As good as his word

Obituary: John Berger, November 5 1926-January 2 2017, Sarah Black remembers

Art critic, novelist, writer and academic John Berger died last week, aged 90. Amid the media accolades, Suzanne Moore writes an opinion piece for The Guardian entitled ‘I do not recognise the stereotype of John Berger as a dour Marxist - his work embodied hope’. Though the headline is provocative, Moore’s piece does remember the man as kind, interested and warm.

Berger originally trained as a painter at the Chelsea School of Art, but stopped painting in the late 40s, as the post-war nuclear threat seemed to him to render his work trivial. Instead he threw his energies into writing. He managed to enrage the art and media establishment by his pro-Soviet stance, as well as his criticism of big figures in the art world, such as Henry Moore, Francis Bacon and Pablo Picasso (whose work he felt further mystified art). Berger wrote extensively throughout his career - not just criticism, but fiction and other non-fiction works. In 1972 he won the Man Booker prize for his novel, G. His 1975 book, The seventh man, focuses on the plight of the urban poor.

Berger’s warmth comes across in his most well known work, Ways of seeing. Unlike contemporary programmes of the time, this 1972 BBC four-part series of films-turned-essays was not presented by a stuffy old man in an art gallery with a suit and a pipe. Filmed in an electronics workshop, Berger, sporting an Aztec patterned shirt, talks to the viewers at home in a laid-back, conversational manner - the aesthetics of the production have a dynamism that transcends the very 1970s look. Berger places advertising images next to still lifes and soft porn beside nudes, in order to make the viewer interrogate the image, the artist and the subject. His aim was to demystify western European painting from its holy status (where criticism’s purpose was to help us pray) and instead find a different way of seeing, if you will. It is no wonder that critics like Kenneth Clark and Stephen Spender disliked him.

The BBC was not confident about airing the series, scheduling the first part for late in the evening. However, following low turn-off rates compared with similar programmes, they agreed to screen the following three parts earlier in the evening. The first episode dealt with the ability to reproduce art using technology. It could arguably be seen as a 30-minute 70s film adaptation of Walter Benjamin’s 1935 essay, ‘The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction’. Though most of the episode focuses on painting, one of the opening sequences is from Dziga Vertov’s 1929 film, Man with a movie camera - an embodiment of the avant-garde vision for technology’s role in making dynamic and accessible artwork. Berger looks at the reproduced work through the camera or screen and echoes Benjamin’s argument that the two are not the same work of art. It exists in the context of viewers’ homes, framed in their wallpaper. It is cropped to tell part of the story. The light that transmits the image to the viewer’s television flickers and moves, the voiceover opines, the crescendo of the mood music emotes - not to mention the contextualisation of the sounds and images that the viewer has flipped from watching on the other channel.

There is a scene in which Berger, making a point about demystifying the work of art, meets with a group of primary school-aged children, whom he shows a Caravaggio painting. Going back to Moore’s article, here we see the warmth of Berger’s character, as he interacts with these kids. They readily engage with the work and offer their insights. There is debate among them with regard to the central figure in the painting, who some think might be Jesus. They are also divided over the figure’s gender. The skin is smooth, there is not facial hair or stubble and the features could be of either sex, the children argue. Berger tells the viewers that they have picked up on something the critics do not mention, putting the gender ambiguity of the character down to Caravaggio’s own homosexuality - a conclusion that might be a little more controversial in these highly triggered days of identity politics.

While we are on the topic of the politics of identity, the second episode of Ways of seeing is a critique of the depiction of women in western European artwork. Berger criticises the hypocrisy of the male gaze: the subject, reproduced for the pleasure of the male viewer, is nevertheless condemned for her promiscuity or vanity. He comments on the way women, from childhood, learn to view themselves and learn to be viewed. The notion that we are always being surveyed and therefore, with this in mind, we watch ourselves being watched:

Men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women, but also the relation of women to themselves. The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed female. Thus she turns herself into an object - and most particularly an object of vision: a sight.

After about 20 minutes, it appears to occur to Berger that, while he has been articulating this position, not a single woman has participated. As this point he gives over the rest of the episode to a group of women to discuss the topic, while he listens and smokes.

Berger also discussed the frequent purpose of art criticism: in his view, to mystify and obfuscate the artwork, to imbue it with a sense of religiosity - or to secure its market value. He commented on art galleries being guarded at night as though they were banks. However, he does not discuss, as Marx does in Capital, the peculiar nature of the price of the work of art, which can fluctuate significantly due to fashion and has little to do with the amount of labour time employed.

Berger was interested in the way that western European art was used to show status. Still life painting showing delicacies in abundance; the depiction of fat livestock for eating and strong horses for riding - opulent objet d’art. Portraits provide ample opportunity to show wealth, either directly through clothing and surroundings or reinforcing status by posing as biblical or other mythological characters. Berger also noted that not even landscape painting was free from this agenda. The rolling fields are not necessarily a celebration of the beauty of the countryside, but rather a declaration that ‘This is my property - keep out or I’ll shoot you’. But, while the aristocracy or the bourgeoisie used oil painting to demonstrate status, Berger noted that they did so to show what they had, if not at whose expense it was acquired. He juxtaposed this with contemporary advertising, which gives the illusion that, while what is being offered is open to everyone, the reality is that it is achievable by only a few.

Berger once wrote: “I would never compromise my opposition to bourgeois culture and society.” He was as good as his word.