Essays

John Berger’s Rare Art Criticism

Berger’s art criticism succeeds because of its tangibility — it is grounded in human experience, historical events, and the physical artworks.

The author’s copy of John Berger’s Selected Essays, edited by Geoff Dyer (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

“Reality is not a given: it has to be continually sought out, held — I am tempted to say salvaged,” John Berger writes in his 1983 essay “The Production of the World.” Berger, the art critic and author who died yesterday at age 90, believed reality was obscured by a “screen of clichés,” controlled by mainstream culture and those in power. For him, good art brought reality back into focus, and in that sense could be revolutionary. The job of the art critic was to distill and understand how and why an artist accomplished this, and why her work resonates.

In 2017, reality seems to be quickly slipping from our grasp — in my lifetime, it seems, more than ever. Following the election of Donald Trump, Paul Holdengräber interviewed John Berger, who gave the following advice: “The less hot air you make and the more tangible you are, the better chance you have at this moment.”

Berger’s art criticism succeeds, I think, because of its tangibility — it is grounded in human experience, specific historical events, and always the physical marks on the artworks. In art writing, these qualities are rare, as enough of it panders to an art market which has given every indication of carrying on with business as usual under Trump. However, the dearth of art criticism, which is a relatively nascent form in itself, is not a new problem. In 1957, Berger wrote an extensive article for the Universities & Left Review outlining the various shortcomings of Britain’s art critics and how they could improve their craft. Titled “Wanted — Critics,” the article condemns the still-common tendency for writers to rely on description and technical (or straight-up nonsensical) language. The result is that too many art writers avoid saying much at all.

At graduate school, I was introduced to Berger’s larger body of work, besides his seminal book and TV series Ways of Seeing. He has since been among the critics who’ve kept me company, whose words have always seemed worth revisiting, referencing, and arguing with. Berger’s criticism is by no means perfect; his focus, like the art history most of us are taught, is overwhelmingly Western and male. But it is his approach that marked me, his uncommon ability to dive into the sensory details of an artwork and resurface with a politicized argument that applies far beyond the work itself. Writers, especially in art, tend to choose politics or aesthetics. Berger made no such distinction.

I recently spoke with a group of college art journal students, and when asked to share reading material, I brought John Berger. I wanted to encourage them to do what I’ve been striving to do myself: write what I’m actually thinking, and with feeling. To let go of fear and be direct.

Berger likes to ground his essays in a question. He asks of the Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer, “What was it that he wanted to say in the stillness of his rooms which the light fills like water a tank?” And of the French Post-Impressionist Pierre Bonnard, “What was his color for?” Berger’s questions, while simply put, are not obvious. He often answers them by inhabiting the artist’s perspective, tracing back to her initial gestures, “invisible to us but imaginable,” like Rembrandt looking in the mirror while painting himself. Or, sometimes, Berger conjures the moments that inspired an artist to create, like JMW Turner observing the froth building in the sinks of his father’s barbershop, manifesting later as painted, violent waves. These accounts have not been verified, but that didn’t make them any less true for Berger.

His keen interest in the process of making art, and the artist’s commitment to sharing a new way of looking at the world, was informed by Marxism. This is especially clear in the first essay I quoted by him, “The Production of the World,” where he finds reality “confirmed” in Vincent van Gogh’s paintings. For Berger, they “imitate the active existence — the labor of being — of what they depict.” “When he painted a road,” he confidently speculates of van Gogh, “the roadmakers were there in his imagination.” The artist, in his “endless yearning for reality,” is at work to produce and communicate it.

Berger, who started off as an artist himself, was familiar with the labor of art. In an essay about drawing his father in his coffin, he describes how each successive line on the page carries with it its own moment in time. A drawing is a summary of acts of looking, of being with your subject. For Berger, the portrait offered “a door through which moments of a life” — his father’s — “could enter.” It transferred his father’s being more than any photograph or material object could.

Berger’s art criticism, for me, functions almost as another mark on the artwork, imbuing more life and memory into its porous surface. Art, with Berger, is not an escape, but brings us back to earth, to what we love and why. Because good artists take the time to scrutinize the world around them. And right now, that’s the best advice we can get.

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