A Smuggling Operation: John Berger’s Theory of Art
By Robert MintoJanuary 2, 2017
Landscapes: John Berger on Art by John Berger
At 90, Berger is harvesting a sudden flowering of praise. It is well deserved. For more than half a century, he has been our greatest art critic — as well as a superior novelist, a poet, and the star and screenwriter of one of the best art documentaries ever made, Ways of Seeing. Most of the writers currently rushing to canonize him, however, avoid dwelling on the heart of Berger’s point of view — his Marxism. No doubt avoiding this disfavored topic makes eulogy easier, but it reminds me of something Berger wrote about Frederick Antal: “the importance of his Marxism tends to be underestimated. In a curious way this is probably done out of respect for him: as though to say ‘He was brilliant despite that — so let’s charitably forget it.’ Yet, in fact, to do this is to deny all that Antal was.” To make such a denial about Berger should no longer be possible after the publication of Landscapes: John Berger on Art.
Landscapes and its companion volume, Portraits: John Berger on Artists (Verso, 2015), are the best summation to date of Berger’s career as a critic. Both volumes were edited by Tom Overton. In Portraits, Overton made selections from decades of essays on the whole historical gamut of art, from the prehistoric cave paintings of Lascaux to the work of 33-year-old Randa Mdah, and organized them chronologically into a history and appraisal of the art of painting. To read it was to be reminded of Berger’s unique virtues: the clarity of his writing, the historical and technical erudition of his insight, and above all his unique focus on each artist’s way of looking. What Landscapes in turn makes clear, through its assemblage of more programmatic pieces — book reviews, manifestos, autobiography — is that Berger is a rigorous thinker with a theory of art. That theory evolved considerably between the 1950s and the 2010s. Yet two threads hold it together with the tenacity of spider silk: a critique of the political economy of art and a sophisticated account of its human value, each rooted in a committed but elastic Marxism.
A Marxist art criticism of any real subtlety has to be elastic, because it must deal with a problem Marx himself diagnosed but failed to solve. Berger puts it like this:
A question which Marx posed but could not answer: If art in the last analysis is a superstructure of an economic base, why does its power to move us endure long after the base has been transformed? Why, asked Marx, do we still look towards Greek art as an ideal? He began to answer the question […] and then broke off the manuscript and was far too occupied ever to return to the question.
Berger takes up the thread where Marx broke off. He is not, of course, the first Marxist to address the question of art, and he is familiar with most of those who tried before him, sorting through and furthering their legacy.
The most famous of Berger’s influences, Walter Benjamin, wrote the essay “Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” from which came most of the ideas in Berger’s documentary, Ways of Seeing. But Landscapes reveals that his most important influence as a practicing art critic was Max Raphael.
Raphael, an undeservedly obscure theorist, located the value of art in the activity of the artist. According to him, an artist performs two operations. On the one hand, the artist turns raw material into artistic material by shaping it to represent an idea or an object; this is true both of Michelangelo shaping a block of marble into David and of Jackson Pollock embodying the rhythms of jazz in drip paintings. On the other, the artist turns his perception into something external and objective, a representation. The work of art is the result of these two transformations, of raw stuff and of subjective perception into an art object. For Raphael, the point of art is these two transformations: they are the artist’s way of “undoing the world of things” and constructing “the world of values.”
So Raphael’s answer to Marx’s problem — why is art enduringly moving even though it merely reflects its social context? — is to say that art doesn’t merely reflect its social context. It does reflect it, because the artist’s material, style, the things they want to represent, even the way they see, are historically conditioned; but it doesn’t merely reflect it, because the transformed material speaks of something deeper and more voluntary. It speaks of humanity’s ability to make its own world, to become the subject and not merely the victim of history. “The function of the work of art,” Berger sums up Raphael, “is to lead us from the work to the process of creation which it contains.”
Anyone familiar with Berger’s own writing will sit up with a shock of recognition. Here is a theory of art directly correlated to his practice of criticism. Berger takes art out of the sanitizing temples where we store it and drops it firmly back onto the easel, in a messy studio, where a sweaty artist bites her lip and stores her way of looking in an object. Over and over again, he asks us to imagine the artist at work. Many have attributed this to his own training as a painter, which might have inspired his fascination with technique, as I, an amateur pianist, am fascinated by the technique of my favorite recording artists. But I think his admiring discussion of Raphael suggests a much deeper reason. If Berger believes that the most important meaning of art is what it shows us of our ability to create the world we want, it turns out that his criticism is connected to his Marxism much more fundamentally than through the borrowing of a few insights from Walter Benjamin.
For Berger, art criticism is a revolutionary practice. It prepares the ground for a new society. In Landscapes, Overton includes a translation by Berger and Anya Rostock of a poem by Bertolt Brecht. It includes this passage:
Yet how to begin? How to show
The living together of men
That it may be understood
And become a world that can be mastered?
How to reveal not only yourselves and others
Floundering in the net
But also make clear how the net of fate
Is knotted and cast,
Cast and knotted by men?
[…] only he who knows that the fate of man is man
Can see his fellow men keenly with accuracy.
How to begin? Berger answers: In art. There we find proof and prophecy of a different world. In another essay, he writes:
We can no longer “use” most paintings today as they were intended to be used: for religious worship, for celebrating the wealth of the wealthy, for immediate political enlightenment, for proving the romantic sublime, and so on. Nevertheless, painting is especially well suited to developing the very faculty of understanding which has rendered its earlier uses obsolete: that is to say, to developing our historical and evolutionary self-consciousness.
This is the promise, the positive function of art. By looking at it, we are, in effect, looking through an artist's eyes, entering into a concretized instance of their gaze. We are looking at a looking. And from within an artist’s looking, we learn about the capacities of our kind and the possibilities of our future: “A classical Greek sculpture increases our awareness of our own potential physical dignity; a Rembrandt of our potential moral courage; a Matisse of our potential sensual awareness.”
At the same time, Berger is of the opinion that the modern history of art is a history of failure. He won’t compromise on this point, and it is undoubtedly the reason for the stiff resistance that he has often met.
In modern times, Berger believes, the art world has hosted a titanic battle between two conceptions of art. One conception declares that art is valuable because it bodies forth the vision of an artist; it is a good in itself just to the degree that it succeeds at this task. This is Berger’s conception, and it is large enough to embrace all the varying and contradictory proclamations and provocations of the successive factions of modern art. The other conception declares that art is valuable because it is expensive — that, fundamentally, art is property:
Since 1848 every artist unready to be a mere paid entertainer has tried to resist the bourgeoisation of his finished work, the transformation of the spiritual value of his work into property value. This regardless of his political opinions as such. […] What Constructivism, Dadaism, Surrealism, and so on, all shared was their opposition to art-as-property and art-as-a-cultural-alibi-for-existing-society. We know the extremes to which they went […] and we see that their resistance was […] ineffective.
In other words, artists, like all other workers, are victims of a capitalism that alienates them from the fruit of their labor. Berger has nothing but scorn for the commercialization of art: “If you could fuck works of art as well as buy them,” he writes, dealers “would be pimps: but, if that were the case, one might assume a kind of love; as it is they dream of money and honour.” Everything about the modern art world is constructed on the assumption that art is precious in proportion to its price. Even among those who profess a genuine love of art, that passion is often tainted by its ideological function:
A love of art has been a useful concept to the European ruling classes for over a century and a half. The love was said to be their own. With it they could claim kinship with the civilisations of the past and the possession of those moral virtues associated with “beauty”. With it they could also dismiss as inartistic and primitive the cultures they were in the process of destroying at home and throughout the world.
Museums, those seemingly democratic institutions for the dissemination of art appreciation, come in for withering critique: “Anybody who is not an expert entering the average museum today is made to feel like a cultural pauper receiving charity.” From a man who has spent so much time in museums, these are harsh words. Everything about our museums’ operations reveal a slavish dedication to the conception of art as property: from the choice of what to show and what to store, to the obsession with provenance. Provenance is an important question for owners of art-as-property, for whom the price of a work of art, which to them is equal to its value, is directly dependent upon its rarity and authenticity. The museum teaches us that we are paupers in two senses: too poor in money to do anything but stand abjectly before this display of wealth, and too poor in taste to grasp the reason these objects are so highly prized. Before museums can even begin to be useful, believes Berger, “it is necessary to see works of art freed from all the mystique which is attached to them as property objects.”
Berger’s opinion of museums reveals something: our greatest art critic for the last half-century has been conducting a smuggling operation. The bulk of his work as a critic has been a plainspoken attempt to enunciate the meaning of works of art — the process of their creation — under the eyes of their guards. From his perspective, the regime of property has an interest in suppressing his work, not just because art has functioned so well as a form of wealth and an ideological tool, but because its real meaning is dangerously emancipating.
Tom Overton and Verso have provided a real service by supplementing the praxis, the well-known criticism, of the increasingly famous John Berger with his theory. All those who love his writing and profess to take him as a teacher owe it to themselves to peruse Landscapes, and to grapple frankly with the discomforting, clear, and urgent message of his work:
[I]t is necessary to make an imaginative effort which runs contrary to the whole contemporary trend of the art world: it is necessary to see works of art freed from all the mystique which is attached to them as property objects. It then becomes possible to see them as testimony to the process of their own making instead of as products; to see them in terms of action instead of finished achievement. The question: what went into the making of this? supersedes the collector’s question of: what is this?
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