Selected Essays

by John Berger
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Last Updated on May 11, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2070

In an essay on the sculptor Jacques Lipchitz, written in 1959 when John Berger was at the beginning of the writing life which would result in the production of memorable novels, short stories, screenplays, and striking art criticism, he declared that a serious critic should concern himself with “the art of the last and the next forty years,” the minimum time span for any truly significant alterations in human consciousness to occur. The long range of this prospect indicated the ambitions of a vigorously intellectual person blessed with enduring energy, a steady moral compass, and a persistent interest in the ways in which artistic creation is connected to social justice. It also enabled Berger to produce a series of essays that captured the attention of a trans-Atlantic audience as they appeared and which continue to engage readers through their perception and power.

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The essays selected from various volumes by Geoff Dyer (the author of a critical study of Berger, Ways of Telling, 1986) are, in Dyer’s words, an answer to the question “Which book of Berger’s should I read first?” Since they follow the course of Berger’s thought across more than four decades, and since they are a carefully considered but clearly personal selection of provocative, often argumentative individual pieces, they are not units of a seamless construction. What they provide, in addition to the specific insights and ideas they present, is a kind of map of the mind and heart of a man whose often daunting intelligence is blended with an endearing commitment to a very humane conception of a cultural community and a genuinely spiritual feeling for the most fundamental needs of the human universe.

Right from the start of his ventures into the critical arena, Berger has been explicitly direct about his aims and convictions. His early, consuming interest in art is already apparent in his recollection that during the worst moments of the Nazi air assault on England, he “had a single idea,” to draw “all day long.” Nonetheless, he served in the British armed services from 1944 to 1946. Although he attended art school after the war and worked as an art teacher from 1948 to 1955, his commitment to a program of political activism is equally clear in his response to complaints in 1953 that “far from my dragging politics into art, art has dragged me into politics.” His first collection of essays was published asPermanent Red (1960) in the British Isles, but it was published in the United States as Toward Reality (1962) in a cautious adjustment of what might have seemed a too-inflamatory declaration of an unfashionable position. Berger’s reflections in a preface for the 1979 edition admit that in some ways, “I would be more tolerant today,” but reaffirm his most fundamental position. “On the central issue,” he states, “I would be even more intransigent. I now believe that there is an absolute incompatibility between art and private property. . . . Property must be destroyed before imagination can develop any further.” While conceding that since the mid-1950’s, “conditions have changed,” and “I have changed,” Berger maintains that “most of these generalizations and insights strike me as still valid.” The linkage between artistic expression and political involvment that is the dominant theme and the prevalent strategy for coherence among these essays affords Berger the opportunity to develop an argument of considerably more subtlety, depth, and sophistication than his pronouncements on “the central issue” might suggest.

The essay “That Which Is Held” (1982) opens with the sentence, “I am thinking in front of Giorgione’s Tempest and I want to begin with a quotation from Osip Mandelstam.” This immediate appeal to an audience that is familiar with the painter and the poet mentioned by Berger is characteristic of an approach that assumes a thoughtful, inquisitive response to art as the truest path toward enlightenment and fulfillment for human beings. In the essays chosen from his first books, Berger builds an aesthetic foundation that forms the core of his convictions about what is most enduring in terms of artistic creation and what aspects of humanity are addressed by these concerns. Primary among these is the twenty-page essay, one of the longest, “The Moment of Cubism” (1969) from the book of that title. Berger has been moving toward this summation with essays on British sculptor Henry Moore (1898-1986), Spanish painter Juan Gris (1887-1927), French painter Fernand Léger 1881-1955), Spanish painter and sculptor Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), and French painter Henri Matisse (1869-1954), among others, in essays dating from 1953, offering ideas and insights such as “A drawing is an autobiographical record of one’s discovery of an event—seen, remembered, or imagined,” from “Drawing” (1953), that reveal both the shape of an evolving sensibility and an introduction to the history and highlights of Western art.

The individual essays have not aged any more than their subjects, and to read them in the twenty-first century is as illuminating an experience as it was for their first readers. Berger is not trapped by trends or fads, nor is he the servant of commercial considerations, purposefully resisting what he designates the elitist concept of a museum as a private mansion whose curators are “patronizing, snobbish, and lazy,” driven by a desire to elevate the value of their personal property. Berger juxtaposes this picture of a museum as a modern version of a private chateau with what he calls a “living school” where works of art are seen as “testimony to the process of their own making,” seen “in terms of action rather than achievement.” In essay after essay, Berger demonstrates how this process works, his responses to the works that fascinate him the product of a receptive, open mind that has been tuned by extensive experience in the field and which remains as alert and expectant as it was when he wrote his first essays. In addition, Berger’s writing is a model of clarity and directness, devoid of jargon and cliché, justifying Dyer’s claim that there is a “determination to present complex ideas in the plainest possible language,” although Dyer’s contention might imply a simplistic reduction that underestimates Berger’s ability to capture what poet Robert Frost thought of as “common to experience but uncommon to expression.”

“The Moment of Cubism” sustains the excitement of discovery of the shorter pieces that preceded it, while functioning as a crystallization and summation of the insights that have been accumulating. Following his fundamental strategy, Berger presents a theoretical position, supports it with astute examples, and then proposes some possible consequences of the theoretical as it extends into the future. He sees the advent of Cubism—which he identifies as the period from 1907 to 1914 “when the few great Cubist works were painted”—as particularly significant because “[a]ll modern design, architecture, and town planning seems inconceivable without the example of Cubism,” insisting on the linkage between artistic achievement and human experience. He regards this time as extraordinary since it was “both too optimistic and too revolutionary” to occur again. This is at the heart of his socio-aesthetic credo. He explains that the revolutionary aspect involves a new way of seeing, through which art interpreted reality rather than reproducing it, derogating the traditional idea of “holding up a mirror to nature” as an act of diminution. To show how this happens, how the Cubists “expressed their imitation of the new relation existing between man and nature,” Berger presents in capsule form explanations of the Cubist use of space and the Cubist treatment of form, in each case leading the reader through a concise examination of pictorial space that supports his contention that the Cubists “created the possibility of art revealing processes instead of static entities,” a concept at the root of postmodern literary and cultural criticism. As he puts it in the concluding passages, Cubism “recreated the syntax of art so that it could accommodate modern experience.” Whether a reader would agree with Berger’s pronouncements or not, the argument cannot be dismissed and each element in its presentation similarly offers the kind of intellectual stimulation that a cultural community depends on to remain vital and relevant.

Berger continued to explore individual works and the ways that they contributed to the evolution of his ideas about art and society in About Looking (1980), The White Bird (1985), and Keeping a Rendevous(1992), celebrating relatively unknown individuals whose lives lent something special to their times while continuing to examine aesthetic issues like the growing popularity of photography among art historians or the ways in which people were questioning human primacy in an environment shared among other species. Although it is not immediately apparent solely from a reading of his essays, Berger was at the time of their writing living in a rural region of the French Alps among a population unlike the urban academics to whom his writing seemed directed. From the 1960’s, his life was as shaped by his intimate contact with the landscape and its inhabitants as by his interests in the holdings of the world’s great museums, structures and collections. His Booker Prize-winning novel G. (1972) and his trilogy Into Their LaboursPig Earth (1979), Once in Europa (1987), and Lilac and Flag (1990)—were drawn directly from his contact with people whom he admired for the strength and decency of their lives and for their participation in different kinds of life patterns than those he had known in London, Paris, and New York. His interests were not in the way of judgments but more of an appreciation of other ways of being, often consonant with the recognition that a rich human culture consisted of much more than officially sanctioned masterpieces. The range of his writing during the last decades of the twentieth century continued to cover artists he found interesting—he wrote about painters Gustave Courbet (1819- 1887), Joseph Turner (1775-1851), Georges Rouault (1871-1958), and René Magritte (1898-1967) in About Looking—but he also wrote about Walt Disney, men’s suits, war photography, primitive art, and the dimensions of the natural world, as well as some of his neighbors in the mountains, as in “Francois, Georges, and Amelie: A Requiem in Three Parts.” In addition, Berger wrote about some of the literary figures he regarded as influential, notably James Joyce (1882-1941)—“I first sailed into James Joyce’s Ulysses when I was fourteen years old,” he wrotes—the Marxist art critic Nicos Hadjinicolaou, the Russian poet Vladimir Mayakovsky (1893-1930), and the Italian poet Giacomo Leopardi (1798-1837). In each of these essays, Berger (who in the essay “The White Bird” claimed “I have never thought of writing as a profession.”) has used his own responses and reactions as an entrance and then applied his education and experience to interpret and analyze the works he finds compelling.

Berger’s insistence on the validity of what is meant to be a personal relationship with an author, a painter, or a political figure is a part of his unselfconscious projection of his psyche into the world, a strategy that depends on the establishment of a persona of compatibility that in no way seems like an artificial construct. Unless he is successful in representing himself as a congenial companion, the reader’s resistance or distaste is likely to negate any shared interest between essayist and audience. This is in accord with the convention of the essayist engaged in a kind of conversation with the reader (and with the world beyond), a conversation which might seem like a monologue but which assumes comprehension and a desire on the reader’s part for continuation. The publisher’s claim that Dyer’s selection of essays can function “as a kind of vicarious autobiography” is justified by the emergence of the mind and spirit of the man whose writing has been called “a history of our time, as seen through the prism of art.” One of the ways in which artistic achievement has been measured is through its capacity to endure beyond the moment of its appearance, and even some of the pieces clearly designed as comments on a political event like “The Third Week of August, 1991,” when the Russian Communist regime dissolved, retain an interest beyond their journalistic aspects. Berger’s Selected Essayswere written over the course of four decades, span at least four centuries of human activity, and are likely to be read with enthusiasm for many more decades to come.

Sources for Further Study

Los Angeles Times Book Review, April 28, 2002, p. 3.

The New York Times Book Review 107 (January 13, 2002): 16.

Publishers Weekly 248 (October 29, 2001): 45.

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