Agreeing with Berger

Peter Campbell

  • Ways of Telling: The Work of John Berger by Geoff Dyer
    Pluto, 186 pp, £4.95, December 1986, ISBN 0 7453 0097 9

John Berger is 60. He is not forgotten. Permanent Red, his criticism from the Fifties, is in print. Ways of Seeing is the antidote put in the hands of students who have drunk too deeply of Courtauld art history. His novels, too, have created a stir. His first, A Painter of Our Time, had such vitriolic reviews that the publishers withdrew it, and G won the Booker Prize: Berger’s hard swallow on that sugarplum made him briefly notorious. His behaviour was un-English – but that was to be expected, for his work had never fitted English pigeonholes. In A Fortunate Man he and Jean Mohr produced a report from rural England which, like Let us now praise famous men, Agee’s report from the American Dust Bowl, imposed a solemn simplicity on its subject (Mass-Observation would have been nosier). G is an un-English mix of fiction and essay-like elements. His fiction has been didactic and his criticism passionate. He is also adaptable: as well as half a dozen novels and volumes of essays there have been television programmes and films. This varied body of work hangs together. The epigraph to the first chapter of Geoff Dyer’s book, a quotation from 1956 – ‘I am a political propagandist ... But my heart and eye have remained those of a painter’ – could apply equally well to the later work at the other end of the book.

I began reading Berger’s reviews in New Zealand thirty years ago. They were a revelation. It did not really matter that you could not see the exhibitions he was writing about (airmail copies of the New Statesman arrived months before anything with illustrations): the discovery that a Bratby was not quite what you had imagined did not make his writing less significant. The sense that painting was important, and the questions he raised about what it could and should do, were what mattered. He demystified art, and made allies and enemies – partly because people found him so easy to understand. When he wrote about the entries to the competition for a monument to ‘The Unknown Political Prisoner’, readers’ letters filled pages. While other critics valued art as free expression, Berger suggested that freedom might be destructive. While others wrote about what it was like to look at a painting, he wrote about what it was like to try to be a painter.

I did not then know how much he had learnt from Marxist critics like Frederick Antal, Ernst Fischer and Walter Benjamin, but it was clear that for Berger the difficulties of a painter of our time involved more than lack of technique or talent. It was a matter of how art meshed with the other cogs in the machine of history. Picasso could be a genius without being a great painter, if the possibility of greatness was precluded by the nature of the world he had been born into. Dyer writes that ‘Berger in the Fifties played a vital part in transforming public discussions of art from a marginal discussion of form – of something separate from the political life of society – into something which not only had a vital connection with but was an essential part of the content of that society’. In the Fifties it was possible to believe that visual art could become significant, not just to individuals, but to all of us collectively – as significant as science or politics. The loss of that belief is something Berger feels strongly, and the thesis that painting is now almost impossible is nailed firmly to the door in a new preface to Permanent Red:

I now believe that there is an absolute incompatibility between art and private property, or between art and state property – unless the state is a plebeian democracy. Property must be destroyed before imagination can develop further. Thus today I would find the function of regular art criticism – a function which, whatever the critic’s opinions, serves to uphold the art market – impossible to accept. And thus today I am more tolerant of those artists who are reduced to being largely destructive.

Dyer’s book is a reason for those who have been enthusiasts to ask if Berger’s analysis of the place of picture production in a capitalist society, and his attempt to reconcile a theory of socially-determined art with a belief in the original and autonomous individual genius, are still convincing. The most robust statement of his case against capitalist picture production is to be found in the television series Ways of Seeing and the book derived from it. Here he riffles through packs of images and makes provocative comparisons – between advertisements and 17th-century oil paintings, pin-ups and Titian nudes. These comparisons were offensive to many – in particular, to art historians. Berger seemed to discount aesthetic experience: he explained, but did not appreciate or discriminate, and, by implication, he disparaged the disciplines of connoisseurship. They cried foul. Later Berger confessed a difficulty and offered it, like a problem in physics, to the critical community: ‘The immense theoretical weakness of Ways of Seeing is that I do not make clear what relation exists between what I call “the exception” (the genius) and the normative tradition. It is at this point that work needs to be done. It could well be the theme of a conference.’

Even if one softens the deterministic edge, if one thinks of society as providing a climate – affecting survival but not the mutations which precede sudden changes in the history of painting – it is hard to reconcile Berger’s mechanistic models with his idealistic aesthetics. Nor does he penetrate historically. The barricade he helped to throw up against the ordered troops of the old art history has had to be manned by others. Moreover his psychology of aesthetics makes him unhappy when faced with a thoroughgoing example of the new art history.

In an essay on Nicos Hadjinicolaou’s Art History and Class Struggle, Berger argues that the book is flawed because ‘the experience of looking at paintings has been eliminated,’ and that ‘the refusal of comparative judgments about art ultimately derives from a lack of belief in the purpose of art’. He also asserts that ‘the culture of capitalism has reduced paintings, as it reduces everything which is alive, to market commodities, and to advertisements for other commodities. The new reductionism of revolutionary theory which we are considering is in danger of doing something similar’. The lack Berger finds in Hadjinicolaou directs one to his own passionate identification with the acts of painting and looking. Ways of Seeing was seminal (or at least early on the scene) when new arenas of art criticism were being marked out. For example, the role of politics in the promotion and marketing of art, and of sexual politics in the making of art, were themes he developed. His writing about migrant workers and peasant communities appeals to analogous analyses of society. But he still believes that there are values which are independent of any analysis – that good societies and good paintings are seen to be such, are absolutely, not relatively, valuable. He is uninterested in the anxious examination of shifting responses. He would not, with Thomas McEvilley, say the critic’s job is to ‘elucidate very clearly one’s reasons for liking art’, not in order to define taste or ‘quality with a capital Q’, but to ‘teach an approach to the question of quality which is constantly critical, constantly analytical’, for the strength of Berger’s identifications – with places, people, works of art – is that he asserts the capital letter every time.

Berger started out to be a painter, and became a writer, who explained why painting is now difficult, perhaps impossible. In order to make the problems of the painter in history clear, he had to explain how it felt to work as a painter in the 20th century. His first novel, A Painter of Our Time, did this. Much of it is in the form of a journal kept by a Hungarian émigré, Janos Lavin. ‘If the book had consisted solely of the journal,’ Dyer writes, ‘and if Lavin had been an actual artist, then it would have to be considered as one of the vital source documents of 20th-century art’. The voices in the novel represent the first revolutionary generation, that of Janos, who knew what it was to be interrogated, hungry, and smuggled over a frontier, and that of the narrator, John, who will move in a different world – one in which, according to Berger, noting changes since the Fifties in the new preface to Permanent Red, ‘revolutionary examples and possibilities’ will have multiplied, and ‘the raison d’être of polarised dogmatism’ will have collapsed.

Dyer puts a high value on Berger’s work. He thinks that G, and the trilogy of which Pig Earth was the first part, are among the great works of the century. But he also identifies the sources of the reservations of more moderate admirers. Reading a lot of Berger brings on a kind of literary allergy, to which Dyer himself is not immune. The irritation arises less from contact with the ideas than from a reaction to the medium which carries them. Dyer speaks of Berger’s moralising as a feature of his work closely related to what is just as distinctly absent from it: ‘humour ... The problem of humourlessness is not just the plea of a reader eager for a laugh: it compromises the imaginative identification with others that Berger sets such store by’. His writing sometimes reads like a translation, and must translate easily. There are no jokes, no mimicry. No meanings are doubled, no asides are sly. If his writing were conversation, it would be the kind where parties will not agree to disagree. ‘He speaks of the reader accompanying him,’ Dyer writes, ‘but we sometimes go along on condition that we wear a collar and lead’. Sometimes he not only takes over the reader, but the subject of an essay as well. There is a piece collected in The White Bird about a nude by Frans Hals. No nude by Hals exists, and the essay constructs one. Berger describes details (‘the slewed sheet, its folds like grey twigs woven together to make a nest, and its highlights like falling water’). The same kind of language is used in passages about real paintings, such as one which Dyer singles out for special praise: ‘The light in a Constable masterpiece is like water dripping off the gunwale of a boat as it drives through the sea. It suggests the way the whole scene is surging through the day, dipping through sun and cloud’. The Constable description is wonderfully good, because it enhances your memory of real paintings. The Hals description is an irritation because it confuses by asking you to invent a new one. The argument against it is the same as the argument against forgery: that it confuses the understanding one painting gives you of another by blurring the record. Berger’s take-over of Hals is like his takeover of the reader. Over the years one has learnt to fight back. If Berger proves to have few followers, if his work does not, as Dyer hopes, become an example which leads to the breaking-down of barriers between literary genres, the reason will, partly at least, lie in something in his manner which leaves the reader feeling that he is not being allowed to disagree.