Ways of Seeing

Susie Linfield is a contributing writer to Book Review and teaches in the Cultural Reporting and Criticism program at New York University.

Here is an irony: In 1972 John Berger, one of England’s most influential art critics, created a show for the BBC called “Ways of Seeing.” It was a phenomenal success. Meant as a corrective to the genteel great-man theory of art history (think Kenneth Clark’s “Civilisation”), the show introduced the then-radical but now widely accepted idea that our very vision of the world, and our modes of making art, are expressions not just of personality but of power, class and history.

Not surprisingly, the show and its accompanying book spawned two generations of highly politicized art critics. And here is where the irony enters. For the contemporary criticism--didactic, petulant and often entirely incomprehensible--that Berger’s show and books have fostered is the antithesis of his own lucid style and passionately humane substance. Indeed, the difference between Berger and his postmodern children is like that between the Paris Commune and Pol Pot’s Cambodia. Something was lost in translation.

Berger, 75, has had a remarkably prolific career. In addition to his many works of art criticism, he is also a painter, poet, dramatist and screenwriter (most notably of “Jonah Who Will Be 25 in the Year 2000”). He’s a successful fiction writer too: His 1972 novel “G” won the Booker Prize. (A lifelong Marxist, Berger gave half his prize money to a British branch of the Black Panthers.) Born and raised in London, he has lived for decades as a “voluntary exile” in a tiny peasant village in the French Alps.


The book jacket of “Selected Essays” suggests something of Berger’s trajectory. On the front is a large photograph of the author as a young man: handsome, certainly, with a strikingly direct gaze but appearing somewhat startled, as if he is not exactly at home in the world. On the back is an equally large photo of Berger today: still handsome, certainly, but weathered, with a wrinkled forehead, deep bags under his eyes, furrowed brows and a head of tousled white hair. He is squinting, with an expression that implies a wound beyond bewilderment--as if he can’t quite believe, much less comprehend, what he is seeing but that he must. Berger doesn’t look like a man who’s lived an easy life. But he looks as though he’s lived an intensely engaged one.

In Berger’s essays, one thing naturally leads to another; as with George Orwell (who was, fittingly, one of Berger’s first editors), the connections are wonderfully surprising and almost never forced. Meaning unfolds from within. A consideration of 18th century caricatures inspires an analysis of the culture of celebrity, which Berger rightly sees as the antithesis of democracy; a revisit to the Grunewald Altarpiece makes him ponder the left’s defeats in 1968 and the ways in which experience alters perception.

Thinking about commodities, he begins thinking about food, which leads to a class analysis of dinner. He’s interested in the differences between film, painting and literature. He refers often to sexual passion (he seems to have loved deeply if not, of course, without difficulty). He writes about apes, stones and beds. His ideas about photography, along with those of Roland Barthes and Susan Sontag, revolutionized our critical understanding of that medium. Recently, he has been corresponding with Subcomandante Marcos, the Mexican revolutionary (some of these pieces are included in “The Shape of a Pocket”). The wide range of Berger’s interests and the unabashed curiosity with which he pursues them suggest what a free and fearless person might be like.

For the last quarter-century, art criticism has been obsessed with “the gaze"--the ways in which the artist’s regard of his subject supposedly reproduces inequalities of race, class or sex. Vision itself--which is always partial and imperfect (unless you are God)--has been indicted as an agent of oppression. In contrast, Berger likes to look. Indeed, he is fascinated, and moved, by the activity of looking, which he considers a key to our humanity. For Berger, seeing the world is the beginning of understanding it, engaging it and changing it.

And more: His work reminds us that vision is a requisite of love. Here, from “Selected Essays,” is his description of a nude by Frans Hals: “He painted her breasts as if they were entire faces.... One of her knees is painted as if it revealed as much about her reactions as her chin. The result is disconcerting because ... most nudes are as innocent of experience as aims unachieved. And disconcerting ... because of the painter’s total concentration on painting her--her, nobody else and no fantasy of her.”

For Berger, a painting is a process rather than a thing. Every painting tells a story: of the artist’s moving toward and grappling with his subject. (And this is true irrespective of the work’s content and of whether it is representational or abstract.) A painting of an apple does not show us an apple but an apple in the act of being seen. And no painting is ever finished, for we viewers remake the work of art when we approach it; the story continues. In Berger’s world, looking at art may be restorative, but it is never passive; the viewer is a participant, not a sponge. Berger’s work, more than that of any contemporary, reminds us that dialectics is a philosophy of motion, of fluidity, of connection and change; it breathes and lives so that we can too.

Though art is determined in part by historic circumstances, it is also “a potential model of freedom,” Berger insists. Ideology can never explain “the energy flowing through the current. And it is with this energy that the spectator identifies.” (A radical work of art doesn’t tell us what to think; it nurtures our capacity to do so.) He views all dogmas--of left and right--as attempts to suffocate the spontaneity of lived reality. And realism is Berger’s prime value. Of Gustave Courbet he observes, with admiration, “One does not just feel that every scene he painted looked like that but that it was known like that.”

But this realism, it must quickly be added, has no connection to naturalism, mimicry or literalism. In art, it can encompass the expressionism of Van Gogh and the abstraction of Rothko as easily as the crystalline representation of Vermeer. In literature, it would welcome the turbulent lyricism of William Faulkner, James Agee and James Joyce.

Such realism is not a style but a stance: a way of understanding one’s existence as intimately enmeshed with what Berger calls “the production of the world.” It is based on respect for the things--including the histories, individual and collective--that we make. This is the realism, I would argue, of Orwell, who believed that all lies, regardless of context or intent, are counterrevolutionary; of Martin Buber, who understood love not as a private emotion but as a mutual relation; of Primo Levi, who discovered beauty, and an ethic, in the periodic table; of Hannah Arendt, who preferred limited man-made rights to infinite “natural” ones.

Realism is an embrace of the world as it is and as it could be; it can encompass hopes but not illusions, tragedy (which reveals us to ourselves) but not sentimentality (whose aim, always, is to obfuscate). It is creative. It is an exploration and an invitation. It is not heroic, but it requires alertness. It values reason while honoring mystery. It seeks truth not because the truth is happy but because it is the only path to knowledge. Realism is the basis of all principled politics and all good art. Its starting point is the absolute acceptance--without self-pity, resentment or grandiosity--of mortality. It presents the possibility of courage. The opposite of realism is not imagination but evasion and bad faith.

We live in a time of fuzzy thinking: Attitude substitutes for politics, newness is conflated with modernity, precision itself is suspect and mistaken, oddly, for constraint. Berger’s work reestablishes crucial distinctions: between skepticism and cynicism, flexibility and moral relativism, conviction and rigidity, humility and despair.

He is very angry about the ways in which we defile one another and the world: He is one of those rare people who hears the screams. But he hears the music too. Tenderness, and an unflagging interest in the experience of being human, infuse his work. He once described Goya as honest “in the full sense of the word meaning facing the facts and preserving one’s ideals.” What is true for the artist is true for the critic too.


From ‘The Shape of a Pocket’

More and more people go to museums to look at paintings and do not come away disappointed. What fascinates them? To answer: Art, or the history of art, or art appreciation, misses, I believe, the essential.

In art museums we come upon the visible of other periods and it offers us company. We feel less alone in face of what we ourselves see each day appearing and disappearing. So much continues to look the same: teeth, hands, the sun, women’s legs, fish ... in the realm of the visible all epochs coexist and are fraternal, whether separated by centuries or millennia. And when the painted image is not a copy but the result of a dialogue, the painted thing speaks if we listen.