John Berger and his ways of seeing
For art critic John Berger, who died on 2 January at 90, art was the means through which he initiated the conversation
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To call John Berger an art critic does disservice both to Berger and to the term art critic. Berger, who died on 2 January at 90, wrote about more than art, but saying that does not mean he thought of art as any less. Good art criticism is rarely about art alone. To him, art was the window to the mind of the artist, the mind of the culture, and the mind of the viewer.
Berger wrote poems, stories, novels and essays that captured the human condition, and art was the means through which he initiated the conversation. He showed us how we learnt more about ourselves by looking at art, learning about ourselves by understanding how we looked at art, and accompanying the artist’s journey as he figured out the way to express. The making of art was as important as the art itself—the physical labour involved was critical to our understanding of the creative process.
Ways Of Seeing, his powerful four-part series of films, is now required viewing for any art course; his book, The Success And Failure Of Picasso is as much about Picasso’s art as a comment about the 20th century. And his exceptional and yet difficult-to-categorize book, And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief As Photos, uses poetry, prose and imagery to speak of displacement, loss, migration and love.
Berger used his gift—his writing—to express his rage against what he saw as injustice, and his targets included racism, sexism, military aggression, imperialism, and unrestrained markets.
In 1972, while receiving what was then known as the Booker McConnell Prize for his novel, G., Berger pointed out how the company sponsoring the prize had profited from the slave trade, and how poverty in the Caribbean existed because of colonial exploitation, which meant thousands of Caribbean lives got uprooted as people migrated to Britain to earn a living.
Conscious of his complicity, he said: “The fundamental nature of the relationship between Europe and the rest of the world, between black and white, has not changed. This is why I have to turn this prize against itself. And I propose to do so by sharing it in a particular way. The half I give away will change the half I keep”—and the recipients of his generosity were the Black Panthers.
Berger was a champion of free speech. In 2009, the year I joined the board of English PEN, Berger received English PEN’s highest honour, the Golden PEN award. At the award ceremony, Berger said: “Free speech is already a word so abused, and so lightly used normally, that maybe we should think about what it really means. Because nearly always the defence of free speech is the defence of those who are protesting against some kind of injustice. And it is the powers who create that injustice who try to limit what can be said.”
Berger raged against injustice, but he had a light touch. The novelist Geoff Dyer described Berger’s writing as “devoid of cynicism, never nostalgic and endlessly furious”, in his encomium when Berger received the Golden PEN.
Berger wrote for the left-leaning magazine, New Statesman, and its editors often received letters critical of his writing for bringing politics into his criticism of art. Annoyed by Berger’s politics, once the poet Stephen Spender, himself a free speech champion (who edited the magazine Encounter when he was unaware that it was being financed by the US Central Intelligence Agency and who resigned when he found out the source of its funding), called Berger a foghorn in the fog.
Berger responded politely, thanking Spender for the compliment—foghorns are useful in fogs, after all. They can add to the noise and be a nuisance in the clear light of day. Whether there was fog or not depended on one’s politics, but the beauty of Berger’s prose was that it was sharp, not loud; it was clear, and not muddled.
The Argentine-born pianist and conductor Daniel Barenboim, who holds citizenship of Israel and Palestine as well, had once said that Beethoven’s piano concerto #5 carries us to a horizon of happiness that we cannot cross. Noting the unattainability of happiness, Berger contrasted the concerto’s beauty with the harrowing reality of the Beit El checkpoint at the entrance to Ramallah in Palestine, and renamed the concerto the Intifada for the day Palestinian students were protesting at the checkpoint.
Was that gesture just that? Yes. Did it express solidarity? Yes. Was it grand? Yes. There is nobility in failure; it aims to shame the opponent.
Berger wanted to see a different world. His mother used to tell him, maybe we can repair things a bit. It is advice he took to heart; his writing aimed to repair a world that was broken, to alleviate suffering. He may not have afflicted the comfortable, but he sought to comfort the afflicted.
His words about the male gaze and its hypocrisy resonate at a time when in India some politicians have responded to the recent instance of mass molestation of women in Bengaluru by asking women to cover up and not step out on streets, suggestions which grant immunity to the men by exempting them.
Berger criticized men for their hypocrisy—they ogled at women and then blamed the women for dressing (or not) the way they liked, ignoring the pleasure they derived by looking at the women. The artist is complicit as he perpetrates; the observer gets implicated: The problem isn’t how women dress; it is how men see them.
Berger showed us another way to look, because, as he wrote in G., “never again will a single story be told as though it were the only one”.
Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London. Read Salil’s previous Mint columns at www.livemint.com/saliltripathi