Monday, February 20, 2023

Redrawing the maps with John Berger

John Berger's Landscapes is a collection of his essays from 1954 to 2015, ranging in subject from basic definitions of art to Marxist readings of the news of the day. Berger, a Marxist writer/critic/artist, always saw art as part of the social fabric of the world, and always saw the social fabric of the world in political/historical terms, a struggle over the the means of survival. It is little wonder that Landscapes is published by my lefter-than-you friends at Verso.

The artist chooses his material--stone, glass, pigment, or a mixture of several. He then chooses a way of working it--smoothly, roughly, in order to preserve its own character, in order to destroy or transcend it. These choices are to a large measure historically conditioned. By working his material so that it represents ideas or an object, or both, the artist transforms raw material into 'artistic' material. What is represented is materialized in the worked, raw material; whereas the worked raw material acquires an immaterial character through its representations and the unnatural unity which connects and binds these representations together. 'Artistic' material, so defined, a substance half physical and half spiritual, is an ingredient of the material of figuration.

A further ingredient derives from the means of representation. These are color, line and light-and-shade. Perceived in nature, these qualities are merely the stuff of sensation--undifferentiated from one another and arbitrarily mixed. The artist, in order to replace contingency by necessity, first separates the qualities and then combines them around a central idea or feeling which determines all their relations.


When a painter is working he is aware of the means which are available to him--these include his materials, the style he inherits, the conventions he must obey, his prescribed or freely chosen subject matter--as constituting both an opportunity and a restraint. By working and using the opportunity he becomes conscious of some of its limits. These limits challenge him, at either an artisanal, a magical or an imaginative level. He pushes against one or several of them. According to his character and historical situation, the result of his pushing varies from a barely discernible variation of a convention--changing no more than the individual voice of a singer changes a melody--to a fully original discovery, a breakthrough. Every painter from paleolithic times onwards has experienced this will to push.

In many ways, these passages are a lot like Ruskin's preliminary statements about art in Modern Painters, but I do not think that I've ever seen so clearly expressed the idea that art is unnatural, that an artist creates something artificial, and is not presenting nature, no matter the subject matter of the work of art. I am also struck by how well Berger's comments about the visual arts map to the art of writing fiction. No doubt this is due to Berger's interest in storytelling.

Contrary to what is usually said, peasants are interested in the world beyond the village. Yet it is rare for a peasant to remain a peasant and be able to move. He has no choice of locality. His place was given at the very moment of his conception And so if he considers his village the center of the world, it is not so much a question of parochialism as a phenomenological truth. His world has a center (mine does not). He believes that what happens in the village is typical of human experience. This belief is only naive if one interprets it in technological or organizational terms. He interprets it in terms of the species man. What fascinates him is the typology of human characters in all their variations, and the common destiny of birth and death, shared by all. Thus the foreground of the village's living portrait of itself is extremely specific, whilst the background consists of the most open, general, and never entirely answerable questions.

While I was typing up this passage, I thought about Chekhov, and how Berger's conception of a peasant could well apply to Chekhov's way of representing life. Chekhov considered himself a peasant, even when he was famous and well-off financially, living in an estate with servants and dogs.

For a long time it was thought that art was the imitation and celebration of nature. The confusion arose because the concept of nature itself was a projection of the desired. Now that we have cleansed our view of nature, we see that art is an expression of our sense of the inadequacy of the given--which we are not obligated to accept with gratitude. Art mediates between our good fortune and our disappointment. Sometimes it mounts to a pitch of horror. Sometimes it gives permanent value and meaning to the ephemeral. Sometimes it describes the desired. Thus art, however free or anarchic its mode of expression, is always a plea for greater control and and example, within the artificial limits of a 'medium,' of the advantages of such control. Theories about the artist's inspiration are all projections back on to the artist of the effect which his work has upon us.

I'm with Berger when he says, as here, that the Romantic movement (Goethe, Schiller, and that lot) projected themselves across the face of nature, and claimed that nature only mattered when it struck awe into the heart of a Schiller or a Goethe. This is all pride, empty and destructive, the same poison filling the veins of our Mister Emerson. But Berger falls into a similar error himself when he claims that art is always an expression of how we would make the world into a different place if we could, that art is still (as claimed by the Romantics) a weapon against life, a means of control. To control one's materials and technique is not the same as having a vision of controlling the world. I like an essayist against whom I can have an argument. I like Berger, but he sometimes forgets about the joy of creation, of pure aesthetics, of puzzle-making and puzzle-solving. He forgets that art is a process, not a product. He admits elsewhere that he too often views the world in materialistic terms, but his wish to sometimes make art serve utilitarian ends can annoy me. Sometimes he seems to be making an aesthetic argument, swinging back into Ruskin territory:

The largest part of the international exhibition of the Venice Biennale is organized by an Italian committee. This year (1958) this committee has been much criticized for its very obvious bias towards abstract art, and has been accused of provincialism. Lionello Venturi, the art historian and grand old man of Italian criticism, has leapt to its defense by stating that the bests artists of the last sixty years have been abstract, and that anyway the pavilions organized by other countries show the same bias--the implication being that they can't all be wrong. But the truth is that they can be and are. The satirists are justified in calling this Biennale The Banale.

Ha ha, good one, John. But he goes on to say:

It is not--and never has been--a question of all abstract art being fundamentally opposed to figurative art. No student of twentieth century European culture can reasonably deny that certain abstract artists have contributed to the development of painting, sculpture and architecture. The division now is between those artists who have a sense of responsibility and those who have not; or, to put it another way, between those artists whose view of life can sustain a minimum faith in the value of human exchange, and those whom alienation has made pathological. Abstract art has long since ceased to be an affair of pure 'aesthetics.' 

I'm not sure, even now in 2023, that the abstract-versus-figurative conflict is no longer about aesthetics for many artists. I'm willing to believe that curators and museum boards and auction houses conflate style and subject with social postures. We see this all the time. But I am not convinced that a painter is drawn to a certain method because of the sorts of socioeconomic forces Berger claims. Perhaps he is right, because I tend to view all art as having been produced more or less simultaneously, and I'm unable to situate either individual artists or art movements within their historical/social frames, which inability has the result--largely invisible to me--of draining a good deal of the life force from the art I'm viewing. Knowing nothing of when and where and by whom a work was produced, I can do nothing but enjoy (or not) the surface of the work, and maybe compare it to the surfaces of other works I've seen. Any meaning I claim for the work is likely to be an expression of my own limits and prejudices. These limits and prejudices, and the overcoming of them, are one reason I read Berger.

Speaking of curators, I will leave you with an amusing bit of snark, from Berger's 1968 essay "The Historical Function of the Museum."

The art museum curators of the world (with perhaps three or four exceptions) are simply not with us. Inside their museums they live in little chateaux or, if their interests are contemporary, in Guggenheim fortresses. We, the public, have our hours of admission and are accepted as a diurnal necessity: but no curator dreams of considering that his work actually begins with us.

Curators worry about heating, the colors of their walls, hanging arrangements, the provenances of their works, and visitors of honor. Those concerned with contemporary art worry about whether they are striking the right balance between discretion and valor.

Individuals vary, but as a professional group their character is patronizing, snobbish and lazy. These qualities are, I believe, the result of a continuous fantasy in which to a greater or lesser degree they all indulge. The fantasy weaves round the notion that they have been asked to accept as a grave civic responsibility the prestige accruing from the ownership of the works under their roof.


  1. The Banale!

    On that little matter of artistic argument, and the state of things, here's Jed Perl (from a Boyers interview in Salmagundi):   A decade or two ago it may have been difficult for people not immediately involved with the art world – I’m talking about cultivated, sophisticated people — to grasp just how rudderless and corrupt it had become. A few weeks ago I was talking to an editor at 60 Minutes; for a long time they’ve been talking about doing a feature on Jeff Koons. He asked me many questions about Koons’s place in the art world, his critical reputation, and so forth. Finally he wanted to know what I really thought about Koons. I didn’t know what to say – because artistically speaking I don’t think anything of him. But then I said, “To people I know the spectacle of a Koons retrospective taking over the Whitney Museum is as hard to grasp as the spectacle of Trump in the White House.” The 60 Minutes editor got it. Our new Gilded Age – which has now distorted publishing, education, and almost every other aspect of the culture – first attacked the art world, no doubt because the relationship between culture and money is front-and-center there, although by now the corporatization of publishing reveals parallel problems in the literary world. The problem in the art world isn’t with Dadaists or neo-Dadaists or postmodernists or anti-modernists. The problem is that the so-called Dadaists don’t know anything about Dadaism and the anti-modernists don’t know what modernism is or was. My point in “Laissez-Faire Aesthetics” is that there are no longer any arguments about art – because to argue involves there being something that you’re arguing for (or against).

    I've had a number of painters as correspondents and friends, and I've always thought that conversations about visual arts (narrative or not) translate in a very interesting way across the image-to-word gap and into thoughts about writing. I dare say I've had more conversations about making paintings that made me think than conversations about poems and stories.

  2. "artistically speaking I don’t think anything of him" Haha! I know the feeling. The Seattle Art Museum has a Koons, a hideous thing that I'm always tempted to push off its plinth. Koons output is a running essay of Jeff Koons. I do not think he's making art at all; I think he's mocking art and selling an attitude of faux ironic smugness. He accessorizes ennui, and nothing more.

    I have always found that visual artists and musicians (composers mostly) tend to think about creativity and making in a way that's immediately recognizable to me. A lot of novelists seem to try hard to observe themselves more attentively than they observe the thing they're working on. Kids these days.