PRINT Summer 1981


About Looking and Seeing Berger: A Revaluation

“WHY LOOK AT ANIMALS?” John Berger asks in the first of 23 brief essays. They disappoint so, our pretty pets and zoo inmates, they look so dead, so indifferent. What do we see there? Berger answers simply: we see “marginality,” and theirs reflects our own. Mere tokens, neither natural nor social, animals exist, properly, nowhere—a fate, Berger implies, that may be ours, too. As we isolate, so are we isolated, and that is what the dumb stares of both zoo visitors and zoo animals bespeak, isolation—an “historic loss” due to the “culture of capitalism.” In 19th- and 20th-century Western Europe and North America, Berger writes, “every tradition which has previously mediated between man and nature was broken,” and animals became either domestic as pets or exotic in zoos, i.e., normalized or marginalized. Such is the pressure of a social, economic and cultural system based on expansion, i.e. on normalization and marginalization. Zoos, coeval in the early 19th century with imperial capitalism, are monuments to it; they house its trophies as much as museums do.

For Berger, then, the fate of animals is a parable of how the “culture of capitalism” works. Usually its program is ideological, concerned with cultural values. Thus in “The Primitive and the Professional,” Berger notes how these two terms stigmatize and valorize. Another 19th-century invention, the term “primitive” is a derogatory label for three kinds of art (or “craft”): exotic art (“‘curiosities’ taken from the colonies”); art before Raphael; and proletarian, peasant or petit-bourgeois art—art that represents a people, time or class foreign to 19th-century bourgeois European culture. It is this last type of “primitive” (e.g., the Douanier Henri Rousseau) that concerns Berger here. In contradistinction, the “professional” is a potential primitive who emigrates to the patron class—a “craftsman” who becomes an “artist” through study of a set of artistic conventions (composition, perspective, poses, symbolism) that corresponds so closely to the patron class’ social conventions that they are regarded as the only way to represent “eternal truths.” Yet the other classes see such “professional painting” for what it is, “a mere accoutrement of the class that ruled them: which is why in moments of revolt, painting and sculpture were often destroyed.” Excluded from tradition, primitives paint from experience: an experience as outsiders: “The ‘clumsiness’ of primitive art is the precondition of its eloquence. What it is saying could never be said with any ready-made skills. For what it is saying was never meant, according to the cultural class system, to be said.”

To Berger, classes contest the right to represent, and the arena is culture. The dominant class thereby represents its truths as “natural” and its values as “universal.” Art is but one means; there are others. In “The Suit and the Photograph” Berger discusses two August Sander photographs, both of young peasants in suits. Now the young men assume the bourgeois costume freely—they literally desire class, or at least to look normal. But men “fully at home in effort” do not fit a costume that “idealise[s] . . . sedentary power”—“their suits deform them.”

Berger focuses on artists who contest conventions—on artists who, as Gustave Courbet and Jean-François Millet did, “challenge the chosen ignorance of the cultured,” on professionals who “steal their professionalism.” Thus on Courbet and the nude:

The practice of nude painting was closely associated with values of tact, luxury and wealth. The nude was an erotic ornament. Courbet stole the practice of the nude and used it to depict the “vulgar” nakedness of a countrywoman with her clothes in a heap on a river bank.

In the same way, Turner changed the landscape. Traditionally landscape “unfolds before you,” panders to your mastery of space. “Turner,” Berger writes, “transcended the principle.” If so, Millet reformed it. Inspired by the 1848 revolution, he painted land as the peasant, not the tourist, sees it, with the “close, harsh, patient physicality of a peasant’s labour on, instead of in front of, the land.” To Berger these landscapes fail as such: “The landscape of traditional oil painting could not accommodate the subject.”

Often an artist somewhat apart from tradition can represent what one within it cannot. Such, to Berger, is Seker Ahmet, a 19th-century Turkish painter trained in Paris. In Woodcutter in the Forest Berger finds a “double vision” of a person actually in a forest who sees it from within and himself from without: Ahmet paints the forest as a woodcutter might experience it. “Between two traditions,” Ahmet is not hampered by any one convention—he succeeds because he is marginal.

Berger discusses two modern artists, L.S. Lowry and Ralph Fasanella, who, as representational painters in an age of abstract art, are also somewhat marginal. As such, they perhaps may represent what is, free from ideological inflection. Photography can do this, too, though often it is used to mystify. In “Uses of Photography” Berger notes that propagandists, advertisers and the like exploit photography’s supposed “truth.” As a corrective, he puts forward the work of Sander and Paul Strand, whose subjects use a “strange historical tense: I looked like this”—“I am as you see me.”

Berger engages art as a document. This can be reductive—certainly, it predisposes him to the representational (there are no essays here on abstract art). And yet such is the method of About Looking. Berger values art—whether records of moments or momentous breaks in tradition—as “Moments Lived” (the rubric of the individual essays). The stress is on the “lived”: “the importance of the subjective experience as a historical factor.” In a sense, these moments are illuminations that allow us “to see more clearly”—something that is the “only justification for criticism.” As such, they make us critics, men and women for whom history is not dead, opaque or even alien, but a legacy that is both a gift and a burden.

The word “illumination” recalls Walter Benjamin, and as in Benjamin, there is in Berger a “messianic” note to his Marxism. To a degree, revolution (of which the moments lived are “articles of faith”) is for Berger revelation. Thereby, those moments, when “the future . . . appears to advance towards [us],” are signals to a new subject of history, and it is to him and her that Berger writes. Yet such a vision rarely skews the criticism. (For example, he sees the avant-garde not as the agent of revolution, but as a symptom of our capitalist culture of “anticipation,” in which what-is-to-come, what-is-to-be-gained, empties what-is.") Berger does not marshal works of art as examples of an a priori judgment; rather, he draws out the contradictions that lie within them. Though contemptuous of liberal culture’s pieties (e.g., the artist as genius, art as universal truth), he is also leery of vulgar Marxism’s barbarism (e.g., that all liberal culture is regressive).

About Looking contains its own prescription, one against prescriptive attitudes. “It is a commonplace,” Berger writes,

that the significance of a work of art changes as it survives. Usually however, this knowledge is used to distinguish between “them” (in the past) and “us” (now). There is a tendency to picture them . . . as being embedded in history, and at the same time to credit ourselves with an overview . . . [at] the summit of history. The surviving work of art then seems to confirm our superior position. The aim of its survival was us.

This is an illusion. There is no exemption from history.

No recognition is more important for a critic.

ABOUT LOOKING INCLUDES ESSAYS FROM 1966–79; it thus looks both ahead from and back to Ways of Seeing, Berger’s (in)famous polemic-cum-TV series of 1972. An antidote of sorts to Sir Kenneth Clark’s Civilization, Ways of Seeing argues that Western culture from oil painting to advertisement is an instrument of class, of capital; i.e., it reflects an ideology, a “way of seeing,” based on property and consumption. Ways of Seeing itself became a way of seeing, so much so that many critics rejected esthetics outright as bourgeois, and “reduce[d] art to ideology tout court”—or so English critic Peter Fuller attests in Seeing Berger: A Revaluation (and it is really these “monstrous offspring of Ways of Seeing,” not Berger’s book, that the essay attacks).

To Fuller, such reductionism is not properly materialist: rather than dismiss “bourgeois esthetics,” one must reveal its material basis. In Ways of Seeing Berger denounces an art historian’s analysis of two group portraits by Frans Hals because the historian sees them in terms of universals—of formal composition and the human condition. This, to Berger, is mystification. We respond to these paintings, he says, only because Hals’ way of seeing is basically our own. Fuller objects: a way of seeing is not a way of painting—the historian at least stresses the material process. It is Berger here who “lacks a fully materialist theory of expression.” (Here I think Fuller conflates “material” with “materialist.” To stress the material fact and process of painting is hardly to reveal its materialist bases. This conflation is, to me at least, both the source and the shortcoming of his argument.)

To Fuller, this lack is the flaw of Ways of Seeing. Without such a theory, the exception (or genius) in an otherwise normative tradition is a problem. Moreover, in the face of reproduction, it compels Berger to dismiss authenticity as “bogus religiosity”—indeed, to regard art as simply information. Like many American critics, Fuller opposes painting to photography (e.g., painting is “constituted,” but photography is “processed”); he does so to resist the “megavisual tradition of monopoly capitalism.” Ingeniously, he sees Ways of Seeing as “infected by” this “language of images,” so that “seeing Berger” is really seeing that his way is ideological, too—“a kind of left idealism, a dissolution of painting into a rhetorical world where images have no existence apart from an ideological existence.”

According to Fuller, “Thus he [Berger] attacks the oil-painting medium as such for its inherent materialism,” a materialism that contradicts one traditional subject: transcendence. Astutely, Fuller sees the contradiction as progressive: such materialism (all other things being equal) may have pointed artists away from images of “religious ideology” toward images of “secular spirituality.” Yes, but Fuller insists that “any adequate ‘demystification’ of bourgeois aesthetics . . . must retain an emphasis upon this vital, positive residue of sensuous mystery.” And here it seems the critique of Berger is made from and for a worn humanism—but one made as if from the left.

Fuller is right to reject the reductionism of art-as-ideology, and he may be right to relate it to monopoly capitalism’s “language of images.” Yet it seems false to dress concepts like authenticity, formal composition and “life’s vital forces” in materialist terms and at the same time displace the criticism of Berger and company as idealist.


John Berger, About Looking (New York: Pantheon Books) 198 pages, 26 illustrations.

Peter Fuller, Seeing Berger: A Revaluation (London: Writers and Readers Publishing Cooperative) 37 pages.