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On John Berger, 1926–2017


While this website was on holiday hiatus, one of the most brilliant and generous art critics of our era passed away: John Berger, who died at his home outside Paris last weekend at the age of ninety. At the n+1 website Bruce Robbins, a critic and professor of English at Columbia University in New York, remembers Berger’s eclectic Marxism and his “unyielding earnestness.” Read an excerpt below or the full text here.

Berger’s decision in the early ’70s to spend what turned out to be five decades of his life in a small village in the French Alps is easy to misunderstand. He wasn’t seeking a refuge from the world, but the right kind of contact with the world. The film overflows with his charm and energy as a friend and neighbor; there’s none of the solitary artist pose. Peasants were a major reason he came; his son became one. And peasants became essential to his politics.

Lyrical about the man, the film skimps on his politics—something that often happens with efforts to sell a political or philosophical outsider to a mainstream audience. The weird thing is of course that one of the best exemplars of transporting seemingly taboo perspectives into the family living room was Berger himself. In 1972, his BBC show Ways of Seeing suddenly made it clear to viewers and to TV executives alike that it could be tremendously enjoyable to look at art through Marxist eyes. The series spent a still-startling amount of time on landscape as property, and on the sexism of nudes.

No matter what he was looking at, Berger never stopped asking uncomfortable and therefore stimulating questions. One of his most beloved essays is about the disappointment of looking at animals in zoos. Berger prefigured what came to called Cultural Studies, doing it without the jargon (not that jargon isn’t sometimes in order). He did it for fun, for the fun that was waiting there in the beauty, and he did it with existential seriousness. He once said he thought he was seen by others as “indecently intense.” One way of thinking of the uniqueness of his accomplishment is that he wrote almost completely without irony. The particular joy of his work comes directly from this unyielding earnestness, a profoundly difficult thing to pull off.

When Berger’s politicized version of the Don Giovanni story, G., won the Booker Prize, he famously pledged to give half the prize money to the Black Panthers. Less famously, he devoted the other half to the research on migrant workers in Europe that became A Seventh Man, an unclassifiable classic, mixing texts and photographs and blank spaces, that has not always been seen for what it is: an account of what it feels like to the peasants of the world to have been torn out of everything they knew and sent off to work in strange cold places.

Image of John Berger via n+1.