What He Saw

We are looking, here, at a career in art criticism of extraordinary length and depth: a single volume covering almost 40 years, during which both art and the world changed in ways scarcely imaginable when the career began. And perhaps careeris the wrong word, implying as it does strictly professional progress (no one speaks of, say, Baudelaire's career in art criticism). We are looking at a life, then, or a part of one (the novels, screenplays, poems, and other bits and pieces are unrepresented).

The life and work are John Berger's, distilled into nearly 600 quite dense pages of selections from seven books, and stretching in time from 1953 to 1991; the subject is painting; the theory is roughly Marxist; the attitude is saturnine; the prose is measured, clean, aphoristic, somewhat clenched in the early years, and gradually relaxing as time progresses.

Berger settled into a strange position early on, and never quite got up from it: A critic with an uncannily observant eye, he nevertheless yoked himself to an ideology that could not countenance looking for looking's sake. A natural connoisseur, but he could not revel in the genius of his heroes. The result was a tension between an impulse to rhapsody and a sterner commitment to political engagement. In most such cases (Roland Barthes, for example) the rhapsodic side wins; in Berger's instance, the resolution is always deferred, though the means by which he maintains his ambivalence changes.

Berger yoked himself to an ideology that could not countenance looking for looking’s sake.
photo: Jean Mohr
Berger yoked himself to an ideology that could not countenance looking for looking’s sake.

He tends, at least in the earliest pieces, to begin with a few grand pronouncements about this or that ("A love of art has been a useful concept to the European ruling classes for over a century and a half"), which are then ignored in favor of an exceptionally detailed and delicate account of visual style and thematic implication. Then come a few more windy proclamations; and then exeunt Berger and his subject (the essays are nearly all on individual artists). There are exceptions to this pattern: a perfectly syncretic essay on Léger, for example, and a furious analysis of the role of the museum in modern life. But for the most part, it all seems a bit forced—passages of analytical brilliance wrapped up in anhedonic generalizations. Most of the essays were written for New Society (now the New Statesman), and the constraints of the magazine form—each piece is about three to five pages, and written with a kind of high-journalism briskness—seem limiting, too. It's like listening to a concert pianist play a melodica.

Then, too, there is the curious disconnect between progressive politics and avant-garde art. Berger seems entirely interested in representation; aside from an early appreciation of Pollock, there is almost nothing in this collection about abstraction, or conceptual art, though most art of the last half-century has been, in one way or another, one of the two. Even such marginally pictorial works as Warhol's portraits seem to escape his notice, or perhaps be beneath it.

But his observations on the great, dead picture-makers are extraordinary. On Poussin's later work: "It is as though [he] began to be horrified at the inertia of the earth." On Frans Hals: "Every cuff he painted in his portraits informs on the habitual movements of the wrist beneath." "Goya lived and observed through something near enough to total war to know that night is security and that it is the dawn that one fears." "Nobody had ever sworn in paint before Picasso." This is what art criticism is for: to make the visible a little more visible, by demonstrating how much more than merely optical it is.

Walter Benjamin is the most easily recognized of Berger's progenitors, and indeed there is something of Benjamin in Berger's odd combination of socialism and gourmandizing; but there is, perhaps less obviously, something of John Ruskin, too—unavoidably, perhaps, inasmuch as the latter is the great source of English-language writing on art. It comes out in the emphasis on apprehension—careful looking, at both artworks and the world in which they sit. This, Berger insists by example, becomes more true, rather than less so, the more one would put art to extra-aesthetic uses. Certainly one wishes that all critics looked as diligently and as intelligently as Berger does before they waded into the slough of theory.

There he can get bogged down, too. Some portion of the style and scope of Berger's concerns seems dated now, but I don't think he would mind this being pointed out: He who lives by historical materialism quite naturally becomes part of the material of history, and in a course of thought as long and as assertive as his has been, the later parts inevitably lap the earlier ones. About photography, in particular, many of his predictions have turned out to be simply wrong. No one who's tried to get hold of an old Cindy Sherman film still, for example, could agree with Berger's suggestion, in 1968, that "by their nature, photographs have little or no property value because they have no rarity value." Too bad, but there it is: One can always find a way to make something scarce enough to be valuable; video artists have even managed to turn lowly VHS cassettes into rare, expensive, and collectible things.

Indeed, nearly every other assertion that Berger makes about photography strikes me, with the benefit of a few decades' hindsight, as mistaken. Thus: "It looks as though photography . . . is going to outlive painting and sculpture as we have thought of them since the Renaissance." "Photographs in themselves do not narrate." "Photography has no language of its own. One learns to read photographs as one learns to read footprints or cardiograms." All reasonable propositions, and all of them untrue. Berger thought as hard and as well about the medium as anyone, but history and art are humbling that way, and he could not have been expected to foresee, to take just the first of these remarks, how Photoshop has forever removed the presumption of truth from photography, turning it into a species of painting, or at least of image fiction, a procedure so ubiquitous that even my mother regularly cuts and pastes images out of family pictures before e-mailing them out. Photography is dead: Painting killed it.

Of course, there's no ignominy in being wrong, and Berger's way of being wrong is more interesting than most. But he's better when he's looking than when he's ruminating, except in those rare instances—like "Why Look at Animals?"—when his subject matter is more supple, his arguments more agile and original.

Through it all, one is struck by how extraordinarily sincere Berger is, how serious and unsmiling. He is a Tragic Marxist. There is not a trace of smugness in his essays, nor insider's shorthand; none of Benjamin's dandyism, nor, though this sounds more damning than it needs to, any of his playfulness. It feels very much like a version of the manual labor that Berger prizes so highly for its dignity and honesty, as if the French peasants he has lived among for so long had taught him: one sentence, a stone, another sentence, another stone, an argument, a wall, a watertight roof, a piece of art criticism.

And then something happens, around the publication of Keeping a Rendezvous in 1992. It's a kind of great loosening, coupled with almost perfect concentration, and as much room to write in as he wants. Everything falls into place: his skills as an observer, the nimbleness of his mind, his political convictions, now perhaps made more subtle by age, or by the age of the century, as time dismantled repressive regimes masking themselves as socialist. The triumph of consumer capitalism dismays him, of course, but the stony tone of the earlier essays is given up. Now he seems to be reaching for Montaigne, as an aging man might. The gloominess remains, but all traces of effort vanish, as does a certain piousness that occasionally marred the earlier work. He talks about love, aging, rage, sex, and art— always art. The essay "A Story for Aesop," an account of Spanish painting (some of which, as it happened, appeared in the VLS), is one of the finest essays on the medium that I've ever read: ambitious, speculative, serpentine, and shot through with so many insights that it seems an almost casual display of mastery. He has become a wiser and more generous writer, still concerned with the ways of this world, but more patient, both with himself and with his readers, more respectful of the essay's will to determine its own turns, more comfortable with his knowledge and his beliefs, and the relation between the two. A better writer in his sixties than he was in his thirties. It should happen to us all.


Also in This Week’s Books Section:

Todd Pruzan on The Rotters' Club by Jonathan Coe

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