A Painter of Our Time Essay - Critical Essays

John Berger

Critical Context

This apparently pessimistic conclusion leaves the novelist—Berger himself—in an awkward bind. Doubtless something like the impasse sketched here was what moved Berger to leave London, giving up his own career as a prominent art critic a decade after the publication of A Painter of Our Time, and to relocate to a peasant village in southeastern France to work on the land and write about the experiences of the inhabitants in an effectively precapitalist society. Yet Berger’s own subsequent career is not, like Lavin’s, simply a lost story. As just observed, Berger has continued to write, and in this he does not resemble the protagonist of the novel, who entirely repudiates his career as an artist. The forms of Berger’s subsequent prose writings are varied and, it can be argued, of uneven quality. What remains undiminished, however, is Berger’s commitment to a practice of revolutionary art, precisely the practice that A Painter of Our Time would seem to reject as an authentic possibility anywhere this side of the revolutionary divide. To the extent that the novel forces the reader to think this problematic (that is, the role of art in hastening the event of social revolution), it is itself, in its own way, a revolutionary act against the still-dominant ideology of art in capitalist society as the embodiment of timeless human truths and values. Whether A Painter of Our Time will prove politically efficacious can probably not yet be decided. It is by no means certain whether the “time” referred to in the title is that of the author; “our time” could as well be the utopian future toward which Lavin’s final painting, The Games, gestures.