On John Berger

  • John Berger’s Theory of Art On the one hand, the artist turns raw material into artistic material by shaping it to represent an idea or an object; this is true both of Michelangelo shaping a block of marble into David and of Jackson Pollock embodying the rhythms of jazz in drip paintings. On the other, the artist turns his perception into something external and objective, a representation. The work of art is the result of these two transformations, of raw stuff and of subjective perception into an art object. For Raphael, the point of art is these two transformations: they are the artist’s way of “undoing the world of things” and constructing “the world of values.”So Raphael’s answer to Marx’s problem — why is art enduringly moving even though it merely reflects its social context? — is to say that art doesn’t merely reflect its social context. It does reflect it, because the artist’s material, style, the things they want to represent, even the way they see, are historically conditioned; but it doesn’t merely reflect it, because the transformed material speaks of something deeper and more voluntary. It speaks of humanity’s ability to make its own world, to become the subject and not merely the victim of history. “The function of the work of art,” Berger sums up Raphael, “is to lead us from the work to the process of creation which it contains.”…     We can no longer “use” most paintings today as they were intended to be used: for religious worship, for celebrating the wealth of the wealthy, for immediate political enlightenment, for proving the romantic sublime, and so on. Nevertheless, painting is especially well suited to developing the very faculty of understanding which has rendered its earlier uses obsolete: that is to say, to developing our historical and evolutionary self-consciousness.

    This is the promise, the positive function of art. By looking at it, we are, in effect, looking through an artist’s eyes, entering into a concretized instance of their gaze. We are looking at a looking. And from within an artist’s looking, we learn about the capacities of our kind and the possibilities of our future: “A classical Greek sculpture increases our awareness of our own potential physical dignity; a Rembrandt of our potential moral courage; a Matisse of our potential sensual awareness.”


  • Writing is an off-shoot of something deeper by John Berger

    true translation is not a binary affair between two languages but a triangular affair. The third point of the triangle being what lay behind the words of the original text before it was written. True translation demands a return to the pre-verbal. One reads and rereads the words of the original text in order to penetrate through them to reach, to touch, the vision or experience that prompted them. One then gathers up what one has found there and takes this quivering almost wordless “thing” and places it behind the language it needs to be translated into. And now the principal task is to persuade the host language to take in and welcome the “thing” that is waiting to be articulated.

    This practice reminds us that a language cannot be reduced to a dictionary or stock of words and phrases. Nor can it be reduced to a warehouse of the works written in it. A spoken language is a body, a living creature, whose physiognomy is verbal and whose visceral functions are linguistic. And this creature’s home is the inarticulate as well as the articulate.

    …What has prompted me to write over the years is the hunch that something needs to be told, and that if I don’t try to tell it, it risks not being told. I picture myself as a stop-gap man rather than a consequential, professional writer.

    After I’ve written a few lines I let the words slip back into the creature of their language. And there, they are instantly recognised and greeted by a host of other words, with whom they have an affinity of meaning, or of opposition, or of metaphor or alliteration or rhythm. I listen to their confabulation. Together they are contesting the use to which I put the words I chose. They are questioning the roles I allotted them.

    So I modify the lines, change a word or two, and submit them again. Another confabulation begins. And it goes on like this until there is a low murmur of provisional consent. Then I proceed to the next paragraph.



    l of Berger’s work—which includes poems, novels, drawings, paintings, and screenwriting—is to me a beautiful and bracing argument that political commitment requires maintaining a position of wonder. Sexual desire, the rhythms (or increasing arrhythmia) of the seasons, the mysterious gaze of an animal, the spark of camaraderie released by sharing a meal and story, the way certain art works transform an idiosyncratic way of seeing into a commons—such experiences promise us, albeit briefly, an alternative to a world in which money is the only measure of value. And, Berger’s work suggests, they aren’t forms of forgetfulness but of presentness, memory, recovery, because they place you in relation to, in community with, the dead. “The living sometimes experience timelessness, as revealed in sleep, ecstasy, instants of extreme danger, orgasm, and perhaps in the experience of dying itself,” he wrote in 1994. “During these instants the living imagination covers the entire field of experience and overruns the contours of the individual life or death. It touches the waiting imagination of the dead.” Whether Berger is looking with us at a film or a cave painting, he helps catalyze something like that contact, helps us feel the past as living, the past as the medium of the present.



  • Good To Know You! By Andy Merrifield

    John died yesterday. I’ll remember his voice, his laugh, his charm and generosity. His words. Stripped-down words, mystical and carefully chosen words, earthy words, fierce words. They’ll always grab us, make us think, feel and act, piss people off. To weep for John is to weep on the shoulder of life.

… Poetic humanism was John’s language, like Wordsworth. His was a finely-textured animal and mineral Marxism that journeyed over distances and across cultures, beyond disciplinary borders and through mental divisions of labour. John, who called himself a “jack of all trades,” said writing should be an act of joining things together, making sense of disparate things, and seeing that they’re not so disparate after all. He was driven to demystify productive and creative processes.

Death was forever part of John’s life. Storytellers, he said, are “Death Secretaries”; they borrow their authority from the dead. Death hands storytellers the file, “full of sheets of uniformly black paper.” “All the storyteller needs or has is the capacity to read what is written in black.” So now we, too, must read John in black. He’s handed us the file.

John’s whole life represents a species of eternity; his art lies beyond duration, beyond space. A lightness of touch, resembling the “geometrical” deftness of Spinoza’s Ethics, lies everywhere in his work: the culmination of all those years of restless activity, of writing and thinking, of drawing and riding, of meeting and discussing. The finally-achieved “blessedness” and mortality of Spinoza’s “third level of knowledge,” knowledge that John spent ninety-years searching for.

A religiosity, this third kind of knowledge, was present in his being and his work in recent years. Not a religiosity of institutions, of churches and commissars, of higher powers; not a God above us, a transcendent creator who offers us freedom only after death in heaven. John’s God is monadal and metaphysical, like Spinoza’s, a single substance with infinite attributes, inside us, in nature, inside both us and nature, an immanent essence we can tap without meditation or mediators, something we can experiment with, struggle for, sketch out.



  • ‘Reproductions Distort’: A Note on the Culture Industry

    John Berger has died. The world is smaller.

    The machine strains to domesticate dissent, to national-treasurise a rebel.

    It would be too overt, too unsubtle, to censor the fact of his radical politics. The theoretical disembowelling must be subtler. Thus, 30 seconds into its short video obituary (second video), the BBC shows a clip from 1972′s Ways of Seeing.

    ‘Reproductions distort’, Berger says. The camera pulls him into view before a da Vinci. ‘Only a few facsimiles don’t. Take this original painting in the National Gallery. Only, what you are seeing is still not the original.’ He speaks more quietly. He turns from us to gaze at the painting. He sounds now as if he is at worship. ‘I’m in front of it. I can see it.’

    That clip ends. ‘The programme’, Will Gompertz interrupts, ‘was to become iconic and highly influential.’ True enough. But it is surely not irrelevant that what we were allowed to see in that truncated clip was not the awed reverie at the power of art that it was made to appear: it was the set-up for its radical puncturing.

    ‘This painting by Leonardo is unlike any other in the world’, Berger continues in the original programme, as the camera lingers on the brush-strokes. His voice is hushed. ‘It isn’t a fake. It’s authentic. If I go to the National Gallery and look at this painting, somehow I should be able to feel this authenticity. The Virgin of the Rocks by Leonardo da Vinci. It is beautiful for that alone.’

    And then, after a pause, the camera lurches to a close-up of Berger turning back to stare into it, his face now almost angry. He speaks assertively, making a mockery of his previous churchy tones, in a brilliant switch, one of the greatest ever moments of television. He speaks now with quizzical disdain. ‘Nearly everything that we learn or read about art encourages an attitude and expectation rather like that.

    This attitude of sentimentalism he immediately deguts as a mediated excrescence of capitalism. A work becomes ‘mysterious again’, might acquire ‘a kind of new impressiveness, but not because of what it shows, not because of the meaning of its image’, but ‘because of its market value’.

    It’s been pointed out by many, including Berger himself, that it is impossible to imagine the BBC making Ways of Seeing now. That’s bad enough: it seems a particularly purulent symptom that in the BBC’s own obituary for the person responsible for one of the greatest works it ever broadcast, it in passing inverts the spirit and meaning of that work. Deploys it to reinforce the very attitude Berger was working so urgently to break.


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