I was making my way through Ways of Seeing when I stopped at the end of the third essay and sent a text message to my friend. Within a few minutes he had responded, telling me that he was reading the same essay, at the same time, for a class; he had the same thoughts and was going to get in touch with me. This was not to be the last time this would happen. I worked my way through the rest of the book, finding germs of the theoretical lenses I would be studying in theory-heavy courses outlined with concrete examples. It still guides many things I write about—many of the conversations I have had in the last year were sparked by reading John Berger.
Berger was a multidisciplinary thinker before we used words like “multidisciplinary.” The seventy years of his critical explorations reflected the radical changes in the way we think about art, politics and the act of thinking itself. Berger was, in many ways, responsible for starting the process of consciousness raising many of us needed and still need. His work made us question the preconceptions we brought to analysis in a way that was both serious and playful. I can sum it all up in a single painting by Magritte: The Treachery of Images (Ceci n’est pas un pipe).
The image appears as if it is a pipe; yet as many have said, the viewer cannot take the pipe down and fill it, light it, or smoke it. In the end, it is not a pipe—it is the representation of a pipe. It is in this area of difference—between the thing and its representation—that we find the best of Berger’s work.
The way that of Berger holds most of his influence is bizarre. He is best known for (essentially) a novelization of a television program he presented in the 1970s: Ways of Seeing. The actual program hasn’t been released on video because of copyright issues, so to admit to having seen it is to admit to walking in the grey area of copyright law. The book is broken up between essays and visual (wordless) essays. The two connect together and reinforce one another to the point that they cannot be separated. Seeing image after image reproduced side by side, themes that previously would have required travel around the world to different galleries, close observation, and the persistence of memory in order to connect between point A and Point B, become apparent. Ways of Seeing compresses the journey while preserving a small part of the overall experience. Once these changes are seen, they linger in our consciousness. We can place them in our own world.
I will never forget reading Berger’s essay on the female nude included in Ways of Seeing, particularly the last paragraph, which so many seem to have missed completely:
But the essential way of seeing women, the essential use to which their images are put, has not changed. Women are depicted in a quite different way from men—not because the feminine is different from the masculine—but because the ‘ideal’ spectator is always assumed to be male and the image of the woman is designed to flatter him. If you have any doubt that this is so, make the following experiment. Choose from this book an image of a traditional nude. Transform the woman into a man. Either in your mind’s eye or by drawing on the reproduction. Then notice the violence which that transformation does. Not to the images, but to the assumptions of a likely viewer. (64)
Reading this set all the lights in my mind ablaze. In terms of feminist consciousness, this was the moment in which the pose and figure of women across the history of art shifted for me. Going to an art gallery soon after, I came upon a picture and imagined that it was now a naked man looking at himself in a mirror, with a woman viewing from the bed, or two men: a study in homoerotic narcissism. I turned the youth and a wolf (playing with the wolf? being chased by the wolf? actively attacked by the wolf?) from female to male, and the ambiguity of the image was removed—they were playing, roughhousing—because, my consciousness told me, that is how boys and animals interact. I thought too of my transgender friends and lovers, and the way that we assign meaning based on sexual characteristics that may not always be present in the equation. Eventually, I did not even have to go that far. I could look at faces and paint them androgynously, letting them become bodies that were neither female nor male. I could read a painting leaving these assumptions for later, after the pose was discovered.
Outside of his writing, Berger lived the radical practice he wrote about. Almost every obituary recounted how he had donated half of his winnings from the Booker Prize for his picaresque novel, G., to the London branch of the Black Panther Party and used the remainder to finance a book on migrant workers. This was also the man who translated the poetry of Cesaire and Mahmoud Darwish into English and supported revolutionary struggles for independence throughout the world with the same ease he would describe a work by Picasso. At the time that the world was becoming more industrial, Berger moved to France and lived the life of a farmer (who also happened to be one of the most influential critics in the world). This shift in his life was responsible for a new branch of his writing: Berger wrote about the connection with humans and animals in the same tender way he wrote about depictions of lovers in paintings. He removed the distances between a life of the mind and a life of activity, becoming more aware of the difficulties facing those whose work feeds us in the literal sense.
What I miss most about Berger is the constant appeal to looking, for discovering the unseen connection between images, of parts of a single image. In art history and art criticism, we were taught how to read paintings. Unlike the majority of printed books, there seemed no way to instantly grasp the way a painting should be read. One can start with the whole, or the upper left, or move from the right counter-clockwise. The advice to “show, not tell,” seems to run amok here, and art felt like a puzzle with missing pieces. What was it, I wondered, out loud in a gallery by accident, that these critics had done to understands this meaning behind the artwork? (In other words, what sort of drugs had they taken?) Berger made the process of looking, thinking, discovering, a program I could follow through on because he took the mystery out of looking while retaining the beauty of the discovery.
Berger is best in miniature. The strongest works were the most concentrated, as if they had been boiled down and mixed together on a stove top. He revisits the importance we ascribe to objects, either as artworks, historical markers, or personal reminders of past encounters with other people, other places. An essay about a wooden bird given to him by a friend invites a discussion, not about the bird, but about exile, craftsmanship, and a disappearing mode of life. Berger returned to vision again in his short work, Cataract, exploring the way the anatomy of the ocular device impacts the process of vision and thought. Recovering from cataract operations in both eyes, he wrote about the radical shift in clarity—first in one eye, then in the other—that made colors intense again. As he aged, he had become a critic operating in a diminished capacity for some time as things began to come in clearly. Now it seemed as though he was entering a second wind in his late 80s. And so it seemed for the rest of the man and his reputation: Verso had just put out two large collections of his art criticism, a documentary, The Seasons in Quincy, had just been released at film festivals, and it seemed as though the world was turning its vision back to John Berger. Even with this productivity, it was clear that he was slowing down. His death was not unexpected. Still, no one I knew was ready for it.
I think of the way in which so much about Berger is contained in the physical world still. He seems like a man of the 19th century, still working on crisp paper in a digital age. I wonder how he would investigate the new trend of the 360 degree film footage, meant to be viewed on a mobile device, based around the idea of being there without being there. So many of the questions he raised about our critical engagement with images remain unanswered: How do we see the world around us? How do we process what we see? How do we distinguish between the representation and the real? In response, the gentleness of John Berger’s voice keeps asking us: Look.
Did you enjoy this article? Consider subscribing to TERSE. for as little as $1 a month: https://www.patreon.com/TERSE