PRINT January 1986


The Sense of Sight

John Berger, The Sense Of Sight, ed. and with a foreword by Lloyd Spencer (New York: Pantheon Books, 1986), 304 pages, 10 black and white illustrations.

This is a pathetic book, a scarecrow full of stale straw. The measure of John Berger’s desperation is that he reprints his famous essay “The Moment of Cubism” (1969), using it as the centerpole of a sagging circus tent. The book is a collection of Berger trivia, ranging from bad poems to bad populist pieces, which never rise to the dignity of the feuilleton. There is some good work here: the best writing deals with death, especially of friends of Berger’s such as the Marxist thinker Ernst Fischer. Next best are pieces dealing with the artist’s representation of the female nude, a theme that Berger has already dealt with in an admirable way in Ways of Seeing (1972). There is a moment of the old analytic magic in “Goya: The Maja, Dressed and Undressed” (1957), in which Berger explains why Goya’s naked Maja has “rounded, high” breasts, “each pointing outwards. No breasts, when a figure is lying, are shaped quite like that.” The dressed Maja gives an answer: “Bound and corseted, they assume exactly that shape. . . . Goya has taken off the silk to reveal the skin, but has forgotten to reckon with the form changing.”

I think I know the problem with this book: it’s written for peasants. It has what I would call a fake fresh-start mentality: “just take a look for yourself, and you’ll see what the art’s all about.” But not that much in art or life is self-evident, even to peasants. The keynote essay “The White Bird” (1985), describing an artless wooden bird carved by a peasant, is written from the viewpoint of supposedly “pure—peasant—perception, and is just as banal. More nauseating and stupid is Berger’s comparison of the way a bourgeois and a peasant approach their food, in ”The Eaters and the Eaten“ (1976). ”The bourgeois overeats. Especially meat. A psychosomatic explanation may be that his highly developed sense of competition compels him to protect himself with a source of energy—proteins." This is simplistic idealization of the peasant (Berger has denied this criticism) and communalism. Where has Berger been? Why living among the peasants in a French village, of course.

This book is not analysis, but an exercise in opinionation. In the 1975 essay “Manhattan,” Berger sees “wheel-less cars abandoned under hundreds of living-room windows.” “There are no symbolic details” in the city. It is simply the island “within the history of capitalism . . . reserved for those who are damned because they have hoped excessively.” This is facile slop, belying Berger’s professed humanism.

Donald Kuspit