Still from The Art of Looking, BBC TV, 2016

On the second day of the new year the British art critic, novelist, poet and political activist John Berger passed away, aged 90, at his home in Paris. The wave of official obituaries predictably remembered him as a brash and contentious polemicist. Berger’s most notorious work remains Ways of Seeing, a 1972 BBC broadcast and Penguin paperback, whose popularity worked like a Marxist grenade on the buttoned-up world of art history. That same year, upon receiving the Booker for his novel G., he donated half of the award money to the Black Panthers.

But there is much more to be remembered of Berger than controversy. The figure who emerged from the culture wars of the early ‘70s was a writer defined not so much by what he was against as by what he loved. For decades until his recent passing Berger split his time between Paris and a small rural community in the French Alps, where he refashioned himself as a chronicler of peasant experience. As a writer and theorist his central tension derived from a belief in the redemptive political value of our sensual and communal lives, and a sense of wonder before the small details of the physical world. His was a rare and special trajectory. He went from the archetype of the angry young man to become an honorary world elder and spiritual lodestar of the anti-globalization movement.

Born to middle-class parents in the North London neighborhood of Stoke Newington, Berger was shipped off to boarding school as a child but ran away as a teenager to study art. Like the rest of his generation he was deeply marked by the Second World War. Turning down an officer’s commission, he served two years in Northern Ireland alongside normal recruits—his first real contact with the working class. In London, Berger pursued his arts education at Central, where he painted and earned extra money fire-watching on the roofs at night.

It was the collective spirit of the home front and of post-war reconstruction that nourished his early socialism and cultural convictions. “God forbid we need a war to make art,” he said in a radio broadcast years later, “but we do need a certain sense of purpose, a sense of unity.” When that unity began to fray, with the pressures of the Cold War extending to aesthetic debates–abstraction or figuration, autonomy or purpose, the individual or the collective–Berger gave up painting for journalism. He contributed regular arts reviews to the New Statesman, a left-of-Labour weekly, and by the time he was in his late 20s, his name had already become synonymous with the cause of social realism in British art. “Whenever I look at a work of art as a critic,” he said at the time,

I try—Ariadne-like for the path is by no means a straight one—to follow up the threads connecting it to the early Renaissance, Picasso, the Five Year Plans of Asia, the man-eating hypocrisy and sentimentality of our establishment, and to an eventual Socialist revolution in this country. And if the aesthetes jump at this confession to say that it proves that I am a political propagandist, I am proud of it. But my heart and eye have remained those of a painter.

This was the birth of Berger the rabble-rouser, the Marxist agitator–the Berger the official obituaries commemorated last month. It was an identity he inhabited, and often cultivated, over the years. And yet it was only one–the louder–of his many voices. From the very beginning there had always been a tension between an outward intransigence and an inward searching–a tension from which his best work arose. “But my heart and eye have remained those of a painter…” In that about-face is contained all the generative contradictions of his life project.

Political disappointment can lead, eventually, to self-examination and renewal as much as to disillusion. In 1956, after a series of crises pulled the rug out from under the international left, Berger took a leave from the New Statesman to begin work on his first novel, A Painter of Our Time. A fictional diary of an aging Hungarian artist, Janos Lavin, exiled in London, the novel explores with tremendous sympathy the dilemmas posed by a dual attachment to painting and to socialism. Although derided upon its release as agitprop–Stephen Spender famously compared its author to a young Goebbels–the novel is in fact a document of profound ambivalence. “You think and talk all the time about the artist,” Lavin writes to himself in one passage. “What of the people, the working class, whom he should serve? I believe in the greatest potentiality of their talent and understanding. But I cannot serve like a waiter.”

A Painter of Our Time remains the charter document for Berger’s subsequent trajectory as a critical and imaginative writer. It works on a brilliantly poignant conceit: a young Englishman projecting himself into the mind of a much older Hungarian looking back on the heyday of the European avant-gardes. In that act of empathic transposition the novel allowed Berger far more freedom of thought, and intimacy of tone, than he was ever given to in his public articles. It was also a way for him to look both into the past–to see the great experiments of visual modernism afresh, with a newfound political force–and into his own future. What does it mean to work in exile? What does it mean to be an artist of our time?

In the early 1960s, Berger and his wife, the translator Anya Bostock, left London for a suburb of Geneva, where he wrote in relative obscurity for several years, publishing two further novels that attracted little attention. “It is a struggle,” he explained in a letter to an older novelist, “because I made so many enemies as an art-critic; I have now offended the sense of order by abandoning art criticism; and I have exiled myself here seeing nobody except a few cherished but powerless friends. But meanwhile one must write and hope.”

The silence of exile was in fact a preparation for the great flowering of Berger’s middle period. As the generation of ‘68 spread its wings and the New Left seemed to promise revolution, Berger’s work broke free of all previous models. Between 1965 and 1975 he produced an awe-inspiring array of forms: photo-texts, broadcasts, novels, documentaries, feature films, essays. Many of these were done in collaboration. With the Swiss photographer, Jean Mohr, he made A Fortunate Man, a documentary portrait in words and images of a country doctor in the Forest of Dean, and A Seventh Man, a kind of modernist visual essay about the courage and perseverance of migrant laborers in Europe. (This latter project was the book Berger always said he was proudest of, and in a 2010 reprinting he mused that sometimes a book, unlike its authors, can grow more of-the-moment with time, a statement that itself has only grown truer in recent years as the migrant crisis reaches new levels.) Berger also worked with Alain Tanner on several films, including Jonah who will be 25 in the year 2000, an ensemble comedy that became a touchstone of post-‘68 optimism. And with Mike Dibb, then a young producer at the BBC, he of course helped to make Ways of Seeing, the four-part broadcast, and later paperback, that introduced a generation of students to the ideas of Walter Benjamin and Dziga Vertov, the materialist critique of the oil painting, and the feminist deconstruction of the male gaze. It is no exaggeration to say that the television show, originally and humbly planned as a late-night polemic, lit the fuse for the meteoric rise of cultural studies in the academy and the now taken-for-granted politicization of visual culture.

But there were also single-authored books: the wildly impudent but electric study of Picasso and the massively ambitious neo-modernist novel G., where paragraphs are laid out on the page like prose photograms of an imagined bildungsroman. And then there were the essays. In 1965, Paul Barker, the deputy editor of New Society, invited Berger to become a frequent contributor to the growing arts and culture section of the magazine. He could write on any subject of his choosing. Once again Berger was given a platform. But unlike his days in the galleries in London, he was now writing back to his homeland. That distance imbued his prose with a more patient, personal, and often poetic spirit of inquiry. There were fewer axes to grind–although several remained, such as his long-standing animus toward Francis Bacon–and more pathways to explore and mysteries to unravel. Almost all of Berger’s most beloved essays, since anthologized in his many collections, first appeared in the pages of New Society: the famous meditations on photography, on the look of animals, on Paul Strand and Courbet and Turner. In one he simply writes of his experience of being in a field:

Shelf of field, green, within easy reach, the grass on it not yet high, papered with blue sky through which yellow has grown to make pure green, the surface color of what the basin of the world contains, attendant field, shelf between sky and sea, fronted with a curtain of printed trees, friable at its edges, the corners of it rounded, answering the sun with heat…

The evocation almost belongs to Whitman. But then, having colored the field with the palette of a painter, Berger goes on to diagram the experience with the rigor of a logician. The interconnectedness of all things felt and heard proves that “every event is part of a process” and that each can only be defined in relation to another. This was the hybrid style–sensual yet cerebral–that won him not only recognition but also affection, and a loyal following far beyond the confines of the intellectual class. His language was never redolent of the seminar or symposium. A field is, for him, a literal place. Among the roster of critical theorists to emerge from the New Left he was perhaps its only plein air practitioner. The maxim that meant so much to Berger at this time was attributed to Cezanne: “A minute is going by in the life of the world, paint it as it is.”

The attention paid to place, and to the small vitalities of the physical world, had always been a part of Berger’s outlook. It went back to his earliest days as a painter, and to his first campaigns for realism and regional diversity in British art. But it took on a far more personal and profound dimension when, in the mid-1970s, he began a new life–and a new family–in a small peasant village an hour outside of Geneva in the Haute Savoie. By then he was fifty. It was in the valley there that he began what he calls his “second education” alongside the local farmers. The title of the trilogy he wrote over the following 17 years, a collection of stories and poems about the slow disappearance of village life, comes from the Bible: “Others have labored / And ye are entered into their labors.” But it is also a kind of anthropological signature, an expression of his own method and metaphysic, almost a theology: a belief in the communal and redemptive power of everyday work.

To many the move was a retreat. Here was one of England’s most renowned leftists writing about the countryside at a time when Thatcher had ascended to power, the welfare state was being dismantled, and the coal miners were on strike. To others it represented an aesthetic capitulation, a nostalgic turn away from the rigorous modernism of his earlier novels. In a remarkable conversation–remarkable for its intimacy and frankness–commissioned in 1983 by Channel Four, a regal and silver-streaked Susan Sontag, sitting across a small table from Berger, continually presses her friend on this point. “But haven’t you changed, John,” she says again and again. Berger seems taken aback. “Well I have had to relearn how to write,” he admits, half reluctantly and half with a recalcitrant pride.

The encounter serves as a barometer for how far the two public intellectuals had diverged in a matter of only a few years. What might have been a philosophical love-in turned into something of a struggle for common ground. At the time Sontag emerged as the clear victor. She was fluent, self-assured, and a quick-witted defender of textual difficulty and urbane taste. Berger, at his most Confucian, could sound like a provincial bumpkin, speaking of an ancient darkness and stories told around a fire. The two who had once been theoretical allies now disagreed on almost everything.

And yet history has subtly changed the balance of the scales. In the backwash of the New Left, when many writers were professionalizing a sophisticated pessimism, cordoning themselves off in university departments and small urban coteries, Berger was cultivating a more peripheral but wide-ranging network of fellow travelers: from Subcomandate Marcos to Arundhati Roy, Geoff Dyer and Gianni Celati. Meanwhile, as he grew more and more rooted in the valley where he was once a transplant, he stayed true to a line of Marxist humanism that, for decades out of fashion, has since been gaining new ecological and spiritual force. (Think of the stunning rise of Bernie Sanders, a figure who, not unlike Berger, was for years seen as an old-school and sentimental leftist just doing his thing in the backwoods.)

In the late 1950s, raising hell as a young art critic, Berger wrote that he judged a work of art by “whether or not it helped men in the modern world claim their social rights.” In 1985, as a much older man living in an alpine valley, he repeated the claim. But he added a new one. “Art’s other, transcendental face raises the question of man’s ontological right… the transcendental face of art is always a form of prayer.”

In some sense Berger did go off to tend the world’s garden. By the mid-‘80s he had more or less excused himself from metropolitan and academic discourse. He all but abandoned the polemical mode. His ambitions now expressed themselves not so much through any single creative work but in a life project out of which, like scattered by-products, arose plays, stories, poems, essays, chapbooks and missives. The tone in almost all of these is caring. The central theme is not the individual-and-society, as in the many works of his middle period, but rather the endangered community and the loving couple. The scale switches rapidly from the tiniest observation to the transcendental and geopolitical.

And yet until his death he possessed a political voice of global stature. “Someone inquires: are you still a Marxist? Never before has the devastation caused by the pursuit of profit… been more extensive than it is today… Yes, I’m still among other things a Marxist.” His articles were rarely meant to change policy, but rather to instill a sense of conviction, and sometimes even poetry and hope, in a world turned upside down by rampant greed and optimized exploitation. It is not that he stopped writing about politics but rather that he wrote about politics in a whispered prayer or a kind of song. He hit upon a vernacular idiom that can travel. His late dispatches were translated and reprinted all over the world.

“Some fight because they hate what confronts them,” Berger once wrote. “Others because they have taken the measure of their lives and wish to give meaning to their experience. The latter are likely to struggle more persistently.” These may seem counterintuitive words today. So much of what confronts us in the age of Brexit and Trump does inspire a sense of political urgency new to a generation. As those on the left prepare to fight a lengthy battle with all the solidarity and tenacity we can muster, there will also be parallel and more personal fronts. To struggle is not only to struggle against one’s oppressors or opponents but to struggle to keep the multiple layers of our loyalties intact. Berger has taught us that it is possible to neither canalize the complexity of experience into the sureties of ideology nor to seek refuge in an art-for-art’s-sake defense of culture. In this sense the interdisciplinary nature of his work is not simply a vagrancy. It derives from the central tension at work over a life: his refusal to separate a belief, almost a faith, in the revelatory power of art from his deeply felt political convictions.

Berger left us right as we are entering a new political era of deep turmoil and confusion. To follow his work from the post-war decade of reconstruction to his most recent essays on neoliberalism is to follow a writer of profound obstinacy yet also of profound tenderness. The two were inextricable. Now we can follow him no longer. But the body of work he left behind is testament to all that is required to sustain that kind of political and imaginative labor for so long, across so many watersheds, in the face of so many historical convulsions. His is a 20th-century life from which we have much to glean in our own time. Speaking of his peasant neighbors, Berger once wrote that “his ideals are located in the past; his obligations are to the future, which he himself will not live to see.”


Joshua Sperling

Joshua Sperling has written on film and culture for Brooklyn Rail, Film Quarterly, Jump Cut, Senses of Cinema, and Bullet Magazine. He is currently a visiting professor of cinema studies at Oberlin College, and is finishing a book on John Berger.

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