“I can’t tell you what art does and how it does it, but I know that 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”
The poet, novelist, painter and art critic John Berger passed away on 2nd January. One of the most significant voices in 20th century cultural criticism, Berger’s books – including Berger on Drawing(2005), About Looking (2002), Understanding a Photograph (2013), and Portraits: John Berger on Artists (2015) – are invaluable research tools for everyone, from the experienced academic to the first year student looking for a way into reading art.
With his TV series Ways of Seeing (1972) Berger reached widespread public attention. Side-stepping the reverence and solemnity of much mainstream artistic and historical criticism, Ways of Seeing encourages the viewer to not approach a work of art as artefact to be judged primarily on creative or technical merit, but rather to approach it with compassion; to see that each piece carries its life story behind it, beyond what we see in front of us.
“Oil painting did to appearances what capital did to social relations. It reduced everything to the equality of objects. Everything became exchangeable because everything became a commodity”
Through examining artworks as created phenomena which stand the test of time (and the test of the human gaze) Berger suggests that galleries, exhibitions and installations might be viewed less as calculated assemblages of related works, but something approaching constellations of histories. Where artworks were once controlled by, as much as created by, techniques and materials popular at the time of their creation, Berger re-portrays them not simply as ambassadors of their schools (albeit minor or masterful) but as fugitives of history, embattled by the pigeon holing of ‘official opinion’ whilst all the time beckoning us to see much more besides.
One of the ways he encourages us to see much more is to admit the fact that, sometimes, art collections are intimidating in scale. We might only think that a handful of works in any given exhibition truly grab our attention – but what’s wrong with that? This is meeting a piece half-way, and it’s from here that we can gain a compassion and formulate an opinion. In its journey through history, up until the point of recognition by the viewer, a work of art has achieved some kind of purpose, and we have engaged in dialogue with it, no matter how personal or supposedly un-critical.
“To be continued by the reader…”
Berger’s cultural analysis features similarly emotive engagement. He argues that throughout Western history the female has been reified; from the filter of the male gaze, and on through to eye of mass media. Where the male form is a often a representation of a state (pride, determination, vengeance, failure, contemplation, reverence), the female form is – crudely speaking – there to be stared at. It is through this gaze that the female is quantified (judged, desired, fantasied about, rejected, hated). Berger also notes that, throughout history, Indian, African and Persian art often portrays the female as being equal to the male, raising questions of Western institutions of societal hierarchy.
Berger will be missed, but his influence runs deep and diverse. How Proust Can Change Your Life (1997), philosopher Alain de Botton’s joyous case for the defence that Marcel Proust’s epic seven-novel series À la Recherche du Temps Perdu (1913 – 1927) is any decent human being’s emotional and social primer. It carries Berger’s hallmark method of applying and realising that your own subjective reactions to art are as ‘correct’ as any critic’s.
“Hold everything dear”
Visit us at LRC WISE if you’d like to find out more, or to loan any of the Berger items mentioned (all available on Standard Loan).