John Berger at home in Quincy in the Haute-Savoie, France, in 2008. Photo by Franck Courtes/Agence VU


Ways of living

John Berger’s ‘Ways of Seeing’ exploded a discipline. But his greatest legacy might be a quieter project of re-enchantment

by Joshua Sperling + BIO

John Berger at home in Quincy in the Haute-Savoie, France, in 2008. Photo by Franck Courtes/Agence VU

At the start of the first TV episode of Ways of Seeing, John Berger takes a scalpel to Botticelli’s Venus and Mars. The opening beat of the programme is the audio of the incision – the blade’s rough abrasion on canvas – before the soundtrack settles into voiceover. ‘This is the first of four programmes,’ Berger says, ‘in which I want to question some of the assumptions usually made about the tradition of European painting. That tradition which was born about 1400, died about 1900.’

Ways of Seeing first aired on Sunday evenings on BBC2 at the start of 1972. It attracted few initial viewers but, through rebroadcasts and word of mouth, the show gathered steam. By the end of 1972, it had gone viral. People in London and New York argued about Berger’s ideas. When Penguin commissioned a paperback adaptation, the first two print runs sold out in months. Regularly assigned in art schools and introductory art history courses, Berger’s project has never really waned in popularity. That first episode now has close to 1.4 million views on YouTube, and the paperback regularly sits atop Amazon’s Media Studies bestseller list.

For decades, Berger’s name has been shorthand for the series, which has been shorthand for a certain style of combative, materialist art criticism. Often presented as a riposte to Sir Kenneth Clark’s TV series Civilisation (1969) – Berger himself spoke of it as a ‘partial, polemical reply’ – the show attacked Clark’s school of connoisseurship ‘with a razor’. Suave, moneyed, knighted at 35, Clark was the embodiment of the high-cultural mandarin: art existed for the pleasures it afforded those refined enough to feel them. Berger was a self-styled outsider: he had run away from boarding school as a teenager, and left England for France in his 30s. Art was best, he said, when it was born of struggle and inspired belief. At its worst, it was little more than a luxury good. The difference extended to the very mode of aesthetic response – appreciation or critique? This is the significance behind the act of vandalism that opens Ways of Seeing. Viewers soon learn that the painting Berger cut was a facsimile, but the metaphor of the scalpel is plain: to question is to dissect. It is to cut past the scrim of beauty, and reveal more fundamental anatomies: capitalism, colonialism, patriarchy, mimetic desire.

It is a move that has only grown in ubiquity ever since. The feminist art historian Griselda Pollock remembers the ‘moment’ of Berger’s appearance – 1972 – as a kind of methodological primal scene: after the show, the humanities began to turn away from connoisseurship toward what Pollock has called the ‘analysis of power and the deconstruction of classed, raced, and gendered meanings’. Ways of Seeing became an urtext of critique, a work that captured young imaginations, and changed the way that people saw and understood the world. Close to 50 years on, Pollock’s description still applies to most of the work done by humanities scholars and, more and more, mainstream cultural journalism too. From the arts and culture pages of The Guardian or The New York Times to the latest hot takes on Twitter, what criticism has come to mean is what Berger pioneered. In an age of open media, the implications are vast. If the internet has made all of us critics, that means we are all now foot soldiers in a culture war: self-armed semioticians and practiced deconstructors of political signification.

As is the case with most viral content, nobody expected Ways of Seeing to travel so widely, least of all its authors. Kept to a tight budget, the show was filmed in a rented electrical goods warehouse in Ealing, a west London suburb. Berger worked on his voiceover at his parents’ apartment on Hallam Street, in the imposing shadow of the BBC’s Broadcasting House. After the series aired, the arrangement of the book was anything but streamlined. Berger worked with his creative partners (Mike Dibb, Richard Hollis and Sven Blomberg) in a manner more closely resembling the bricolage of a zine than the strategic making of a bestseller. It was a principled if madcap route to fame, part of a broader revolutionary mood. Later that same year, on receiving the Booker Prize for his novel G. (1972) – a sexual bildungsroman set in prewar Europe – Berger announced on stage that he was sharing half the prize money with the London-based Black Panthers. Of course, fame can be secretly coveted only for the privilege to cast it off afterwards. But the one-two punch of Ways of Seeing and the Booker scandal were decisive. Taken together, they turned Berger into a star.

Like beauty, provocation can hide as much as it reveals. Time brings new colour to old materials, and what makes Ways of Seeing so enduring might not be the same as what made it so electrically influential when it first appeared. We are now more aware of the fissures in the show, in its slight hesitations and indecisions, and in the hedges to what was otherwise such a freight train of an argument. The pictorial tradition of the female nude, Berger argues throughout the second episode, was not a celebration of humanist virtue but a fantasy of the acquisitive ‘male gaze’ (the term was coined a year later by Laura Mulvey). But then, as if in a footnote, he adds a hushed caveat, noting the ‘few exceptional nudes’ that were expressions of the painter’s love. There are similar equivocations at the end of nearly every episode. What of the masters of the tradition? What of its rebels? What of the mystery – beyond the ideology – of art? What of those anonymous works not held in any museum but exchanged between friends and partners? And what of the most modern art form of all – the art that comes to us on a screen?

In retrospect, Ways of Seeing was not only about painting but also television. More specifically, it was about painting-as-seen-on-television, which is to say it was about the transition from one medium to another, one tradition to another, maybe even one epoch to another. In short, it was about the severing of roots. Just after Berger cuts out the head of Venus from the Botticelli, we see her cropped portrait run through an industrial printer, multiplied ad infinitum and set in motion along the circuits of mass exchange. The movement finds its outward echo in the following shot: the silhouette of a television monitor against a blue screen.

From the oil painting to the printing press to the cathode-ray tube of TV: beyond the simple aggression of a razor, the opening of Ways of Seeing presents a filmic reenactment of the argument of Walter Benjamin’s essay ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ (1936). (One of the chief legacies of the show was helping to launch Benjamin to the front of the critical canon.) Writing during the terrifying onrush of fascism, Benjamin saw the crisis of European liberalism as, in part, a result of the emergence of new media. The advent of photography, the phonograph and other machines of automated replication had produced a more disturbing change in social consciousness than others had recognised. The CliffsNotes version of the essay focuses on Benjamin’s notion of the aura, the idea that reproduction severs artworks from their anchors in space and time, that facsimiles lack something that originals possess. But this was only half of his argument. Benjamin was just as interested in the entire network of mass mediation (as a replacement of art) and the new, seemingly unanchored artform of film. These, he believed, were part of a broader shift that meant nothing less than ‘the shattering of tradition’ and the ‘liquidation of the value of tradition in the cultural heritage’. As new forms of technological culture replaced the old – and the argument will be familiar to anyone who has paid attention in the past several years to discussion of the internet – civilisation moved into a halfway house of mediation, susceptible to new modes of political adventurism and mass behaviour.

Benjamin’s essential concept of remediation has come to denote the process by which an older medium is represented in, or mimicked by, a newer one (as well as the inverse). The yellow sticky notes on your laptop or the painting app on your phone are common examples. Ways of Seeing was itself one of the most ambitious, self-reflexive projects of remediation of the entire postwar period. Building on André Malraux’s concept of a ‘museum without walls’, Berger built a museum of the airwaves. He presented at an often dizzying pace: Botticelli, Leonardo, van Eyck, Bruegel, Rembrandt, Van Gogh, Caravaggio, Goya, Hals (all in the first episode). Berger was bringing painting into what Raymond Williams called ‘an irresponsible flow of images’ characteristic of television. It was an early harbinger of the waterfall scroll of Instagram or Google Images.

Remediation has been theorised by contemporary scholars in relation to adaptation, translation, perspective, realism, transparency, sampling, recyclage and the user interface. For Berger, it was always connected to something more fundamentally human: the experience of migration. What does it mean to be uprooted, removed from an original source, and placed into new surroundings? And what does such an otherwise intimate experience reveal of the creative-destructive engines of modernity?

Berger’s best essays convey a miraculous gratitude that the world comes into view at all

At the start of the 20th century, a number of Central European critics raised these questions with special force. From the Leftist philosopher Georg Lukács (who spoke of the modern era as one of ‘transcendental homelessness’) and his friends Béla Balázs and Karl Mannheim, to the Heidelberg circle around Max Weber, including Ernst Bloch, to Benjamin, Theodor Adorno and the other members of the Frankfurt School, the generation coming of age amid the crises of fin-de-siècle Europe excelled at feeling (and analysing) the disorienting, everyday effects of capitalist progress: alienation, solitude, fragmentation, a sense of spiritual orphaning. (The style also captured the imaginations of many on the Right, including Martin Heidegger and Mircea Eliade.)

Born a generation later, Berger became perhaps the most important critic to extend their intellectual project into the postwar English-speaking world, and then into the postmodern era of high globalisation. He worked within what might be called a ‘warm current’ of the European Left: an anticapitalist humanism less interested in structural analyses of exploitation (though Ways of Seeing had its dose of structuralism) than in ground-level questions of meaning and experience. In a modern world that Weber described as disenchanted, the qualitative virtues of traditional societies had been replaced by a ‘machine mentality’ whose metrics of self-advancement had to be expressed in numerical terms – money, productivity, efficiency. This was part of a larger desire to reduce all of nature to figures and formulae, eliminating the first-hand power of the senses: the visible and the audible, the palpable and the ineffable.

On a formal level, Berger was obsessed by the arts of sight: drawing, painting, photography, cinema. He often wrote about appearances directly, conjuring small physical presences as few others could: the way that a lizard shimmies as it moves, the warmth of grass in the sun, the ‘red of young eyelids shut tight’. His best essays convey a miraculous gratitude that the world comes into view at all. Berger was anything but pedantic. He was friends with academics, including famous ones, but his style was anathema to the learned and world-weary. The renowned literary critic Frank Kermode once wrote to Berger remembering a stay in his ‘peculiar paradise’ in the Vaucluse in southeastern France, so different from the ‘low morale’ and ‘vanity’ of Cambridge.

Ways of Seeing has had its impact on the discipline of art history – as both grenade and leveller – even as Berger remained uninterested in the kinds of questions that art historians tend to pose. He was drawn instead to far more religious themes: longing and exile, encounter and estrangement, leave-taking and return. His greatest legacy might lie in the unique ways in which he combined these two spheres – the visual and the existential – both of which have their roots in evolutionary biology. (Visual areas account for a large portion of the cortical surface of the human brain, while the prefrontal cortex deals in memory and those cognitive processes that help to found a coherent self.) Berger was one of the few modern writers to have trafficked so regularly between the world of ideas and the world of things. As he later reflected, it was perhaps his early work in television, with its voiceover and film track, that helped him to synthesise his love of both words and images, thinking and seeing.

‘The way in which human perception is organised,’ Benjamin wrote, ‘is conditioned not only by nature but by history.’ For Berger, the changes to visuality in the 20th century must be understood in relation to the qualitative dimensions of its historical watersheds. Close to 20 years after Ways of Seeing, he wrote of the advent of cinema in relation to the experience of exile. He saw cinema and exile as intertwined, part of an intimate dialogue between presence and absence. To film anything is to safeguard it for the future, and so to foresee its eventual loss. It is to watch a set of moments pass into a separate realm both inside and outside of time. ‘In the sky of cinema,’ Berger wrote, ‘people learn what they might have been and discover what belongs to them apart from their single lives.’ The century of film was also a century of transport, emigration, disappearance, uprooting. ‘Painting brings home,’ he concluded. ‘The cinema transports elsewhere.’

That distinction emerges as the heart of Ways of Seeing. As a film about painting, it was the hinge on which the programme was built: between locomotion and stillness, sound and silence, a blue screen and canvas. ‘With the invention of the camera everything changed,’ Berger tells us in the first episode. European painting once gathered the visible world into fixed scenes of static permanence. But film meant ‘we could see things that were not there in front of us’. Appearances entered a state of motion and flux. They began to travel across the world. ‘It was no longer so easy to think of appearances always travelling to a single centre.’

‘A single centre.’ This might be another word for a home – that place, as the poet W H Auden put it in ‘Detective Story’ (1937), ‘where the three or four things/that happen to a man do happen’. For Berger, the need for a home was part of human nature, dating back thousands of years, at least to palaeolithic dwellings and the transition from nomadism to agriculture. In an essay first published as ‘A Home Is not a House’ (1983), curiously prompted by Steven Spielberg’s film ET (1982) and its global popularity, Berger considered more archetypal beginnings. The term ‘home’, he admits, has been long taken over by the moralising of conservatives and xenophobes, both representatives of the ruling class, who have worked to hide its more original meaning. He writes:

Originally home meant the centre of the world – not in a geographical but in an ontological sense … home was the place from which the world could be founded … Without a home at the centre of the real, one was not only shelterless, but also lost in non-being, in unreality. Without a home, everything was fragmentation.

Though expressed in straightforward prose, Berger’s essay slaloms through a conceptual minefield, one that has confused (and intimidated) most thinkers on the Left for at least a century. No other baby has been as perpetually thrown out with the bathwater of politics as has the concept of home – perhaps due to its presumed relation to the ‘national question’ or the desire for property. On each of these scores, Berger drew fundamental distinctions. Along with only a handful of postwar critics, most of whom were refugees, he wanted to acknowledge the atavistic pull that an original home can exert. To long for one is not incipient fascism, but a desire perverted by the ideologies of patriotism and patriarchy.

Though aware of the very real contradictions, Berger would have agreed with Edward Said, who wrote in ‘Reflections on Exile’ (1984) of the ‘unhealable rift forced between a human being and a native place, between the self and a true home: its essential sadness can never be surmounted.’ And yet he would have also agreed with Vilém Flusser, the Czech-Brazilian philosopher, who spoke of the migrant not only as a challenge to the native’s self-centredness but as holding the capacity to enlighten. Flusser, who (like Berger) wrote extensively on both photography and emigration, in ‘The Challenge of the Migrant’ (1985) suggested that the migrant should be seen as a ‘vanguard of the future’, an emissary of a new mystery: not the old mystery of a lost homeland but rather ‘the mystery of living together with others’.

The two groups for whom Berger came to advocate, the Zapatistas and the Palestinians, were both stateless

In Berger’s work, the figure of the foreigner represents promise more than threat. This was true in his first novel, A Painter of Our Time (1958), about a Hungarian émigré in London. It was also true for A Seventh Man (1976), his collaborative account of migrant workers in Europe, and his trilogy of peasant fiction, Into Their Labours (1991). In Flusser’s words, the migrant can be ‘both a window through which those who have been left behind may see the world and the mirror in which they may see themselves, even if in distortion’. Much critical thought has examined those distortions. Said reframes the question, asking how we might ‘surmount the loneliness of exile without falling into the encompassing and thumping language of national pride, collective sentiments, group passions?’ At a political moment that has seen the stunning rise of Donald Trump, Narendra Modi, Jair Bolsonaro, Viktor Orbán – the list goes on – this might be the million-dollar question of our time.

Unlike other social theorists, Berger never tried to reason his way through the contradictions of nation-state or the citizen/non-citizen distinction. He preferred instead to disown any affinity at all with state power. The two groups for whom he came to advocate, the Zapatistas and the Palestinians, were both stateless. Perhaps this was a cop-out – but maybe not. In an otherwise sympathetic review of Berger’s From A to X (2008), Ursula K Le Guin pointed to the absence of political complexity in the novel: the allegorical universalism of its revolutionary lovers effectively ‘exonerated [their people] from bigotry and political folly or factionalism’. The charge of sentimentalism was often levelled against his later work.

In 2007, aged 81, Berger published Hold Everything Dear, about the War on Terror and the global migration crisis. In a phone interview with an Australian radio host, he was asked to directly confront the contradiction that immigrants can put pressure on the native poor, making them ‘nervous and even angry’. Berger drew back. ‘I don’t deny the difficulties,’ he said, but he added that the problems were often distorted by the vested interests of the national press, and by cynicism:

You ask me as though I can find a solution. No, I can’t find a solution in theory like that, of course not. The solutions … we’re not really talking about solutions, we’re talking about finding a way to live, to survive, to perhaps discover forms of mutual aid … All that can only happen in practice, in particular situations in the way that people associate or don’t associate in terms of some small project or in defence of some small thing which is in the area where they live. It’s not for somebody talking on the radio abstractly about the world who will find that kind of solution.

The answer reflected Berger’s distrust of theoretical remedies to human problems. Perhaps even more so, it accorded with his respect for practice and social knowledge. He never tried to gain the ear of power. He was more concerned with everyday gestures and decisions: the choices people either make or fail to make in their own lives.

A choice about a way to live presented itself to Berger shortly after he made Ways of Seeing. He was in his late 40s and had achieved an international level of fame. The invitations started coming in. He could have taken a position at a museum or university. He could have entered a world of sinecures and fellowships, residencies and agents, conferences and airports. He turned down almost all of this.

The reasons were historical as well as personal, and might relate, however indirectly, to our own contemporary impasse: our inability to see more than one generation into the future, the dissolving legitimacy of the metropolitan and academic elite, the seeming incapacity to move beyond a politics of negativity and despair. Just as we are hitting the limits of critique as a culture, Berger was hitting them as a writer – and a person. With Ways of Seeing (and his Booker-winning novel G.), he had reached a tipping point that was also a midlife crisis and a fork in the road. ‘I can be only by destroying,’ Lionel Trilling once wrote of a certain modern attitude, ‘I can know myself only by what I shatter.’ But where is there to go when the demolition is complete?

There is a photograph of Berger from the 1973 Frankfurt Book Fair. Taken by Jean Mohr, a lifelong friend, it shows a middle-aged writer, exhausted and detached, lying on the floor as others walk past him in a blur. What was Berger thinking about? What was he longing for? It was at this fair that Berger met a young American, Beverly Bancroft, then an assistant at Penguin Books. Within a year, they were married. Two years later, they had a son. Soon they moved to a small farming village in the foothills of the Alps. The chalet they rented lacked central heating and running water. The outhouse was across the driveway.

The question, he once said, was of ‘continually learning to be embedded in life’

It would be easy to romanticise Berger’s third act as a rural storyteller. Even while haymaking, he was still a renowned writer with famous friends. But it would be just as easy to cynically write it off. Throughout the neoliberal era, most intellectuals have lived in a social world that is urban, cosmopolitan, cutthroat and status-oriented. Berger went someplace very different. He remained politically committed though his conception of the political shifted and enlarged, absorbing a broader sense of history and experience.

The question, he once said, was of ‘continually learning to be embedded in life’. During the 1970s and ’80s, as Ways of Seeing made the rounds in British and American classrooms, Berger was discovering his own need for roots – what Simone Weil called ‘the most important and least recognised need of the human soul’ – even if they were freely chosen and across the English Channel. Embeddedness, in this way, was about the double anchors of community and place. It required, on the one hand, the help of others – not primarily because of their material aid but because ‘they are real and therefore looking at them, being with them, you become real in that moment’ – but it also required an individual openness to the physicality of the world: the seasons, the rising and setting of the sun, the trees and animals and rain.

How this ontology would map onto urban experience is an open question that Berger never fully answered. How it would map onto digital experience is something we have yet to answer. Yet there is in his late work a kernel of something perhaps visionary. At a time when E M Forster’s humanist mantra – only connect – has come to sound like a slogan for an internet provider, Berger’s more numinous, earthly communions might be the most useful. Ways of Seeing remains the way he came to the attention of millions, and the hinge in his life. His long trajectory after the dividing line of Ways of Seeing still has much, maybe even more, to teach us.

In the conversation with the Australian interviewer, Berger felt compelled, if only for a moment, to leave the sphere of ideas. ‘Now I live here,’ he said of the village where he had settled:

I’m looking out of the window, the sky is grey, it’s got to be about 13 degrees … The hay is getting browner and browner, less and less nutritious, so there will be less and less milk this winter when the cows are fed hay because of the snow outside. So I’m sitting here in front of that window, and now, after all those years, I’m sitting at home …
3 December 2019