Afterword: John Berger


Portrait of John Berger by Maggi Hambling, 2000. Ink and watercolor on paper. Collection of the National Portrait Gallery, London, NPG 6643

In memoriam John Berger, 1926-2017

Of course I had to write about him. There is no other writer on art who has made a greater impact on me; among writers in general, he shares a place of honor with others. But in art he stands alone. I thought I would quote him, and comment on those quotes. It’s a hard task. I would reprint whole essays, if permutable. I feel inadequate to the task not only because of the wealth of his writings, but because I have two recently published books of his yet to read. But, then, as he wrote:

Necessity produces both tragedy and comedy. It’s what you kiss or bang your head against.

I don’t feel qualified to comment on his Marxism, cultural or otherwise, but to say that I rarely disagreed with him to any great degree. He understood that politics and art are simply elements of life, and therefore inseparable, entwined to the discomfort of some and the joy of others:

The poverty of our century is unlike that of any other. It is not, as poverty was before, the result of natural scarcity, but of a set of priorities imposed upon the rest of the world by the rich. Consequently, the modern poor are not pitied … but written off as trash. The twentieth-century consumer economy has produced the first culture for which a beggar is a reminder of nothing.

Consider the attention given to the art market, as though an artists efforts were solely commercial goods to be exploited – and the reverse, that artworks are somehow removed from the taloned grip of capitalism. Both seek to exist outside the continuity of time and culture, and both fail:

The past is the one thing we are not prisoners of. We can do with the past exactly what we wish. What we can’t do is to change its consequences.

Yet his warnings, ever increasing in later decades, never sank into helplessness. Through art he always saw something greater, a connection to God perhaps, whom he, despite his politics, believed in:

We are near to chaos. But through the chaos come prophecies of an order. Is “order” the right word? I would slightly prefer “justice.” And I would much prefer “love.” Prophecies of a love.
     An example of such a prophecy. Precisely. The prophetic creation of the visible, several billion years ago in a blind universe; the visible which is attendant today upon being seen and read.

Capturing the world – Berger preferred representational art to abstraction, though not to excess – became an act of hope or revolution, or both. He saw that art defied simple definitions, and so was hard for politicians to use. Art served us, and yet participated in our inner life as most inanimate objects do not:

We all feel better when we think of Leonardo da Vinci. Leonardo represents the heights of human aspiration clouded in mystery (or other words to that effect). Rembrandt serves us contrariwise. Rembrandt represents the dark suffering of genius. We all become forgiving about those who have misunderstood us, when we think of Rembrandt. Thus we force art to console us, and repay it by calling it beautiful.

Every event which has been really painted – so that the pictorial language opens – joins the community of everything that has been painted. Potatoes on a plate join the community of a loved woman, a mountain, or a man on a cross. This – and this only – is the redemption which painting offers. This mystery is the nearest painting can offer to catharsis.

He also understood the changeable nature of art itself, the flux and flow that allowed artists to return to topics or modes of expression long past with new eyes. See his comment above about the past, and this:

The relation between what we see and what we know is never settled. Each evening we see the sun set. We know that the earth is turning away from it. Yet the knowledge, the explanation, never quite fits the sight.

Only when the knowledge and explanation fit the sight – which they never will – will art begin dying. There’s always more to be said. More hope to be passed, covertly or overtly:

Hope today is a contraband passed from hand to hand and from story to story.

John Berger left us at a time when many are questioning their hopes, their assumptions, and finding that they were not what we had believed or been led to believed. A failing of both leaders and followers. A while back I offered the open hand as a symbol of today’s political resistance, a symbol which can encompass sorrow, anger, joy. Art and stories, for Berger was always a storyteller, and continued to tell stories and draw the whole of his life, are the lifeblood of culture. Control the story and you control the people. Control the art…well, that never works, does it?



One thought on “Afterword: John Berger

  1. Pingback: Afterword: John Berger | Art Matters | word pond

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