Different Ways of Seeing

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Julian Stallabrass reviews the work of John Berger.

There are two books that the Courtauld Institute of Art recommends prospective BA students to read before they begin their studies - Gombrich's Story of Art and Berger's Ways of Seeing. They could hardly be more opposed theoretically and politically. Ways of Seeing is a highly accessible demolition of the bourgeois history of art, which insists that a privileged minority uses that history to justify its existence, and can only do so through consistent mystification. It holds up the assumptions about Beauty, Truth, Genius, Civilisation, Taste and other shibboleths to bracing class and gender analysis. The book helped to form generations of those studying or just appreciating art, and it remains influential.

A season of events, entitled Here Is Where We Meet, devoted to the work of John Berger, is running in London until 18 May, and it celebrates a truly diverse output that was often the result of collaboration. Berger was art critic for the New Statesman from 1952, has written many novels, including A Painter of Our Time (1958) and G, which won the Booker Prize in 1972. He has collaborated with photographers, artists and writers of many kinds, and from the evidence of his own work on display at the exhibition at the National Theatre, he is an accomplished photographer and draughtsman.

Collaboration is the theme of the National Theatre show, which displays some of the original material from which books such as I Send You this Cadmium Red were made. Among this work, Berger's collaboration with photographer Jean Mohr stands out: A Seventh Man was a poetic documentation in words and images of the condition of migrant workers in Europe, seeking to put the reader inside the skin of these figures who were marginalised from much of mainstream society by barriers of culture, language and economics. Berger and Mohr collaborated with their subjects as much as with each other, as is obvious from the intimacy of the results. As with Ways of Seeing, simplicity of expression was insisted on as a political principle, as was keeping the price of the book low, and a concomitant aesthetic: as Jean Mohr puts it, '...it was absolutely essential to avoid too many beautiful images, or give the impression of luxury using colour.' So it is a novelty to see displayed various colour images that Mohr took while working on the book juxtaposed with the familiar monochrome prints. This is in part because it is as if the colours entrapped in those grimy black and white photographs have broken out of prison and, given that this is the 1970s into a floral and psychedelic dance; the contrast of the clothes with the faces and circumstances of those migrants is often telling. The effect is also historical; since the book was published in 1975, such documentary photography has taken a sustained beating, theoretically and economically, and its products now seem antique; equally colour is much cheaper and more widely used than it was, and is no longer redolent of luxury. So the colour prints step out of their history with renewed force into the present.

If parts of the left have treated Berger's work with circumspection, there are two main reasons - his romanticism and his humanism. There are of course good leftist defences for both: of romanticism, as any reader of Walter Benjamin will know, that to look back in time for an ideal may also be a way of looking forward to a time after capitalism's demise; of humanism, that to write of the essentials of the human condition may be a salutary move when a noxious brew of consumer culture and postmodern theory is pushing the notion that there is nothing that cannot be remade from moment to moment. Yet Berger, whose yearning for pre-capitalist community has extended to living in a peasant village in the French Alps for the past 30 years, and whose later work has strayed into areas little touched upon by those bound up in cultural politics (fruit as described by the dead, apparently ahistorical musings on painting and colour), may be thought to have taken things too far.

Berger writes this in his preface to the catalogue of the season: 'I can't tell you what art does and how it does it, but I know that art has often judged judges, pleaded revenge to the innocent and shown to the future what the past has suffered, so that it has never been forgotten. I know too that the powerful fear art, whatever its form, when it does this, and that among the people such art sometimes runs like a rumour and a legend because it makes sense of what life's brutalities cannot, a sense that unites us, for it is inseparable from a justice at last.'

Wandering past the array of sponsors' boards in the National Theatre, or seeing the extraordinary assertion of architectural and cultural power that is the new Museum of Modern Art in New York are reminders that there is plenty of art that the powerful are perfectly comfortable with. It is perhaps the oscillation in the word 'people' that is the difficulty: is it all ordinary people, excluding the powerful and the judges; or simply all people: since even the elite are born, mature, age, reproduce and love colours? When Berger dwells on the former, his message is indeed as dangerous as the art he recommends. When he immerses himself in the latter, his writing is easy to recuperate as part of the rich tapestry of art that is produced under and which implicitly sanctions capitalism, and his romanticism is transformed into a nostalgia for old leftist ideals, firmly buried, the aged propagators of which (Tony Benn and Hans Haacke among them) can now be treated with safe condescension.

Julian Stallabrass lectures at the Courtauld Institute of Art. His new book is Art Incorporated (Oxford University Press £12.99).

Details of the events in Here Is Where We Meet at http://www.johnberger.org/home.htm