Since the death of John Berger on 2 January the bourgeois press has squirmed over the task of commemorating a major public figure who was also a lifelong Marxist. Some have responded by simply attacking him.
In the Sunday Times (8 January 2017) Waldemar Januszczack made snide jokes about Berger’s speech impediment, deliberately misunderstood his refusal to fetishise art objects and pretended that his decision to give significant screen time to female commentators in a TV episode on art and gender was somehow a sign of his own chauvinism. Others have generally been milder in their criticisms, trying to separate Berger’s politics from his cultural interests. This approach is arguably more damaging.
When Berger won the Booker prize for his novel G in 1972, he criticised its sponsors for exploiting labour in the Caribbean and gave half the prize money to the Black Panthers. But just as important as publicly biting the hand that fed him and sharing his earnings with armed revolutionaries was the justification he gave for keeping half the money himself. Berger stated that creative writing was his own means of engaging in class struggle and so he would use the money to fund new literary projects.
Berger’s insistence on art as a political practice was the chief provocation of his work, and we cannot appreciate his achievements without taking this seriously. Throughout his life Berger continually returned to the theme of looking. For him this everyday activity was a permanent mystery. Each time he revisited this issue he found more questions rather than clearer answers. At stake in this lifelong investigation, I believe, was the issue of how we situate ourselves in the world.
Looking was for Berger was an activity in which we open ourselves up to objects, creatures and other people. Berger was a humanist and his politics emerged from empathy rather than science. In his art criticism Berger commonly wrote about little known dissident artists whose work expressed highly personal perspectives on situations of oppression. In the 1960s and 70s this put him at odds with the majority of leftist critics who, influenced by structuralism and analytic philosophy, largely sought to achieve critical distance through a radically de-personalised perspective.
As demonstrated in his seminal 1972 BBC TV series (and accompanying book) Ways of Seeing, Berger shared the period’s wariness about the dangers of seductive ideologies. However he responded by encouraging us to locate contradictions and complexities within our experience of the world, rather than keeping our distance. Today, Ways of Seeing looks even more radical than it did at the time, primarily because it would now be absolutely impossible to make anything so unorthodox for a major broadcaster.
Central to the series is Berger’s faith that, by seeing beyond the mystifications of bourgeois criticism and authentically engaging with the art of the past, the working class might reclaim its own history. This is arguably naive, since so much of the “high art” discussed in the series was created by and for the upper classes, congealing their ideology and not the memory of our class. Nonetheless, by demonstrating that our “ways of seeing” are not merely “subjective”, but instead conditioned by the material conditions of human existence, Berger went far beyond the populist pluralism of so much contemporary arts coverage. He turned the experience of art into an unavoidably political concern.