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John Berger on ways of seeing

1. Essential re-viewing: John Berger’s WAYS OF SEEING 1972
One of the most influential UK TV art programmes ever made. In the first programme, Berger examines the impact of photography on our appreciation of art from the past.
Other sessions follow no 1. No 3 on oil painting

Ways of Seeing, his book and TV series, taught us how to view the world. He showed us that everything matters, says film director Sally Potter.

‘Ways of Seeing’ is a key moment in the democratisation of art education.
John Berger and Tilda Swinton during the making of The Seasons in Quincy, a documentary about Berger released in 2016. Photograph: Sandro Kopp

2. John Berger (1926–2017)
John Berger’s revolutionary insistence was that our reality could be seen differently, and altered by our intervention.
by Mike Gonzalez
He demonstrated this most trenchantly in his discussion of nude paintings. Quoting Levi-Strauss on “the avid and ambitious desire to take possession of the object for the benefit of the owner,” Berger argued that the naked woman is observed as an object and appropriated by the seer. It is a relationship of power and powerlessness since the gaze cannot be returned.

The painting (and for many years it was painting that he dealt with almost exclusively) in a capitalist society is an object of possession (just like the female nude), a commodity bought and sold, that represents ownership above all. Gainsborough’s Mr and Mrs Andrews, for example, are defined by the land that stretches behind and around them. The painting at once represents a propertied class to itself and is itself property. …

What we had until then was a Stalinist vision of art, in which art simply “reflected” (i.e. mirrored) reality or enacted ideological formulas.

For Berger, art was subversive, questioning — it made the spectator explore how they made sense of the world, why they saw some things and were blind to others.

The implication was always that reality could be seen differently, and altered by our intervention. And that was revolutionary, because, as he put it, “the relations between what we see and what we know is never settled.”

Just as capitalism transforms the art object into commodities whose value is expressed as price, so too does it fetishize the artist. Picasso — as Berger explored in Success and failure of Picasso and in one of his most important essays, “The moment of Cubism” — was the most famous example.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, Picasso was a key figure in a movement whose art “was a dynamic liberation from all static categories.” The Cubists, Berger wrote, “did not think in political terms. Yet they were concerned with the revolutionary transformation of the world.” The bourgeois optimism reflected in family portraits and eternal nature was undermined and challenged, its eternal realities broken down and placed in motion. In Cubism, all that was solid could melt into air.

That was Picasso’s success; his failure, ironically, was the consequence of celebrity, of the taming of his revolutionary impulse. His brave, critical gaze became self-absorption, and as Berger’s introduction to an exhibition of the artist’s late work put it, his final drawings were “a sad entreaty,” an expression of the impotence and loss that fame had brought him.

Berger once described himself as “a Marxist among other things.” The enormous breadth of his work is breathtaking — essays, plays, films, stories, criticism, photography, novels. And his Marxism was inclusive of all of them, of the is and the ought, of the sustained criticism of capitalism and the regime of private property, and of the imaginative possibilities that can be awoken in everyone to reconstruct society.
In the early seventies, Berger left Britain for a farm in the Haute-Savoie. It may be that the angry assaults of the art establishment placed too many obstacles in his way. Or it may be that he left in search of a less alienated, more authentic way of life.

He had already become interested in photography, working with Jean Mohr on A seventh man, giving voice and a face to the migrants whom he saw, with prescience, as the new citizens of a changing world. Later, the trilogy Into their labours, beginning with Pig Earth, explored the relationship between the peasant and the land, which was more profound than simply property. But in all of this work, Berger sought out the imaginative universes that are not restricted to those designated as artists, the official dreamers of a world where even dreams are colonized.

Much of Berger’s later writing was storytelling, the fruit of the conversations he sustained with a vast range of people. For Walter Benjamin, the role of the storyteller was to capture and pass on collective wisdoms. There is a strong sense that this is what Berger also set out to do.

The impulse to explore the imaginative universe that Berger found in art seemed to have been drained in late capitalism. Post-modernism was mere surface, which refused access to what lay beyond it. The gaze was returned, merely mirrored, and the possibility of transformation denied.

“I now believe,” he wrote in the introduction to a later edition of Permanent Red, “that there is an absolute incompatibility between art and private property, or between art and state property . . . Property must be destroyed before imagination can be developed further . . . Thus today I would find the function of regular art criticism . . . to uphold the art market . . . impossible to accept.”

In the days since Berger’s death, some of the obituaries have been almost resentful, critical of his seriousness or his unbending commitment to a criticism that was “more conversation than evaluation.” Others have noted that his deeply personal narrative style, and the deep humanity it reflected, has produced no school of thought.

He was serious, it is true, but never miserable. He remained passionately convinced that solidarity with the voiceless was the duty of a Marxist, that capitalism was the bitter enemy of all creative labor, and that the seeds of a new vibrant and hopeful world could be found beyond the art academy, wherever human beings, however briefly, were able to shape their destinies.

He didn’t leave a school of thought, it’s true, but he helped form a generation for whom he made it possible to discover a different, critical way of seeing.

Mike Gonzalez is a former professor of Latin American Studies at the University of Glasgow. He is the recent author of Hugo Chávez​: Socialist for the 21st Century, published by Pluto Press.

3.Worthwhile interview to read through

JB “I suppose it must have been Marx. He wrote history in a way that tore through the seamless web so beloved by scholars. The mode of discontinuity demonstrated by Marx’s thinking has now become an essential part of the modern means of communication. Discontinuity is now intrinsic to our view of reality. Every articulation of his thought involved a connection between opposites. Simply to call this dialectical may miss the point. His words do not accumulate to confirm one another; each articulation supersedes the preceding one. But in Marx’s mode of reasoning, the degree to which each superseding phrase of the thought modifies the orientation of the preceding one is fresh, because it plays upon a novel notion of discontinuity. His model is not that of an edifice erected stone by stone, or phrase by phrase, but a pivotal balance like that of a pair of scales or a see-saw. From paragraph to paragraph, one proceeds by leaps from point to point.”

New book 2017 Landscapes
In Landscapes, a portrait of Berger’s own journey emerges. Through Berger’s penetrating engagement with the writers and artists who shaped his own thought; Walter Benjamin,Rosa Luxemburg, Bertolt Brecht among them, Landscapes allows us to understand how Berger came to his own way of seeing. As always, Berger pushes at the limits of art writing, demonstrating beautifully how his painter’s eyes lead him to refer to himself only as a storyteller. A landscape is, to John Berger, like a portrait; an animating, liberating metaphor rather than a rigid definition. It’s a term, too, that reminds us that there is more here than simply the backdrop, or ‘by-work’ of a portrait. Landscapes offers a tour of the history of art, but not as you know it.

4.A life in quotes: John Berger
The late prize-winning author and art critic was perceptive on, among other things, the male gaze and the subjectivity of art
“Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at.”
“The relation between what we see and what we know is never settled. Each evening we see the sun set. We know that the earth is turning away from it. Yet the knowledge, the explanation, never quite fits the sight.”
What makes photography a strange invention – with unforeseeable consequences – is that its primary raw materials are light and time.”

The poverty of our century is unlike that of any other. It is not, as poverty was before, the result of natural scarcity, but of a set of priorities imposed upon the rest of the world by the rich. Consequently, the modern poor are not pitied … but written off as trash. The twentieth-century consumer economy has produced the first culture for which a beggar is a reminder of nothing.”

You painted a naked woman because you enjoyed looking at her, put a mirror in her hand and you called the painting Vanity, thus morally condemning the woman whose nakedness you had depicted for you own pleasure.”

Hope is not a form of guarantee; it’s a form of energy, and very frequently that energy is strongest in circumstances that are very dark.”

“A man’s death makes everything certain about him. Of course, secrets may die with him. And of course, a hundred years later somebody looking through some papers may discover a fact which throws a totally different light on his life and of which all the people who attended his funeral were ignorant. Death changes the facts qualitatively but not quantitatively. One does not know more facts about a man because he is dead. But what one already knows hardens and becomes definite. We cannot hope for ambiguities to be clarified, we cannot hope for further change, we cannot hope for more. We are now the protagonists and we have to make up our minds.”

5. Beyond Berger

6. On Picasso
7. Remembering John Berger
Advertising primarily stands to make us believe that buying a product will transform us. Through marketing imagery, we are shown those who have already been transformed by it. These unobtainable models are the ones whom the industry wishes us to aspire to, an image of an underwear model, for example, can simultaneously be desired and envied by males and females alike.

Storyteller, novelist, essayist, screenwriter, dramatist and critic, JOHN BERGER is one of the most internationally influential writers of the last fifty years. His many books include Ways of Seeing, the fiction trilogy Into Their Labours, Here Is Where We Meet, the Booker Prize-winning novel G, Hold Everything Dear, the Man Booker-long-listed From A to X and A Seventh Man.

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