Whatever the vagaries of his political positions and assessments since the early 50s (including a softness on the Stalinist regimes, a huge silence about the Nazi death camps, and a disposition to support essentially feudal resistance movements to capital) John Berger remains an important resource in thinking about the nature of oppression and its relationship to art.
His critical writings on art (certainly his work on Picasso and Soviet sculpture) are fundamentally questionable whilst his critical survey of everything from Guevara to Rushdie, the Hungarian uprising (where he stood with the regime) to the revolutions of 1989 demonstrate a profound political naivety. Yet, much of his other work displays a passionate commitment to witnessing that period of capital as it extended its dominion in the late twentieth century. It is here that his importance lies.
Berger’s work on the country doctor, A Fortunate Man, with Jean Mohr, and his fictional trilogy Into their Labours, about peasant life and mythology in the French Alps, are absolutely necessary to understanding the historical memory of the working class. The trilogy documents the migration of the peasantry into the cities and the birth of a new European working class. Berger welcomes this whilst having grave reservations about what would be culturally forgotten or superseded in that transition.
Along with work of the same period about migrant labour, Berger did not just speak of the oppressed, but stood with them, talked with them, drew them, and documented the passing of ancient regimes and doomed class formations. One of his most moving tributes to the culture and history of the working class is in his essay on miners where he talks of the relationship of art to political emancipation: “I can’t tell you what art does and how it does it, but I know that often art has judged the judges, pleaded revenge to the innocent and shown to the future what the past suffered, so that it has never been forgotten,” (Miners 1991).
In this new work the project of understanding the relationship between oppression and supporting liberation through creation (in this case, drawing) continues.
Ostensibly masquerading as Bento’s [the philosopher Spinoza’s] lost sketchbook, it weaves a complex journey through landscape and history to look at how drawing is inextricably linked to Berger’s and in turn, Spinoza’s attempt to overcome a materialist/spiritualist dichotomy to create a Marxism which is fundamentally linked to both rationality and to “salvation”.
This problem has been addressed many times in Marxist historiography and philosophy, often by way of using Spinoza to refute Hegel and Hegelian dialectics. It often takes its inspiration from a reading of the Grundrisse with that work being read “against” Capital.
Toni Negri’s reading of Spinoza in The Savage Anomaly sees Spinoza as a new foundation for a “Marxist politics of the multitude”. It is up to others to assess whether this is any development from Althusserian readings of Spinoza. In any case it lays the path for an alternative reading of the development of Marxism and class politics and undoubtedly has political consequences for class organisation, the role of intellectuals and for the role of the party as the historical memory of the working class (and not necessarily positively).
It is in uncovering historical memory that this book excels. Beginning from the historical memory of Spinoza the lens-grinder and expert in optics, it reveals a Spinoza obsessed with the nature of visibility and rendering visible what is unseen — particularly with regard to drawing. Berger’s sketches in the book are central to understanding observation and creativity.
As Berger has noted elsewhere, “creation is a constant correcting of errors”, and in the book that journey to making visible through drawing a line on the page is likened to Berger driving his motorbike through the Alps to reach a destination which becomes observable as he reaches it.
Spinoza becomes a vehicle for drawing the other world of the future. “Right from the beginning,” Berger says, “I didn’t think it was a book about Spinoza. I thought of it as a book about the world we are living in, and which so often we refuse to look at, for the good and the bad. The project was to see the world today in which we are living”.
Rendering visible the world in which we live through drawing then becomes a journey to understand that world through the trivial items of everyday existence — an old bicycle, a swimming pool. Perhaps most movingly this is done in a painting by an obscure artist called Kleber in Petrograd in 1922 in that decisive moment where the gains of the revolution are fading.
The sheer power of writing the word “Kleber” in memory of that moment a century ago in a midnight very different to ours seems to me to be hugely significant — as much as the last words of Babel from the NKVD archives or the uncovering of lost works of Platonov, a writer again rethought in terms of historical significance by Berger in the sketchbook
The optics of Spinoza become a measure of perpetuating liberty and creation against totalitarianism and indifference — Spinoza was himself exposed as a heretic and expelled from the Jewish community of the Netherlands. Berger uses drawing to elaborate freedom against those who would eliminate or de-create. The “act of liberation” embodied in describing the real becomes for Berger part of a global resistance and struggle to find spiritual satisfaction in the materialist overturning of the statues of tyrants.
The Arab spring becomes a summer — made possible by the constant creation of the working class — drawing their routes to the future on the ground before them, on the walls of buildings, and on the banners hoisted over the palaces of the despots (and in memory of those who perished in its basements).
Finally and amusingly, Berger himself still retains that revolutionary urge to stand against authority. Forbidden by a private security guard to draw a sketch of one of the Christs in the National Gallery, he swore and was asked to leave the building — “I take it you know the way out, Sir” said the guard. Berger knows the way out and has plotted the route for all of us.