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A Marxist art critic walks into a bar: Anthony Byrt on John Berger

Late last year we asked Anthony Byrt to review a collection of essays by the great John Berger. The author died in January; the review is now a kind of tribute to a writer who was a massive influence on Geoff Dyer, Olivia Laing, and others.

When John Berger died in January at age 90, the glowing obituaries flowed freely. And rightly so, given he was one of the most influential writers of the late 20th century. But that adulation was a long way from where he started, about 60 years earlier, as the New Statesman’s art critic. In the 50s, Berger was a young man taking on the British art world establishment, wearing his personal, radical politics on his sleeve. Much of that writing ended up in his first collection in 1960, Permanent Red. The title was a reference to a paint colour, but also a firm declaration of his position: for the next six decades Berger was an unwaveringly Marxist critic.

The openness of Berger’s politic and his acknowledgement of how that shaped his subjectivity was a game-changer for art criticism. In Ways of Seeing and other works, he challenged the popular perception that great art is somehow universal and timeless, and argued instead that all artworks are things made by actual people in given social contexts. The measure of art’s greatness, for Berger, had far more to do with its relevance to its time and the ‘work’ it did in articulating or changing the culture around it. It was a clever approach: simultaneously a way to champion tough contemporary art in the face of conservative academicism and to hold the art of the past to account, whether it was made by Titian, Rembrandt or Picasso.

Berger’s death almost exactly coincided with the publication of a collection of his writings, edited by Tom Overton. Landscapes: John Berger on Art is a companion volume to the earlier Portraits: John Berger on Artists. Just as the title suggests, Landscapes turns Portraits’ focus 90 degrees, from a close look at the makers themselves to the wider vista of the world they operated in, and the world that Berger himself occupied.

John Berger (Image: Antonio Marín Segovia/Flickr)

It’s a weird collection in some ways. Rather than arranging pieces chronologically, it’s divided in two parts: “Redrawing the Maps” and “Terrain.” The first is about the thinkers who shaped Berger’s worldview – Bertolt Brecht, Walter Benjamin, Roland Barthes and so on; the second sees Berger in action, taking those influences and applying them to questions of art. This creates some jarring moments; in a book that covers more than half a century, the leaps between the older and younger Berger are often obvious. The mature writer is sinuous, poetic, experimental and complex. The youthful one, though forthright, is still a bit plummy, and restricted by the conventional format of the magazine essay or review. But what this makes clear is that Berger’s own evolution as a writer isn’t Overton’s primary subject. Far more important, from the editor’s perspective, is the man’s consistent and heartfelt politic.

The great challenge of following Berger’s approach as a critic is that once you make the decision to focus on how artworks reflect their time, you also have to examine your own position, because you are as much a product of a particular culture as the art you’re scrutinising. Berger’s solution, which many of us now follow, was to write in the first-person. Objectivity was a fiction; looking was always a loaded and political act. In the wrong hands, this approach can be self-indulgent. But handled as deftly as Berger did, it became a discursive tool. Though always confident, he was never strictly declarative – he wanted to argue about ideas and have others fight back. And he wanted this, I think, because he himself was often so unsure about art’s capacity to effect real change.

In an essay about the little known art historian Max Raphael, for example, he writes that: “The present situation of the arts… is a situation of extreme crisis. The validity of art itself is in question. There is not a significant artist in the world who is not asking himself whether his art is justified – not on account of the quality of his talent, but on account of the relevance of art to the demands of the time in which he is living.”

The gendered pronouns are a giveaway that this is an early piece. But it’s a common feeling throughout the book; a fundamental question that kept Berger up at night for so many years and that still preoccupies leftist critics – namely, what the “value” of art, and writing about it, plays in society. This can be divided into three parts: the value of art “work” (as in, labour) as it relates to a capitalist society; the value of an “artwork”, both as an object that signifies, expands, or excoriates the culture it sprang from and as a commodifiable object; and the value of the personal encounter with that object – the “eye/I”, which is both a response of the senses and a socially and politically constructed moment.

Take a well-known artwork as an example: Picasso’s monumental Guernica, made in 1937. Now displayed in Madrid, it’s accompanied by Dora Maar’s photos of Picasso, her lover, persevering over time with the massive canvas. So we can literally see the labour. We also know that it was sparked by Picasso’s horror at the Luftwaffe’s flattening of the small Spanish town on behalf of the fascist leader Franco. As a consequence, it’s seen as one of the 20th century’s great anti-war statements. Standing in front of it, as a critic, is a moving and enraging experience: it’s a shatteringly important painting, formally and politically. And yet we also have to accept it didn’t make a damn bit of difference to the tidal wave of fascism that crashed over Europe after it was first shown.

Picasso looms large for Berger, as you’d expect, given he was arguably the most dominant artist of the twentieth century. There was also, for Berger, a moment when Picasso and his pals very nearly created the modern revolution so many artists and writers craved – the ten years of Cubism: “During the first decade of [the 20th] century a transformed world became theoretically possible and the necessary forces of change could already be recognized as existing. Cubism was the art which reflected the possibility of this transformed world and the confidence it inspired. Thus, in a sense, it was the most modern art… [But] the transformed world will not arrive as the Cubists imagined it. It will be born of a longer and more terrible history. We cannot see the end of the present period of political inversion, famine and exploitation. But the moment of Cubism reminds us that, if we are to be representative of our century – and not merely its passive creatures – the aim of achieving that end must constantly inform our consciousness and decisions.”

Later, you sense that Picasso let Berger down, or at least started to more obviously embody the contradiction of what it means to make art in a capitalist system. In one of the collection’s best essays, Berger describes Picasso’s involvement in the ballet Parade, staged in 1917. Jean Cocteau had convinced him to collaborate on its set design. Erik Satie was the composer, and Diaghilev’s company were going to perform it. It was a truly “modern” (read: anti-bourgeois) enterprise. When it was first performed though, the audience were outraged, and Guillaume Apollinaire had to talk them down from violently assaulting the producer.

He was only five foot three but girls could not resist his stare: Pablo Picasso  (Photo by Jean Claude Mallinjod / INA via Getty Images)

The surrounding context was a brutal, mechanised world war (Apollinaire was a wounded soldier, still bandaged as he negotiated with the crowd). Berger, in typical fashion, uses the incident to zoom out and think about Marxism, Picasso’s 20th century, and the modern predicament as a whole:

Stupid people often accuse Marxists of welcoming the intrusion of politics into art. On the contrary, we protest against the intrusion. The intrusion is most marked in times of crisis and great suffering. But it is pointless to deny such times. They must be understood so that they can be ended: art and men will then be freer. Such a time began in Europe in 1914, and continues still. The ballet Parade is one of the first examples in which we can see difficulties facing art in the present situation. For the first time we see the modern artist serving, despite his own intentions, the bourgeois world, and therefore sharing a position of doubtful privilege. The rest of the story of Picasso’s life is the story of how he has struggled to overcome the disadvantages of this position.

The nagging impossibility of finding and articulating revolutionary forms that escape capitalism’s net is a consistent subtext in Berger’s essays. This is why, as well as Picasso, Brecht and Benjamin loom as essential figures in his thinking. Like Berger, both were preoccupied with Marxism, and both were fundamentally concerned with the visual. Also like Marx’s Capital, they left behind great, and frustrated, unfinished projects. For Brecht, it was the potential of Epic Theatre: the idea that actors could be workers for the revolution, could break down the bourgeois illusionism of conventional performance, and force audiences not to identify with their characters but critically examine their own complicity in systems of power. It was an idea that looked great on paper, but never fully achieved its ideals.

Benjamin, on the other hand, famously wrote The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. In it, he tried to understand what happened to the “aura” of an artwork when it was reproduced via photography (the short and grossly simplified version – it lost it). But of larger interest to Berger was Benjamin’s unfinished Arcades Project: an enormous attempt to understand the peak-capitalism of nineteenth century Paris, particularly via its glass-and-iron covered arcades. Benjamin worked on it for almost fifteen years, right up to his suicide in 1940.

Berger saw, in Benjamin’s historical work, the seeds of a revolution. “The antiquarian and the revolutionary,” he wrote, “can have two things in common: their rejection of the present as a given and their awareness that history has allotted them a task. For them both history is vocational.”

This lineage from Benjamin through Berger is still alive and well, at least when it comes to understanding our relationship to the visual world. One of the most revolutionary thinkers of our own time, the artist and writer Hito Steyerl, has written brilliantly about the profound changes our “ways of seeing” are undergoing because of new technologies like drones and smartphones, and how those technologies are implicated in systems of oppression. The art historian David Joselit, in his book After Art, has also tried to update Benjamin’s ideas for the 21st century, arguing that art today gains its currency through its reproduction and circulation through digital networks.

Steyerl’s and Joselit’s work might not be possible were it not for Berger going there first. And this is his greatest importance – not that he wrote a single book that changed the world, but that over time, he made so many things possible for the rest of us. Rather than being prescriptive, his “way of seeing” was an invitation: to find, and be critical of, our own subjectivity, and think about how it can both resist and be complicit in capitalism.

Quite lame out of focus shot taken by someone on Flickr of Pablo Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon in MoMA (Image: Wally Gobetz/Flickr)

It’s often forgotten that Berger also won the Booker Prize for his fiction, and that he was an accomplished poet. The essays in Landscapes are marked by a fierce commitment to experimentation and genre-bending. Even this formal inventiveness was ideological: as much about resisting the conservative forces of academic disciplinarity as an attempt to find the perfect shape for his writing. This has had a massive impact on writers and critics working today. Rebecca Solnit, Geoff Dyer, Olivia Laing, Maggie Nelson and Teju Cole all owe him a debt; many of them have acknowledged as much, both before and since his death.

Berger showed us that the personal and the experimental could be political, provided we were prepared to look at ourselves as critically as the things in front of us. Of his first encounter with Joyce as a very young reader, he writes, “It was he who showed me, before I knew anything, that literature is inimical to all hierarchies and that to separate fact and imagination, event and feeling, protagonist and narrator, is to stay on dry land and never put to sea.”

Berger’s revolution never fully arrived. But he did teach us that getting lost in the middle of the ocean while searching for it is one of the most important things a critic can do.


Landscapes: John Berger on Art (Verso) eited by Tom Overton

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