Learning From John Berger

A tribute to a peerless art critic, storyteller and thinker who made generations believe that ways of seeing art translates into ways of being in the world.

This week so many persons around the world are together in remembering John Berger as though he were a friend, almost as though we are all friends. As though in this mourning there is some elation reminiscent of another time and another life when it was possible to pronounce the word solidarity without embarrassment, if also a little naively, considering how much remained unresolved and quite beyond the youthful leap of left politics. Berger was what a young person might have wanted to be, then, when we first ‘knew’ him.

I like to re-read And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos (1992), written in his chosen form of poetry and prose approximating to a philosophical essay – always this writerly approximation. I have not read his essays on art for a while but today his (then) precipitous ‘discourse’ rings in the mind like a bell, a bell that tolls because of course it seems difficult to reclaim the proselytising exuberance of seeing, looking, acting on and with and towards some breakthrough – of meaning. With faith in the pact between image and word. But why insert an over-determined concept like discourse – it wasn’t a word in common use in the mid-1960s and Berger’s prose was in the best sense idiosyncratic, with an impetuous, risk-taking curiosity and a matching aesthetic.

That it was good enough to call oneself an art critic is what I must have surmised from the pantheon of male critics (Clement Greenberg, Harold Rosenberg) active in New York where I was studying in the early 1960s. On my return to India I began reading Berger – an altogether different species of critic: “peerless”, as Susan Sontag says, admiring Berger’s ability to bring “attentiveness to the sensual world”, and combine it with “imperatives of conscience”. Berger (though he lived in France for almost half his life) was aligned to an English form of radicalism that combines romanticism with a Marxist understanding of working-class consciousness.

In 1968, I was in London as a student. Berger appeared almost like a neighbour, offering first-hand lessons on how to inhabit the world, how to be punctual to a cause and place stakes in the future – as if one’s life depended on it. As it should.

A young John Berger. Courtesy: That's How The Light Gets In blog

A young John Berger. Courtesy: That’s How The Light Gets In blog

Berger was soon (in 1972) to become a TV ‘star’, guiding the viewer into ways of seeing: taking the citizen by the hand and stepping into an open labyrinth, decoding an enigma so as to be able to speak about art and/in/for society. In a recent interview Berger says: “I’m no navigator – absolutely the opposite”; that is, he is a lookout guy full of curiosity about instruments and things but as happy to actually just look at the ocean and make imaginary travel. I think he was a navigator who steered a couple of generations out of the hold, and offered, purposefully, playfully, such of those leftist freedoms that could and did nix aesthetic constraints.

Berger was a public intellectual, the figure we all admire. Though, oddly, he didn’t seem to function from within the classical/definitional arena of the public sphere. The public intellectual engages in discourse and is positioned with due protocol in the (bourgeois) public sphere. This maxim doesn’t fit Berger. He was something of an amateur philosopher and amateur historian (harking to the root of the word amateur: amour, the one who loves/loves his own vocation). He could be a populist even as he was (and this contradiction is key) a poet.

He transited from a public persona to a compassionate man, determined and able to live by his convictions – in simple environments and, for extended parts of his long life, in (participatory) proximity to migrant labour and settled peasantry. He committed himself to the humble task of telling stories. Among other historical and contemporary accounts of barely recognised citizens, Berger’s From A to X: A Story in Letters (2008), speaks about two impoverished lovers, resistance fighters – incarcerated as ‘terrorists’ – whose struggle can be located in any part, which means all parts, of the world where there is poverty and injustice. His corresponding style of writing moves from documentary account to fiction, from speech to text and back – a relay that sustains its humanist ardour and proposes its own poetics.

In an article published in 2003, ‘Written in the night: The pain of living in the present world’, Berger wrote in revulsion of global capitalism, its strategies for satiating desire under lethal command. Characteristically, he added a brief testimony in favour of pain, survival, and the night: “I write in the night, although it is daytime”, he said. This reversal between night and day was a ruse to gain insight into how desperation is induced by history; how it is made to signal ‘danger’; how it is coerced into states of terror and exiled from the narrative of history.

I write this obituary with no legitimate claims. I have gradually contracted into the sphere of aesthetics. Berger was still, at the age of 90, thinking about the political future of humankind.


Postscript: page from a diary

Berger was invited by some art students at the Slade School to speak on his then new book, Art and Revolution. This was in 1969. He was a star. But for some reason only about five students made it to the event. Vivan [Sundaram] and I were among them. Berger gave a spirited lecture on the Russian rebel sculptor, Ernst Neizvestny. He then suggested we all go for a drink. He talked, and listened. He was deadly handsome, with sculpted face, intent blue eyes, unruly locks. When we were leaving the pub, he helped me wear my coat (fitted black, with a faux fur collar!). And he asked me if we might meet again and fixed a ‘date’. Very 60s! He came and fetched me from my lodgings one Sunday and we walked to Kensington Park. We sat on the grass to converse. I was awkward, even tongue-tied, he was disappointed and maybe bored. The date was a failure!

His reference came up often in dialogue with my tutor at the Royal College of Art, Marxist artist and art historian, Peter de Francia. Berger and he had been good friends – the protagonist in Berger’s (1958) novel A Painter of Our Time was in part based on Peter.

Berger was our youth icon. For someone preparing to be a critic, his efflorescent style and radical will were inspirational – ‘Permanent Red’. He made us believe that ways of seeing art translates into ways of being in the world.

(The postscript is based on a text I wrote for an exhibition researched by Sabih Ahmed and designed by Shilpa Gupta for the Asia Art Archive).

Geeta Kapur is a Delhi-based critic and curator. Her essays are widely anthologised and her books include Contemporary Indian Artists (1978); When Was Modernism (2000), and the forthcoming Critic’s Compass: Navigating Practice. 

Read Comments