
In a gallery lined with Renaissance masterpieces, a vulpine-looking man strides up to Botticelli’s famous painting of the goddess Venus surveying a prostrate Mars. Brandishing a cutting knife, the man proceeds to systematically incise out the head of Venus. The sound of razored canvas is disquieting, like nails down a blackboard. Displaying his trophy, the man addresses his audience: ‘Tonight it isn’t so much the paintings themselves that I want to consider,’ he declares, ‘as the way we now see them.’
It was 1972 and John Berger was the vulpine vandal in the first episode of the BBC TV series Ways of Seeing. Picking away at historic layers of meaning, this intellectual hand grenade abruptly dislodged art criticism from its genteel pedestal of bourgeois connoisseurship and struck a fierce and enduring chord across generations. Peruse any architect’s or artist’s bookshelves and you’ll invariably come across a dog-eared copy of Ways of Seeing, the book based on the series.
But Berger, who has just died at the great age of 90, could speak to anyone who was interested in deciphering the language and resonances of art. Its history, techniques and aesthetic traditions, its social context and its (increasingly) commodified hinterland and, crucially, the effect it has on us. How making and looking at art defines our humanity. How to see beyond the picture. How to see, in fact.
This intellectual hand grenade abruptly dislodged art criticism from its genteel pedestal of bourgeois connoisseurship
As a critic (though he loathed the soubriquet) who was originally a painter, then a novelist, poet, actor, and screenwriter, Berger was an especially agile polymath with a phenomenal range. From his earliest incarnation as art critic for the New Statesman in the late 40s, he was also deeply and indignantly politicised, fomented by lifelong Marxist humanist convictions. ‘Oil painting did to appearances what capital did to social relations,’ he wrote. ‘It reduced everything to the equality of objects. Everything became exchangeable because everything became a commodity.’
Picking up the Booker Prize in 1972, he took the opportunity to excoriate its sponsor, whose corporate largesse could be traced back to Caribbean sugar plantations serviced by slave labour. He then promptly donated half his prize money to the Black Panther movement and used the rest to fund A Seventh Man (1975), a book produced in collaboration with Swiss documentary photographer Jean Mohr, focusing on Europe’s abuse of migrant labour. He wrote regularly and with passion on the societal impact of the brute forces of war, capitalism and neoliberalism. Inevitably, architecture did not escape his scrutiny. ‘The power of functionalism does not lie in its utility, but in its moral example: an example of trust, the refusal to exhort,’ he wrote in an essay on Le Corbusier.
Berger had his detractors. The poet Stephen Spender once called him ‘a foghorn in a fog’, a barb that Berger deftly turned into a compliment, since what could be more useful in a fog? And in the current miasma of cultural dissemination, Berger’s acuity and sensitivity make us painfully aware of what we have lost. The exploration of ideas, the pleasure of language, the capacity to think, speculate and digress; these days all puréed into gurning infotainment purveyed by linen-suited televisual boulevardiers roaming Italy on quests for the ‘real Caravaggio’, or defected architectural hacks peddling yet more beggar-thy-neighbour house porn.
Refusing to see art history as a ‘relay race of geniuses’, Berger prioritised connection over distinction. Not just the connection between artists but the connection between artists and ourselves. His writing challenges ‘the convenience of liars’ and luxuriates in details that speak about both the importance and the sensuality of the quotidian; the things, the relations that give form and expression to our lives across time, making us, ultimately, human.