THE INDEPENDENT VOICE OF THE VISUAL ARTS
by Richard Siegesmund
John Berger (1926-2017) didn’t consider himself an art critic; he was a storyteller. In Berger’s mind, critics made judgments, dispensed ridicule, and praised. In his mind, none of this had anything to do with art. This kind of petty score-keeping and score-settling turned art into a commodity. This was only useful to a capitalist art market eager to turn a buck, and Berger was an unrepentant Marxist to the end.
As a storyteller, he was an award-winning novelist, poet, and playwright. He was a keen commentator on Western art with his essays regularly appearing in the left-leaning New Statesman. Eschewing university study following secondary school, Berger initially pursued a career in drawing and painting, and he eventually taught art at St. Mary’s University, Twickenham.
His fame in popular culture largely stemmed from his 1972 BBC television series, Ways of Seeing, and the book of the same title that followed thereafter. Here he broke radically with the art historical orthodoxy of his time that was intent on establishing a solemn art historical canon.
In the opening to the first program—before the first credits roll—Berger walks up to what appears to be Botticelli’s Venus and Mars at the National Gallery in London, pulls a box cutter out of his pocket and cuts out the female face to vividly illustrate two of his main themes: the dissolution of perception through the decontextualization of image reproduction, and Western art’s primary focus on the objectification of women. Ways of Seeing, now seen as a classic text, remains in print. The full television series is available on YouTube.
For Berger, we close off perception when we stop attending to the materiality of artwork—the stuff of which it is made and the artist’s struggle with that stuff—and replace our sense with the banal skills of recognition or the selfish pleasures of the gaze.
In the case of Botticelli’s Venus and Mars, recognition demands the identification of the symbols in the painting and a recitation of the allegory depicted. For Berger, such activities are intellectual rubbish. Worse, they pose as socially acceptable cover for the male gaze that is cast over a reclining, supplicant Venus and a homoerotic Mars.
Berger’s scream in the night for rethinking perception came at a moment when the canon of western art history was becoming big business. Figures like Ernst Gombrich (The Story of Art, 1950), Sir Kenneth Clark (Civilisation, 1969), and H.W. Jansen (History of Art, 1962) were promoting (and profiting from) a top-down view of art where herds of unwitting undergraduates around the world were corralled into mind-numbing World Art survey courses—each of whom was required to purchase the accompany art historical survey text.
As a committed Marxist seeking social justice, Berger saw this industry as educational abuse. There was no interest in art. The focus was about making money. The herding and corralling continue to the present day.
Instead of the commodification of art (made possible through the mass reproduction of images in print and slide format), Berger maintained that serious art probed pathways out of an exploitive capitalist system. For Berger, artists gave us avenues and perspectives into how we might live fully sensual individual and communal lives.
Berger, who was deeply attached to the 17th century Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza, believed in the embodied mind. Great art touches sense by bringing the viewer into a relationship with the precognitive materialism of the world. Artists help us to see corporeal materiality so that we can be more fully attentive. Art has nothing to do with what we collect and what we own.
An essay that I return to, as it succinctly captures Berger’s viewpoint toward significance in art, is his close critique of a painting by the obscure Turkish artist “Şeker” Ahmed Pasha. Berger acknowledges that the painting could easily be dismissed as the work of a provincial artist who struggled unsuccessfully with the Western conventions of perspective. However, Berger finds in this work an authentic reassembling of the perception of place that, in turn, alters our conception of time. In so doing, the artist offers us a new perspective of what is means to live within the world. For Berger, this is art.
Unfortunately, the art world was moving in the opposite direction of Berger’s interests. Instead of resisting the commercial withering of meaning through the visual equivalency of images, postmodern art actively embraced and celebrated this idea. Critical post-structuralist approaches of postmodernism (as represented for example in the writing of literary theorist Roland Barthes or philosopher Jacques Derrida) held that there was no fundamental materiality to the world. There was no there there.
For post-structuralists, shifting enigmas of signs and symbols are merely constructs, like a kaleidoscope, that continually change meanings. We incessantly construct and perform the world through our own schematic lenses and critical discourse. We spin our worlds through fragmented words.
This view was best expressed through the art journal October and its editors, who included Rosalind Krauss, Douglas Crimp, Benjamin Buchloh, and Hal Foster. The October editorial position also critiqued the art world from a leftist lens. From its perspective, Berger’s efforts reflected a quaint, essentialist realism that was better replaced by more theoretical psychological approaches (such as those championed by philosopher Gilles Deleuze and psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan), which held that through our mental framework we build the parameters for our abilities to see and act.
Although a post-structuralist approach seemingly challenged the economics of the contemporary art world, nevertheless, through its insistence of the relativity of meaning, the aims of art and industry merged, and the financial engine of the art world soared. As Berger feared, art was utterly commodified by capitalism. Berger self-exiled himself to a subsistence peasant farming community in the French Alps where he remained until his death.
Today, postmodernism and post-structuralism are receding. New posts emerge. We are moving away from conceptualizing the human mind and human will as the center of the universe. Human beings are not radical free agents who deconstruct and reconstruct meaning. In its place, we recognize the agency of things that co-habit the world. Humans do not control the universe; we are in relationship to the substances that compose it. This perspective is post-humanist (feminist physicist Karen Barad refers to it as agential realism). Could this be a moment to revisit Berger’s commitment to materialism and his grounding in fully-embodied experience as a negotiation with essential empiricism that resists and plays against human will?
Berger’s relationship to the world reminds us of what criticism could be again. Berger was not interested in art that offered rhetorical opinions. Berger sought to understand how art vitalizes us to live in the contiguity of time’s continuity and context of place. The 2016 documentary film, The Seasons in Quincy: Four Portraits of John Berger, produced a year before his death by his close friend, the actress Tilda Swinton, captures this sensibility.
The deconstructive, reflexive practice of postmodernist theorists can, to some degree, serve as a critical lens for recognizing the forms of power that neo-liberal society insidiously imposes to restrict thought and transform art into a profit system.
But art that only draws attention to these constructions is merely political at best and pontificating at worst. Berger points the way both back and to the future of an art, and art criticism, that begins in experiential encounters with materialism. How artists orchestrate such moments is a task for critics (or, as Berger would have preferred, storytellers) to reveal.
Richard Siegesmund has contributed to the New Art Examiner since 1980. He currently serves as Assistant Director of the Northern Illinois University School of Art and Design. His most recent book is the second edition of Arts-Based Research in Education: Foundations for Practice (Routledge).
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