John Berger Dies: Five Ways He Changed The Way We Think About Art

John Berger
From “Seasons Of Quincy”. 2016. Dir. Tilda Swinton


John Berger, one of the most celebrated art critics of the 20th century, died yesterday aged 90 at his home in Antony, Paris. The radical thinker, writer, screenwriter and novelist came to general fame with his 1972 BBC TV series “Ways Of Seeing.” Made as a rebuttal to Kenneth Clarke’s “Civilisation”, it beamed the art world into people’s living rooms. Andrew Marr has the highest praise for his style, stating that: “He describes art and culture with a lucidity that brings to mind only George Orwell”. In honour of his life, we have collected five ways he has changed the way we think about art.

The Democratisation Of Criticism

His spare, unadorned style, coupled with a unique ability to make so-called complex concepts simple and accessible, made Berger a key proponent of the idea that art should be for all. He refused to see much distinction between the old-school high/low dichotomy that was previously used to wall off the more patrician arts from the masses. Instead, he used the pauper’s medium — television — in order to spread his message.


“The strange power of art is sometimes it can show that what people have in common is more urgent than what differentiates them.”


The mere fact that a TV series such as “Ways Of Seeing” could be on BBC 2 during primetime hours, and not on a more obscure channel, shows the difference between art culture in the 70s and today. With the mere price of art school so much higher these days, the ability for poorer people to go to art school has been diminished. The 70s, before the rise of neoliberalism, represented a radical time where knowledge wasn’t seen so much in terms of capitalist gain, but in terms of how it can be used to change the fabric of the world around you. With education, especially in the UK of John Berger, seen now in terms of economics and careerism, his work reminds us that art criticism should be for everyone. Not only for the highest bidder.


Seeing Art Appreciation As Based Upon Our Perception

Rejecting the dictum of “art for art’s sake,” John Berger believed that one could never see the same picture the same way twice. As he tells The Observer: “The second time I saw the Grünewald altarpiece was after a terrorist attack – it was the same painting yet I saw it differently.” He argued that not only do we observe a painting or a photograph, but also observe ourselves observing. In the process we filter our consumption through our own experience and emotions. He made art exciting again by showing the common man that he too, with his personal knowledge, was also a critic, countering Kenneth Clarke’s patronising “stick-in-the-mud” attitude as revealed during “Civilisation”


“The second time I saw the Grünewald altarpiece was after a terrorist attack – it was the same painting yet I saw it differently.”


Additionally, Berger was a firm opponent of authoritarianism in any form, and would implore his readers and viewers not to take everything he said at face value. Rather, he asked them to question their own assumptions and to form their opinions only after much scrutiny. Thus, his democratic form of criticism was not merely about expressing personal opinions. For him it was a constant process of revaluation in relation to a constantly unfolding world.


The Takedown Of The Nude

Episode 2 of “Ways Of Seeing” starts with the famous line: “Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at.” Three years before film critic Laura Mulvey defined the male gaze as the lens through which most of art could be seen, John Berger had already criticised the nude. To him, the nude, which was hitherto revered as one of the finest forms in painting, was in fact limiting in the way that it did not show female desire inasmuch as it showed women as the objects of male desireHis radicalism called for a new form of art, in which female pleasure would be explored in its own terms. Coming during the sexual revolution of the 1970s, his critique of the nude could be seen as one of the key intersections between politics and culture.


“Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at.”


What made this episode so refreshing was, instead of speaking entirely on behalf of another gender — in what is now known as “mansplaining” — he invited a group of women on to his show to discuss how they felt about the nude and how it made them feel. By including differing perspectives he himself could only express in bad faith, he revealed himself to be a feminist before Ryan Gosling made it trendy.


Making Marxist Criticism Go Mainstream

John Berger, in what would be considered career suicide in 2016, was a self-declared Marxist his entire life. The first episode of “Ways Of Seeing” was based upon the teachings of Walter Benjamin and his “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”. Going one step further, he said that, because of the constant reproduction of famous artworks on television, postcards, etc, they have subsequently “become ephemeral, ubiquitous, insubstantial, available, valueless, free.” By reducing the value of art to a commodity, Berger implores the viewer to see the context with which it is made, and the subsequent power relations that it reveals.


“The poverty of our century is unlike that of any other. It is not, as poverty was before, the result of natural scarcity, but of a set of priorities imposed upon the rest of the world by the rich.”


Yet his Marxist criticism wasn’t stereotypically rigid, and the furthest thing from academic. Rather, it reflected a certain empathy with the world around him, stretching into all boundaries of thinking. This makes him one of the most accessible people to explore when introducing yourself to the concepts of the far-left.


Aligning Aestheticism With Morality

More than any other renowned art critic, John Berger was keen to highlight how one’s appreciation of aesthetics need not be divorced from morality. Rather for him, it could inform it. Controversially, when he wrote for The New Statesman, he was highly critical of Abstract Expressionists such as Jackson Pollock, writing that his work did nothing to “see or think beyond the decadence of the culture to which he belongs.” Nevertheless, according to Andrew Marr, this steadfast dedication to this way of thinking made him the strongest critic in his field. “There is nobody else alive I know of who can bring together so effectively the sensitivity of an artist’s eye and a broad, muscular understanding of human history,” Marr said.


“In the modern world, in which thousands of people are dying every hour as a consequence of politics, no writing anywhere can begin to be credible unless it is informed by political awareness and principles.”


This moral approach to criticism affected how he conducted his life. Winning the Booker Prize for his postmodern novel G., he took the opportunity to criticise its beneficiaries’ colonial roots by donating half of the prize money to the Black Panthers. He also collaborated on a photography book entitled The Seventh Man with Jean Mohr which looked at migrant workers across Europe and functioned both as art and as social criticism. His tender words in the essay “The White Bird” seem as relevant as ever, discussing our position “in a world of suffering in which evil is rampant, a world whose events do not confirm our Being, a world that has to be resisted. It is in this situation that the aesthetic moment offers hope. That we find a crystal or a poppy beautiful means that we are less alone, that we are more deeply inserted into existence than the course of a single life would lead us to believe . . .” It is with these words and writings, that we should honour his resolute belief for a better future for us all.




Michelle Jezierski
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