Letter to John Berger

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John Berger. Photograph by Jean Mohr

Dear John,

I salute you as one November child to another. Your birth came early in the month, barely out of October, and mine stood on the threshold of December. By coincidence, I was born on Thanksgiving Day, and, less felicitously, six days after President Kennedy was murdered. Your birth came days after Trotsky and Kamenev were removed from the Politburo (Oct. 23) and after the death of Harry Houdini (Oct. 31). The randomness of history caught us both like leaves fallen into a stream, and carries us on still.

You once wrote that art should advance the rights of man, or words to that effect. I’ve just spent twenty minutes trying to find the exact quote, but Murphy’s Law has kept it from me. Right now, times seem darker than usual, and the rights of man are threatened on multiple fronts. Now we need artists who speak to the Now – as we always need them, but the need is more strongly felt. As an artist I feel this need, and also a measure of frustration. I am not that sort of artist, and really have no desire to be one, while simultaneously envying those who are. Time has two layers, don’t you think? There is the surface of “current events” – many of which have been current for ages – and there is the wordless, harder to quantify, region of emotion. The best art, I feel, seeks to express the inexpressible. It fails, always, in aspects of that quest, but any success is a victory. Artists want to be an alphabet unto themselves, when success is defined by creating a single letter, or a sound. That sound is then picked up, harmonized to, remixed and sampled and incorporated into new sounds. The ripples are potentially unending.

You have also refused the title of “art critic,” which is wise; your alternative, “storyteller,” is by far preferable, as it can apply to artists of many disciplines, even those who do not know they are artists. Your latest book, “Portraits” is a welcome addition to the discussion. We are surrounded by the demonization of the other, by political forces that seek to strip people and entire populations of their identity, render them as threatening shadows in a night of fear. I think of the line C. S. Lewis chose for his book Till We Have Faces, “How can [the gods] meet us face to face till we have faces?” A book about faces – the face shown, the personality behind it, and the artist who becomes part of both in creating a portrait – is a reminder of our common humanity. Colors are components of light; we are all components of a single species.

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Robert Mapplethorpe, self-portrait, 1988, Copyright by the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation

In looking at painted portraits I am naturally drawn to self-portraiture: Rembrandt, van Gogh, of course. The internal perspective is different than that of a portrait of someone else. I cannot think of a photographic self-portrait that comes close. Perhaps Robert Mapplethorpe’s, the one where he is holding the skull-headed cane. Photography provides a more direct line to the face, whereas painting is a process of building up, and so allows for subtle delineations a fraction of a second-long exposure could miss. The conversation between creator and subject is longer in painting. The writer has a similar experience.

Stories allow us to pass along not only the facts of an occurrence or person, but also the underlying elements. Portraits are stories. The fear-mongering so present today is an attempt to strip away the story, rid it of anything that can be identified with except that which causes fear – and if that is not present, to spin the story until it can be added. The Nazi art denouncing “degenerate” artists and peoples has suddenly become relevant again; caricature in the service of hatred. It is up to the storyteller, whether verbal or visual, to counter that distortion. This is why, at 89 years old, you are as timely and important as you have ever been. As an abstract artist I might take a back seat for a time, assuming I have any relevance at all, but it’s a temporary situation, bred of necessity. Tell the stories, and defy the politics of division and bigotry. Paint your portraits in words.

So a happy belated birthday. What more could I wish for you than you live to see improvement in the world, even small ones, rising like shoots in the damp of Spring. May you, and all of us, live long enough to see hope justified amid the shadows. May we live until we all have faces.

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One thought on “Letter to John Berger

  1. Pingback: Book Review: Portraits by John Berger | Art Matters

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