Critic, essayist, and novelist John Berger died on January 2, 2017. In July 2016, Eugene McCarraher wrote about Berger for Commonweal.
Writing in the aftermath of the fall of communism, John Berger, the world’s preeminent Marxist (patience, dear readers) writer on art, faced the apparently decisive and irreversible victory of capitalism. Rather than concede defeat and join in the triumphal chorus heralding the end of history, Berger drew an unlikely lesson from the ostensible cessation of the old hostilities. In the conclusion of Keeping a Rendezvous (1991), he studied a photograph of people assembled in recently liberated Prague and discerned in their faces both elation and a dread that an even more primordial conflict was in the offing. The class struggle, he now suggested, partakes of a broader and deeper contest over ways of being in the world. “The soul and the operator have come out of hiding together.”
For two centuries, Berger explained, the soul’s longings had been perverted or marginalized in both capitalist and socialist societies, identified with or subordinated to the imperatives of material progress. Yet humanity “has great difficulty in living strictly within the confines of a materialist practice or philosophy. It dreams, like a dog in its basket, of hares in the open.” Heir, for many, to the hope once contained in religion, Marxism had been the secular abode for the soul; but with the dialectic of “historical materialism” now discredited by history, “the spiritual,” Berger observed, aimed “to reclaim its lost terrain,” surging through fundamentalist and nationalist movements. At the same time, the poor were being “written off as trash” by the soul’s implacable adversary, “the operator,” the forces of pecuniary and technological utility united under the aegis of capital. For Berger, art remained not only a potent weapon against injustice but also an enclave for the qualities of the soul. In a powerful letter to the miners who unsuccessfully resisted Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s attempt to close down mines in 1984, Berger wrote:
I can’t tell you what art does and how it does it, but I know that art has often judged the judges, pleaded revenge to the innocent and shown to the future what the past has suffered, so that it has never been forgotten. I know too that the powerful fear art, whatever its form, when it does this, and that amongst the people such art sometimes runs like a rumor or a legend because it makes sense of what life’s brutalities cannot, a sense that unites us, for it is inseparable from a justice at last. Art, when it functions like this, becomes a meeting-place of the invisible, the irreducible, the enduring, guts and honor.
Characterized by the lack of a credible alternative to the glittering imperium of capital, the ensuing twenty-five years have been the Age of the Operator: neoliberal economics, a hustling ethos, the divinization of markets and technology, the hegemony of a consumer society given over to spectacle and fueled by debt. As Berger writes in his latest book, Portraits (Verso, $44.95, 544 pp.), “the future has been downsized,” restricted to the mercenary parameters of finance capital and digital technocracy. Neoliberal capitalism fulfills the “strange prophecy” depicted in the hellish right-hand panel of Hieronymus Bosch’s Millennium Triptych: “no glimpse of an elsewhere or an otherwise.” The poor—and increasingly anyone outside the gilded circle of “the 1 percent”—are indeed “written off as trash,” detritus of the quest for efficiency, human refuse piling up not only in Calcutta, Mumbai, or Mexico City, but also in Palo Alto and San Francisco, where the technocrats of Silicon Valley dispossess workers from their homes to build mansions scaled to their colossal self-regard.
The Operator remains in the saddle, riding humankind; but with anger and dissent on the rise—Syriza in Greece, Podemos in Spain, Bernie Sanders and Black Lives Matter here at home—the Soul may be gathering strength to embark on another, more enduring reclamation of terrain, and, if it does, John Berger will deserve our attention as one of its greatest contemporary prophets. Renowned and even beloved as both novelist and art critic, Berger has also become an unlikely moral and metaphysical sage. “You can’t talk about aesthetics without talking about the principle of hope and the existence of evil,” he declared in The Sense of Sight (1985). Not that his revolutionary spirit has withered; that flame is lower but remains incandescent. But Portraits, a miscellany from his career as a writer, records the evolution of this “principle of hope”—a reference, no doubt, to Ernst Bloch, the closest thing to a theologian ever produced by the Marxist tradition. Like the other two panels of Bosch’s triptych—The Garden of Eden and The Garden of Earthly Delights—Portraits offers “a torchlight in the dark,” a glimpse of an elsewhere or an otherwise, a way of seeing the visible world that Berger might agree to call sacramental.
BERGER WAS BORN in 1926 in London, the son of a middle-class Hungarian immigrant from Trieste and an English working-class suffragette. As a youth growing up in Oxford, he drew and painted for relief from his “monstrous and brutal” education at a local private school. He also read anarchist literature and ardently embraced the radical left; yet unlike most anarchists, Berger felt no visceral hostility to religion. As he told the Guardian in 2011, since his teenage years two convictions have “coexisted” within him: “a kind of materialism,” as he put it, along with “a sense of the sacred, the religious if you like.” This coexistence has never felt anomalous to him, even when “most other people thought it was.” Indeed, the philosopher of whom Berger has been most fond is not Marx but Baruch Spinoza, whose monist ontology sought to overcome the Cartesian dualism of matter and spirit.
Conscripted at the age of eighteen, Berger spent World War II stationed in Belfast. After the war he enrolled in the Chelsea School of Art and exhibited in London galleries. While working as a teacher, he began writing reviews for the New Statesman, Britain’s flagship left periodical. In the early years of the Cold War, Berger embraced Marxism (despite his aversion to Joseph Stalin). He even maintained that, until the Soviet Union gained nuclear parity with the United States, left writers and artists should support Moscow. In the late 1940s, Berger made a deliberate decision to set aside his painting and embark on a career as a writer.
Although the New Statesman published his essays for more than a decade (some of which he collected in 1960 as Permanent Red), Berger was its most beleaguered contributor. Adamantly pro-Soviet, he wrote for a magazine that opposed Stalinism. (In his controversial 1958 novel A Painter of Our Time, Berger hinted his support for the Soviet suppression of the Hungarian Revolution.) Where the New Statesman reflected the broad sympathy toward literary and artistic modernism characteristic of liberal and social-democratic intellectuals, Berger championed realism and called for art that would “help or encourage men to know and claim their social rights.” His profoundly ambivalent view of abstract expressionism challenged its celebration by most Western intellectuals as a token of “free expression.” Although he marveled at Jackson Pollock’s formal skills, Berger argued that the drip paintings registered a collapse of “faith” in the visible world that heralded “the disintegration of our culture.” Berger asked strikingly traditionalist questions for an enfant terrible of Marxist criticism. “How far can talent exempt an artist,” he asked, who “does not think beyond or question the decadence of the cultural situation to which he belongs?”
With judgments and questions like these, Berger found himself “fighting for every sentence,” not only against his editors and skeptical readers but also against curators, gallery owners, and art critics. (One less-than-enthusiastic review of Henry Moore earned him the everlasting enmity of Sir Herbert Read, then Britain’s most respected critic.) Berger railed helplessly as the London cultural establishment—like that of New York—transformed modernism into an aesthetic for corporate suites and an emblem of Western individualism.
Weary of his travails among the London intelligentsia, Berger left England in 1962 and lived an itinerant but productive life on the continent for the next fifteen years. He published studies of Picasso and cubism as well as several other volumes of essays on painting, sculpture, photography, and politics; chronicled, in collaboration with the photographer Jean Mohr, the life of a country doctor in A Fortunate Man (1967); wrote several screenplays, including Jonah Who Will Be 25 in the Year 2000 (1976), a wise and sympathetic story about disappointed radicals; and authored three novels, including G. (1972), a political and erotic bildungsroman that won him the Booker Prize. Berger promptly caused an uproar when he donated half of his prize money to the British Black Panthers (the Booker fortune having been amassed, he pointed out, through the exploitation of Caribbean slaves) and used the other half to fund a project on the condition of migrant workers that became A Seventh Man (1975). Whatever one thinks of his politics, there can be no denying that Berger is a writer who acts on his convictions.
But Berger’s most enduring achievement from this period was his landmark BBC television series Ways of Seeing (1972), notable if only because it disseminated a radical perspective to a mass audience. Published in book form in the same year, Ways of Seeing was a response to another television milestone, Civilisation (1969), hosted by Sir Kenneth Clark, doyen of the British art establishment. Loftily indifferent to social and political context, Clark’s parade-of-masterpieces approach to the history of Western art epitomized the patrician didacticism that Berger loathed. Focusing on the processes of artistic production and reception, Berger argued not only that the mass reproduction of images had irrevocably transformed our relationship to the art of the past, but that much of that art was ideologically indistinguishable from contemporary advertising: both portraiture and adverts shored up existing property relations and sexual inequality by depicting them as natural, desirable, and inevitable. Over forty years later, in a culture even more saturated by spectacle and trivia than it was in the 1970s, Ways of Seeing remains instructive, especially Berger’s incisive reflections on nudity, glamor, and publicity.
Soon after finishing A Seventh Man, Berger settled in the French Alpine village of Quincy, where he lives and works today. “Works” doesn’t mean only writing and sketching; Berger has participated fully in the daily rounds of his neighbors, grazing cattle, mowing hay, growing peaches, attending weddings and funerals, spreading gossip, and reveling in festivity. It’s a way of life marked for extinction by capitalist globalization, and despite his professed adherence to the progressive orthodoxy of Marxism—the peasantry, Marx once wrote, represented “the barbarism within civilization”—Berger resolved to preserve their virtues even if History intended to bury them. In the late 1970s he began to write Into Their Labours, a trilogy chronicling the arduous passage from mountain village to industrial metropolis: Pig Earth (1979), Once in Europa (1987), and Lilac and Flag (1990). The personal and historical realities of loss are blended in this passage from Once in Europa, as a traditional funeral hymn rises to an anthem and then descends to a lamentation: “‘Amazing Grace’ begins sad and gradually the sadness becomes a chorus and so is no longer sad but defiant. Later the music listens to itself and discovers that something has fallen silent. Irretrievably. He had left.”
BERGER'S INTIMACY WITH peasant life slowly induced a metamorphosis in his thinking about art—one that underlined “the sacred, the religious if you like.” Not that he’s abandoned the aesthetic barricades. He espouses a way of seeing in which “there is no exemption from history,” as he asserts in Portraits, no privileged immunity from the perceptual and political distortions of ideology. For instance, the pious peasants in Millet’s Angelus, he observes, have provided a “pictorial label round the great clerical bottle of Bromide prescribed to quiet every social fever and irritation.” Elsewhere he notes that the modern conception of painting as a “personal vision” undermined a stale and deceptive realism—“reality” being far richer and more unsettling than mere empiricist accounts—but also fostered a new form of obfuscation in which “the witness” is “more important than his testimony.” (Think of the canard of the Tortured Artist from Van Gogh to Pollock to Jean-Michel Basquiat.) Yet Marxism is more than a “hermeneutic of suspicion” to Berger; it also constitutes (as it does for the Catholic literary critic Terry Eagleton) a noble and tragic humanism. Van Gogh’s paintings and letters reveal, for Berger, that while labor is currently “an injustice” it is also “the essence of humanity.”
Yet Marxism clearly inhibited Berger from asking certain kinds of questions, not only about art but also about “history.” In a 1963 essay on Fernand Léger—the Marxist genre painter of industrial modernity—Berger praised his portrayal of “mechanization as a human epic, an unfolding adventure of which man is the hero.” This is the classical Marxist narrative of progress through capitalist innovation, yet shorn of the ordeals of the peasants and proletarians that Berger would later fictionalize. It isn’t reactionary nostalgia to point out that mechanization—now ballyhooed as “automation” and “disruption”—has been an adventure more for technical and financial elites than for the people it dispossesses and degrades. Indeed, with its promise of a justice secured by the abundance produced by mechanization, Marxism represents the highest stage of bourgeois ideology, a conviction that the worth of a civilization can be determined by its level of material affluence. For both capitalism and socialism alike, the longings of the Soul depended on the machinations of the Operator.
If Berger fails in Portraits to come fully to terms with the bromides of Marxism, he exhibits an impressive humility and even gratitude toward the art of the unprogressive past. He now seeks less to understand art in terms of its own class-ridden time—the approach of Ways of Seeing—and more to comprehend our own sorry situation through masterworks of art. Reflecting on Grünewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece, he relates that in the “period of revolutionary expectation” before 1968 he was “anxious to place it historically” as “evidence of the past’s despair.” Later, as a disillusioned soixante-huitard, he was “forced to place [him]self historically”; in “a period which has to be endured,” he elaborates, Grünewald “miraculously” offers “a narrow pass across despair.” (Recall his admonition to the miners that art can be “a rumor and a legend.”) Berger sees premonitions of despair in the paintings of Rembrandt, Goya, and the British painter Francis Bacon. Growing old in an age of ascending capitalism, Rembrandt witnessed a time “not dissimilar” to our own, when “the human was no longer self-evident.” Goya’s nightmarish canvases convey “the consequences of Man’s neglect” of reason: both oppressors and victims become “bestial.” Bacon’s unsettling oeuvre is “prophetic,” a “revelation” that “the worst has already happened.”
Against despair in the face of neoliberalism, Berger mobilizes what one might call the moral ontology of the peasant and the materialism of Spinoza. In his essays as well as in his novels, he lauds the invaluable virtues of village life: mutual aid, craftsmanship, a respect for the intractability of the material world, revelry in pleasure and forbearance in pain, a toughness that never turns into callousness or cruelty. Given the agonies of history, the peasant is Berger’s model of humanity; in Velasquez’s portrait of Aesop, for instance, Berger sees “ingenuity, cunning, a certain mockery, and a refusal to compromise,” an obstinacy born of knowing “one has nothing to lose.”
Berger has no illusions about the hardships, superstitions, and prejudices of the peasantry; he never celebrates the rigors of rural life in the fraudulent, nostalgic terms of an urban romantic. Rather, he defends the peasant sensibility as a daily encounter with the unknown and uncontrollable. Take his essay on the early twentieth-century peasant-artist Ferdinand Cheval and his “Palais Idéal.” A motley and marvelous ensemble of architecture, sculpture, and text, the Palace was assembled over thirty-three years in Cheval’s home village of Hauterives. The visceral physicality of the Palace suggests to Berger not a cloddish empiricism but rather a sophisticated ontology or way of being. To a peasant, he reflects, “the empirical is naïve”; because he lives and works within the unseen processes of nature, the visible signifies “the state of the invisible.” Knowledge “surrounds” the unknown for the peasant “but will never eliminate it.” Hence his inclination to “a religious interpretation of the world”—not the recondite orthodoxy constructed by theologians but an affirmation of everyday mystery.
This peasant ontology is Berger’s “kind of materialism,” but it’s not quite the disenchanted materialism of Marxist metaphysics. It’s one more redolent of Spinoza—to whom Berger recently devoted a volume of drawings, aperçus, and ruminations, Bento’s Sketchbook (2011). (Spinoza, Berger would undoubtedly remind us, was an artisan as well as a philosopher—a lens-grinder who enabled sight.) Yet in Portraits he seems to venture further, writing in a piece on Holbein the Younger that the arts offer not catharsis but “revelation” or “redemption.” Painters seek messages that emerge “from the back of the visible”; they respond to an “energy” that emanates from “behind the given set of appearances.” Berger is no Platonist: he lauds Van Gogh’s fondness for ordinary things without needing to “save” them “by way of an ideal which the things embody or serve.” Revelation or “redemption” would seem to mean to Berger not a rescue or “elevation” of things but a recognition of what they are—a “capacity to love,” as he calls it. And as he muses in a piece on the haunting, enigmatic work of Yvonne Barlow, this “hunger for more” behind the visible entails an almost ascetic discipline of “waiting.” The artist—like the peasant or the revolutionary—is a virtuoso of patience.
THESE NOTIONS ECHO Berger’s intuition in The Sense of Sight (1985) that “what lies outside visibility are only the ‘traces’ of what has been or will become visible.” Is it too much to call this an eschatology of the visible, an allegory of the sacramental? (Berger remarks that Cézanne’s work “changed eschatologically” as he enlarged his sense of corporeality, his conception of what constituted a “material” object.) Fussbudgets of orthodoxy will recoil from dubbing Berger’s materialism “sacramental”; but what then should we make of his defense of Simone Weil, whose insight that love of neighbor is “analogous to genius” he endorses by invoking “a power which cannot be measured by the limits of the natural order”? Berger has called this power “God,” and he’s right that the metaphysical potency of art can be far more evocative of divinity than many soporific rituals and dissertations.
This “religious” conception of art aligns in some ways with Berger’s youthful anarchism. Anarchism has always had the peasant, the artisan, and the artist at its core, people less alienated from control of production than the industrial working class. But it’s also been a revolutionary tradition that insists on the possibility of paradise now, living in the present as one will live in the future—realized eschatology, in theological terms, the future in the present tense. Or as Berger suggests in his essay on Nicholas de Stael’s paintings of war-ravaged Europe, “lying low can be an act of resistance, discovering what is still friendly in the surrounding desolation and cherishing it.” “A person with soul and imagination and memory,” he continues, can navigate the ruins, accepting the wreckage as irreversible while inventing a new passage to the light out of the debris.
With neoliberalism weakened but still violent and beguiling, the genius of neighborly love now requires all the soul and imagination and memory that we can protect from the clutches of the Operator. A chastened surveyor of the soul’s material terrain, John Berger remains one of our most reliable guides through the traces of what lies just beyond the borders of the visible. For we need the way of seeing not of the entrepreneur, the banker, or the programmer, but of the peasant, the artist, and the revolutionary.