The Song of John Berger

John Berger, photographed by Henri Cartier-Bresson, Paris, 1994
Henri Cartier-Bresson/Magnum Photos
John Berger, photographed by Henri Cartier-Bresson, Paris, 1994

A good way to come at John Berger (1926-2017) is to do it by mistake or serendipity, to discover him in the wrong box. At least that was my story, as a music critic who never studied art. Individual, unmanaged, unmediated discovery, an outsider’s discovery, probably suits him best. Not the kind that happens in a curriculum. He didn’t like school!

He has a reputation for appealing to the young, though I’m glad I came to him late. Subsequently I have taught Berger’s work to young critics. It hasn’t always gone well. It takes time to get it right. No single essay or book defines him. Some see him as digressive or humorless—the sort of guy who in the Fifties would lead a review of a show by Henry Moore, his former teacher, in this way: “The development of Henry Moore’s sculpture is a tragic example of how the half-truths on which so much Modern Art has been based eventually lead to sterility and—in terms of appreciation—mass self-deception.” Or, in the Seventies, the sort of guy who would address the tacit power-politics of the zoo (in “Why Look at Animals?”), but not without dilating first on Rousseau, Homer, and Descartes.

But at other times, especially during the Eighties and after, he could write about art in the form of intimate speech but with total clonking certainty, as if to suggest that collaborative thoughts about a painting, or any human achievement really—not with another critic or some kind of licensed expert but with your spouse or child or friend—were the most significant thoughts you could have. This is the casual-oracular sound of his voice in books like And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos; Keeping a Rendezvous; The Shape of a Pocket. This writing breathes with many mouths: the books fuse letters, poems, polemics, anecdotes, and description.

Berger didn’t want to be called a critic. He had bad associations with the word. Where there is formal analysis, his Marxist reasoning implied, there is patrolling and commodifying. He sometimes used formal analysis, but as an opening maneuver, as a means to an end. (The end was often a thought about desire and work and human dignity in relation to profit.) Anyway, no matter what he thought, criticism is wide enough to encompass him. To some degree he made it so: he expanded the practice.

In a 1995 essay about Michelangelo, he begins, typically, with a look and a question. “I am craning my neck to look up at the Sistine Chapel ceiling and The Creation of Adam—do you think, like me, that once you dreamt the touch of that hand and the extraordinary moment of withdrawal?” To describe his vantage point, physical and social and psychological, in relation to what is being seen, and then subvert the mode of the lecture: this was his mother-riff, one perhaps developed in direct-address takes on TV as a contributor in the early Sixties for the BBC arts program Monitor, and in his own 1972 BBC series Ways of Seeing (which you can and should look at on YouTube right now). Early on, his questions were rhetorical. Later they became apostrophic speech or actual correspondence; this essay is directed toward a friend, the artist Marisa Camino. 

After the opening lines, Berger applies a little imaginative formalism to write about the artist’s use of “four kinds of space”: “the space of bas-relief, the space of high-relief, the corporeal space of the twenty nudes whom he dreamt as a beatitude as he lay painting on his back, and the infinite space of the heavens.” Then he notices how Michelangelo’s depiction of the sublime in the human body seemed to center on the male sexual organ, and ends with another question: “What would you say his imaginary paradise might have been? Might it not have been the fantasy of men giving birth?” He references the four male nudes at the corners of each of the nine scenes of the Creation. “They represent, some claim, Ideal Beauty. Then why their effort,” he wonders, “why their longing and their labor? No, the twenty young naked men up there have conceived and just given birth to all that is visible and all that is imaginable and all that we see on the ceiling.” Later he will move on to the Last Judgmentin which he sees terror and political fear, and connections to Sebastião Salgado’s photographs of coal miners in Brazil and India. But he has one last thought about the ceiling. “Man’s loved body up there is the measure of everything—even of platonic love, even of Eve, even of you.” That’ll do as criticism, and also as a letter, and also as a kind of song.

Berger didn’t produce a single great work because he didn’t seem to care about steering toward one. Writing seemed for him to be ritual and labor and exercise. No surprise that his own preferred form of art-making as a practitioner was the pencil sketch. No surprise that in a letter from 1980, quoted by Jonathan Conlin in the new book On John Berger: Telling Stories, Berger writes that he did not consider Ways of Seeing,  his most popular book by far, based on the BBC series, “an important work,” but only a “partial, polemical reply”—presumably to the art-historian Kenneth Clark, whom he saw as the patronizing don of museum culture. (Though even as a partial reply it asked questions that, once read, might never stop implicating you directly. “When we ‘see’ a landscape,” he wrote in its first chapter, “we situate ourselves in it. If we ‘saw’ the art of the past, we would situate ourselves in history. When we are prevented from seeing it, we are being deprived of the history which belongs to us. Who benefits from this deprivation?”)

On New Year’s Eve, two days before his death, my wife and two friends and I sat around a table after midnight talking about what books were important to our lives. I thought of John Berger, but I couldn’t narrow it down any further than his whole corpus. I mean only that which I have read. Just as he didn’t like commodification, his books (essays, fiction, poetry, all of it) didn’t feel like commodities; his work doesn’t compel you to acquire and possess all of them. I read him for practical encouragement by example about what criticism is for, not for concise argument, brilliant structure, or provable facts. “I have never thought of writing as a profession,” Berger wrote in his essay “The Storyteller.” “It is a solitary independent activity in which practice can never bestow seniority.  Fortunately anyone can take up the activity.” That’s idealism. Also, somebody ought to say it. I wonder if the royalties from Ways of Seeing enabled him to write that passage. Yet the sentiment helps: it gets you back to the question of why we do what we do. 

Criticism, like drawing, involves a baseline state of seeing things from a manageable distance. Many of the best critics are outsiders by temperament and action. Berger was an outsider who often had to refuse becoming an insider. He left school at sixteen and later described himself—in an interview with Michael Silverblatt—as “not a very verbal person,” someone who didn’t know very much about books, but rather knew something about life, and therefore tried to travel from “life to page.” Looking at anything in the later phases of his work—any subject, whether in writing or in interviews—he enacted a creative squinting effect: he considers the general outline of the thing and seems to wonder, What does this remind me of? What does it suggest? What is its function, and who is making it so? 

He didn’t often write about music, but his stray thoughts on the subject were valuable, as in “Some Notes On Song,” published last year in Harper’s

A song, when being sung and played, acquires a body. It does this by taking over and briefly possessing existent bodies: the body of the double bass standing vertical while it’s being strummed, or the body of the harmonica cupped in a pair of hands hovering and pecking like a bird before a mouth, or the torso of the drummer as he rolls.

And so on, until he’s talking about the way a song creates hope: it “fills the present” and presumes future listeners. He was an ethical thinker and an experimentally associative thinker at the same time. 

He was also a charmer and a performer. His refusals could be forthright and loud—giving part of his 1972 Booker Prize money to the Black Panthers; writing a public letter for a cultural boycott of Israel in 2006; asserting (in the opening words of the introduction to his recent collection Portraits) “I have always hated being called an art critic”; the Henry Moore situation; head-butting Kenneth Clark in Ways of Seeing. Certainly he was aware of status and manifestly he had an ego, but he seemed to fight against these things; he could look at his own talents and work as an outsider. And he seemed excited to work without a clear outcome. Distrusting history’s answers, he was a hog for questions. He asked them and wanted you to ask them back. “What I’ve said,” he reasoned to the television viewer in 1972, at the end of the Ways of Seeing series, “must be judged against your own experience.”

He questioned greed, monuments, glib cruelty, and received wisdom. He felt that when we look at an artist’s work we are taking in how they themselves look at everything else, and that doing so “increases our awareness of our own potentiality.” He seemed not to credit most forms of evaluative criticism. He didn’t write top-ten lists. (Though he did once, for the website of the University of Iowa’s Essay Prize, make a list of his ten favorite essays. It includes George Orwell’s great “The Art of Donald McGill,” from 1941, about the social value of low-humor postcards: you can imagine him drinking that in as a young person.) He became increasingly invested in subjects that seemed to have no beginning and no end: time, space, love, human displacement, nature, language, and sight. He took  positions. But he also lived very closely to the most basic impulses of criticism, in writing and thinking and human relations, which are probably useful even for those who do not agree with him.