Art criticism today occupies one of the lower branches on the tree of literature. Most of the writing that passes under that label consists of snippets of recycled press releases, empty jargon, servile puffs and received opinions. The genre is so debased that artists, dealers and curators have begun to see reviews as advertisements. Anything genuinely critical is met with indignation.
This is a big step down from the respect commanded by critics of the past, from Paris to London to New York. Robert Hughes is our leading homegrown exponent but the firm favourite among artists is John Berger (1926-2017). Almost every one of them will tell you they became acquainted with Berger through a small but influential book based on a controversial TV series.
Anybody younger than 40 may find it hard to understand how Ways of Seeing(viewable on-line) proved so iconoclastic when it was screened on BBC Two in 1972. The series consisted of four half-hour episodes in which a 45-year-old Berger, with a haircut and shirt that could only belong to the 1970s, set out to debunk all the eternal verities about art extolled by Sir Kenneth Clark in the landmark TV series, Civilisation (1969).
In 1972 the general public had grown accustomed to the idea of artworks as symbols of high cultural achievement decorously displayed in museums. The corollary was that a vast percentage of the British population felt that such institutions were “not for the likes of us”.
Berger set out to tear down the barriers between the works one saw in museums and the images that surround us in print and on TV. He did this by showing how a Venus by Botticelli, extracted from a painting, was merely another pretty girl one might see in a commercial. He argued that Gainsborough’s portrait of Mr. and Mrs. Andrews standing in front of a sweeping landscape was essentially a display of private property. The classical nude was not so much a celebration of ideal beauty as the equivalent of a Playboy pin-up.
It may sound heavy-handed but in 1972 such ideas were greeted as popular revelations. If we have all caught the semiotic habit of looking for social and sexual meanings in even the most revered work of art this is partly because Ways of Seeing was included on so many university reading lists, from where its arguments were filtered into the general culture.
Berger wrote as a Marxist who believed art should not be viewed as a commodity made for the wealthy and powerful, but an activity to enrich the lives of ordinary people. Even in those days this was considered a wildly idealistic position, but he would hold these views until the end of his life. In 2005 Berger proudly reaffirmed his Marxist credentials in a newspaper article. By sticking to his guns so resolutely he was mocked by his ideological enemies but revered by those who saw him as a beacon of integrity in a world that had surrendered to the depredations of consumer capitalism. He remained a “revolutionary” even though he knew it was a despairing gesture.
I was given a reminder of Berger’s abiding popularity when an artist recently sent me a copy of Joshua Sperling’s A Writer of Our Time: The Life and Work of John Berger. The book is an intellectual biography that examines the evolution of Berger’s ideas over the course of his long life. The story begins with his arrival on the London art scene in the early 1950s, which might be likened to a meteor crashing into a garden party. The young Berger is angry, disputatious, a champion of the ‘Kitchen Sink’ realists against the rising vogue for Abstract art.
Berger would reply to critics who argued his views on art were too influenced by political and social issues by saying: “Art has dragged me into politics.” It sounds disingenuous but the decades that followed would back up these claims. As his dissatisfaction with reductive, Marxist models of art appreciation intensified, Berger came to believe the exceptional work refutes all systems, neutralising his detractors and winning an ever larger audience. That work might be a self-portrait by Rembrandt or Dürer, an interior by Vermeer, a landscape by Van Gogh, Monet or Turner.
It’s a truth every good artist knows: the truly great work defies explanation. Take the mystery out of art and you have removed a fundamental source of its appeal.
As his art writing relinquished materialism to embrace the metaphysical, Berger doubled down on his political stance. He produced stories of peasants, exiles and guest workers – the underprivileged and downtrodden, the residue of a booming economy. He would continue to write about works of art while embracing other subjects and other forms of expression, including fiction, poetry, drama, and an indefinable form of essay, both highly personal and philosophical. He undertook collaborations with a vast array of people.
In 1974, at the age of 48, Berger went to live in a small village in the Haute Savoie, 50 kilometres from Geneva. Having been born into a prosperous middle-class family he now sought to refashion himself as a peasant, sharing in the villagers’ chores. This rural idyll, which became a major preoccupation in his literary work, was hard for many of his readers to swallow. Those with a closer acquaintance with peasant life were less enamoured of its virtues and pleasures.
Looking back over the totality of his output only the most fanatical of fans would admit to liking all of Berger’s work. It’s diverse and patchy, full of brilliant insights, but it can also feel precious, sentimental and pretentious. His prose could be lyrical or dogmatic. When a writer walks the tightrope between critical and creative writing there are innumerable opportunities to come crashing to the ground.
And yet, if one were to edit Berger’s life’s work, removing the awkward bits, he would become a far less interesting writer. It could even be argued that his art criticism gained enormous strength from all the detours and diversions, the strange passions and obsessions. I suspect that most readers appreciate Berger as the blind men savoured the elephant. The more one knows the more puzzling it all seems, but it’s the puzzle that sets him apart from his less adventurous, less committed peers.
As a writer Berger recognised that experience – whether it be personal, historical or aesthetic – will never conform to theories and systems. To read him today is to accept his failures and detours as a unique willingness to take risks. In Berger’s sprawling body of work the narrow discipline of art criticism finds a place within the disorderly procession of moments we call life.
A Writer of Our Time: The Life and Work of John Berger
By Joshua Sperling
Verso, London, 293pp
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 6 June, 2020