PRINT January 2002


Arthur C. Danto on John Berger

Except for his remarkable novels, John Berger’s books are collections chiefly of art-critical essays, always original and often inspired, held together by a somewhat cloudy political vision that has evolved with the fortunes of radical politics over the course of the past half century. The combination of the two—a grandly conceived and prophetically enjoined political philosophy, internally related to an intense and knowing preoccupation with specific works of art—is perhaps matched only in the work of John Ruskin. And though Berger’s criticism can be read and appreciated independent of his politics, it is the latter that, for all its indeterminacies, somehow vests the practice of art, as he sees it, with an urgency and moral importance it is rarely accorded. This, together with Berger’s literary authority—his novels have won some prestigious prizes, including the 1972 Booker Prize, for G—has made him something of a cult figure. Still, the vehemence with which the politics is expressed is compromised by uncertainties concerning its validity. And these uncertainties, along with the tenuousness of politics’ connection to the art he otherwise writes about with a poetic brilliance, have muddled his overall message.

This is nowhere more evident than in his most recent book, The Shape of a Pocket, a collection of essays from 1991 to 2000. The politics, always essentially Marxist with various overlays from Benjamin, Lukács, Gramsci, and others, has now evolved into an apocalyptic form of antiglobalism, loosely inspired on this occasion by some not entirely coherent thoughts attributed to Subcomandante Marcos, of the Zapatistas of Chiapas. Characteristically, Berger uses art as a lens through which these thoughts are brought into a kind of focus. The world in which we live and act today can be understood, he proposes, through the depiction of hell in Hieronymus Bosch’s so-called Millennium Triptych in the Prado: “a strange prophecy of the mental climate imposed on the world at the end of our century by globalization and the new economic order.” Like Bosch’s hell, our world is one in which “there are no pauses, no paths, no pattern, no past and no future. There is only the clamour of the disparate, fragmentary present.” In our world—though maybe not in Bosch’s hell—there are “pockets of resistance against the new order,” the Zapatistas being one, Berger and his circle of readers perhaps another. How? “The act of resistance means not only refusing to accept the absurdity of the world-picture offered us, but denouncing it. And when hell is denounced from within, it ceases to be hell.”

Denunciation has always come easily to Berger, but if all it takes to slip the chaos of hell is denouncing it, salvation is readily attained—so readily that it causes one to wonder if our world is quite the hell the analogy between it and Bosch’s vision is supposed to suggest. There could be no pockets of resistance in hell according to Bosch, the forces of satanic power being irresistible. And that in turn casts a certain shadow over the hope that we can use the devices of art criticism to find political—or any—guidance in works of art, unless we bend them to our interpretative will. Yet the charm of Berger’s art criticism lies exactly there, in his looking at artworks with a view to finding meanings in them that bear on our lives. At the same time his politics, so integral to his persona, for the most part penetrates his art criticism to no particular depth. One can read almost all of The Shape of a Pocket without realizing that one is part of a pocket of resistance, except perhaps against the far less engaging styles of criticism that dominate the field. And this is very generally true of his writing. The relationship between the criticism and the politics was always loose enough that one could have read nearly every essay in his first collection, Permanent Red (1960; published in the United States under the title Toward Reality), with no sense that the author was advancing the agenda of political insurrection the title promises. “There is an absolute incompatibility between art and private property,” he thunders in a preface to the 1979 reissue of the book. “Property must be destroyed before imagination can develop any further.” But though his purported theme is “the disastrous relation between art and property” and his aim is to express his “opposition to bourgeois culture and society,” the truth is that he wrote about art that, according to Marxist principles, must express the values of the society he detests—Matisse or Moore, Picasso or Lipchitz, Léger, Millet, Courbet, Gauguin, or Kokoschka—with understanding, love, and delight. The editor of Selected Essays writes that Berger has always refused to separate “the two concerns that have dominated his life and work: the enduring mystery of great art and the lived experience of the oppressed.” But the antiglobalism of the final essays in The Shape of a Pocket casts no backward shadows over the body of essays on great art that constitute the rest of the book.

Permanent Red collected the art-critical columns Berger regularly published in the British weekly the New Statesman through the ’50s. They are wonderful pieces, Marxist only in the oblique sense that artworks are considered not as timeless formalisms but as human products, to be understood with reference to their history and their relevance to human life. Berger never insists that art itself be used to convey any particular ideological message. Or better, artists per se exemplify the kind of work that everyone might enjoy if society were recast in such a way that there was neither greed nor private property and everyone was free. So art, simply as art, is a pocket of resistance. And that means that as a critic Berger can deal with the art just as it is. His art criticism is surprisingly tender for so fierce a political thinker. It has been years since I saw the film he made with Alain Tanner, Jonah Who Will Be 25 in the Year 2000 (1976). But in my recollection the characters he held up for our admiration were gentle, harmless, marginal beings who showed their insubordination in such acts as dramatically undercharging the elderly at the checkout counter at which they work. By comparison with the aesthetically intolerant criticism being written by his contemporaries, especially in the United States, there is something almost sweet in Berger as an art writer, even if he now and again goes off the deep end in pursuit of meanings. It is one thing to say that the Sistine ceiling is finally about Creation. Who but Berger would then say that for Michelangelo “Creation meant everything imaginable being born, thrusting and flying, from between men’s legs”? So that what the ceiling is really about is “the fantasy of men giving birth”?

Berger celebrated his seventy-fifth birthday in the year 2001, and Selected Essays was published to mark the occasion. It includes critical pieces from Permanent Red; The Moment of Cubism (1969; released in the United States as The Sense of Sight); The Look of Things (1972); About Looking (1980); The White Bird (1985); and Keeping a Rendezvous (1992); as well as his scold of an acceptance speech for the Booker Prize. Missing, for whatever reason, is Ways of Seeing (1971), certainly, in view of its impact on cultural studies and the New Art History, his most influential writing. It is, for me at least, the pieces he did for the New Statesman that most merit reissue. They represent the kind of essays we would most like to read when we want to know how to think about a given body of art. They are brief, lucid, free of jargon, celebratory, and aphoristic—and they make us want to look at the art again. Here is a representative passage on Léger, a painter Berger clearly loves.

Look at his bicycles, and his girls in their sports clothes, and his holiday straw hats, and his cows with their comic camouflage dapples, and his steeplejacks and acrobats each knowing what the other takes, and his trees like the sprigs you put in a jam jar, and his machinery as gay as the youth who plans to paint his motor bike, and his nudes as familiar as wives—what other modern painter doesn’t paint a nude as though she were either a piece of studio furniture or a surreptitious mistress?—and his compasses and keys painted as if they were emblems on flags to celebrate their usefulness. . . . Everything he painted ceased to be a celebration of the mechanical industrial world as it is, and became a celebration of the richer human world to which industrialization would eventually lead.

Berger’s approach to painting—which he studied and taught before he became a writer—is thoroughly humanistic. He writes sympathetically about Jackson Pollock in two essays, but he also feels that painting “committed suicide” at the Abstract Expressionist’s hands, and he seems to have little interest in art after the ’60s, and none in what he designates “outrageous” art, by which he means “recent developments of neo-Dadaism, auto-destructive art, happenings, etc.” His politics have made him “more tolerant of those artists who are reduced to being largely destructive,” but his heart is not there. He is really a man with two hearts, each in the right place––but they do not beat as one.

Arthur C. Danto is Johnsonian Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at Columbia University, art critic for The Nation, and a contributing editor of Artforum.

John Berger, Selected Essays, edited by Geoff Dyer (New York: Pantheon, 2001), 608 pages.

John Berger, The Shape of a Pocket (New York: Pantheon, 2001), 272 pages.