Author Topic: John Berger  (Read 676 times)

John Berger
« on: October 29, 2018, 03:41:46 PM »

Pinger's idea of pairing books together made me think of a couple of books by John Berger. His 1980 book “Success and Failure in Picasso” is a fair enough piece of art criticism. In talking about how Picasso's work became spoilt through his fame and his reputation it ends up being as much a review of the man as of his work: Picasso couldn't create vital work anymore because he ended up living in a bubble, seperated from the outside world, surrounded by sycophants and play-acting the role of “genius”.
It's not an essential book by any means, but earlier, in 1967, Berger had used the same format, the reviewing of  a life, and done something great with it: his book “A Fortunate Man”. An portrait of a  doctor working in a rural GP clinic, it's a book length appraisal of an ordinary person's life, something I've never seen before. Can anyone think of anything similar, a non-fiction book about someone who isn't a major public figure? Berger reviews Dr Sassall in the same manner in which he reviews Picasso in the other book, and writes brilliantly about things like the power dynamics between Sassall and his patients, the isolation of a country magic, and the role something like ritual magic plays in the life of a working GP.

What do other people think of Berger?

Re: John Berger
« Reply #1 on: November 01, 2018, 01:01:46 PM »
I’ve read a few of his and loved them all (Ways of Seeing, A Seventh Man, Confabulations). I have A Fortunate Man on my shelf and will be getting around to it soon, particularly after your interesting post above. He had such great insight into the effects of broad socio-economic phenomena on the inner life of the individual which I think is really important for understanding ourselves and our world but rarely tackled with his skill and vision. Ways of Seeing made art interesting to me and I still recommend it to anyone put off by The Art World and all its pretensions. I like that he wrote with huge intelligence but for everyone, always wanting to invite and not intimidate the reader. I haven’t read any of his fiction yet but would be interested to hear how others find it. In summary top lad 10/10

manticore

  • 'nut with really wacky opinions'
Re: John Berger
« Reply #2 on: November 01, 2018, 05:08:16 PM »
Ways of Seeing is interesting and is actually something of an  improvement on Walter Benjamin's awful and ludicrously influential 'Mechanical Reproduction' essay it was inspired by, though it inherits some of its flaws. It had quite an influence on the way I looked at art, but it also needs some corrective.

I would strongly suggest anyone influenced by Ways of Seeing to also read the correspondence between Adorno and Benjamin on his essay, and also Robert Hullot-Kentor's piece about it, which can be found on page 136 here (or, better, buy his book):

https://thecharnelhouse.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/09/Robert-Hullot-Kentor-Things-beyond-Resemblance-Collected-Essays-on-Theodor-W.-Adorno.pdf

Twit 2

  • Cheers, fuckface
Re: John Berger
« Reply #3 on: November 01, 2018, 06:39:37 PM »
Why do you think TWOAITAOMR is a bad essay? Was definitely a big deal on my degree, but that was long enough ago now that I wouldn’t be confident enough in defending it. I remember at the time agreeing it was an insightful and prophetic piece of writing, though.

Did you do a humanities degree btw? I’m often quite intrigued by your position on these kinds of things.

manticore

  • 'nut with really wacky opinions'
Re: John Berger
« Reply #4 on: November 01, 2018, 08:46:00 PM »
It would take an essay to unpick the mess of contradictions that is Benjamin's essay, so I can only recommend the Hullot-Kentor piece mentioned above, which does it beautifully.

My background is in sociology, I'm not proud of it, but I was a fool and accepted the advice of the people who warned off me philosophy as an 18 year old. Still I found Adorno and Benjamin through studying sociology which led me down various paths to Beckett and other people who have helped me think better.

I would never normally recommend a television series above a book, but  the book Ways of Seeing was actually an adaptation of the series, which was quite exceptional for its time, and the BBC would never consider allowing something like that to be made now. It's all on youtube:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0pDE4VX_9Kk&t=308s

Pingers

  • With the ill behaviour
Re: John Berger
« Reply #5 on: November 01, 2018, 09:08:10 PM »
A great recommendation, A Fortunate Man is now on my list. I don't have nearly enough time to read but hopefully can persuade my book group to go for it.

Re: John Berger
« Reply #6 on: November 01, 2018, 09:19:49 PM »
I would strongly suggest anyone influenced by Ways of Seeing to also read the correspondence between Adorno and Benjamin on his essay, and also Robert Hullot-Kentor's piece about it, which can be found on page 136 here (or, better, buy his book):

https://thecharnelhouse.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/09/Robert-Hullot-Kentor-Things-beyond-Resemblance-Collected-Essays-on-Theodor-W.-Adorno.pdf

Cheers Manticore! This is brilliant.
Quote
Or, consider Benjamin’s thesis that movies are a simultaneous collective experience. If so, why do two elbows converge with
electric affront on a single armrest? And what then explains—when finally the celluloid loops out—that special display of dexterity as all
succeed at piling untouched through the narrows of the flung double doors?

I always found the essay strange, as I myself didn't recognise the qualities in cinema or photography he attributed to them.

Howj Begg

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  • They raised a beetroot in the air...
Re: John Berger
« Reply #7 on: November 02, 2018, 03:17:08 AM »
It would take an essay to unpick the mess of contradictions that is Benjamin's essay, so I can only recommend the Hullot-Kentor piece mentioned above, which does it beautifully.

My background is in sociology, I'm not proud of it, but I was a fool and accepted the advice of the people who warned off me philosophy as an 18 year old. Still I found Adorno and Benjamin through studying sociology which led me down various paths to Beckett and other people who have helped me think better.

I would never normally recommend a television series above a book, but  the book Ways of Seeing was actually an adaptation of the series, which was quite exceptional for its time, and the BBC would never consider allowing something like that to be made now. It's all on youtube:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0pDE4VX_9Kk&t=308s

Thanks for both these links. I'm going through Ways of Seeing properly for the first time, realised I never watched it in full.
I like Benjamin a lot, so im interested to see what the objections to that great essay are.

I have Berger's selected essays, and I started it last year. When I have more time I will get back to it...

manticore

  • 'nut with really wacky opinions'
Re: John Berger
« Reply #8 on: November 02, 2018, 03:52:15 PM »
Luckily The Ways of Seeing TV series was regularly re-broadcast in the 70s, on the Open University IIRC, which was how I got to see it. It's fascinating to watch it today and see how Berger makes his arguments in such an understated way, with a minimum of gimmicks and distractions, and it's completely absorbing.

It was unusual even for its time, and the fact that the BBC broadcast what was essentially a critique of a previous, and very prestigious BBC series, Civilisation, is particularly remarkable. I don't know if there's been anything comparable since.

Twit 2

  • Cheers, fuckface
Re: John Berger
« Reply #9 on: November 03, 2018, 01:22:01 AM »
That Hullot-Kentor essay is great. Reminds me of Charles Rosen, whose erudition mixed with bitchiness is similarly entertaining (I imagine the former’s take down of Jameson might resemble the latter’s of Lawrence Kramer).

Re: John Berger
« Reply #10 on: November 03, 2018, 03:16:08 AM »
Just watched the first episode of Ways of Seeing.
 
For almost everybody but a minority of specialists, a trip to an art gallery is a trip to see images that you've not seen before, (even as reproductions), by artists you've either not heard of, or are only dimly aware of.  Most of the pictures you might see in any given gallery are not preceded by any special reputation. Even if you went to an exhibition of pictures by Leonardo Da Vinci, you wouldn't know most of the pictures. Most of art history is not that readily accessible.
 
Berger is saying that because reproduced images are easily available and widespread, people only want to see the originals out of some misplaced, quasi-religious notion that the originals are more authentic: he thinks art punters are like pilgrims going to see sacred relics. But for most people, I think they go to galleries because otherwise they just wouldn't know about the images. And when they're in the gallery, even if they came through the door because of a famous name, they broadly respond to pictures in the way Berger praises the children for doing- they think about what's being depicted in the pictures and they relate it to their lives.

Granted, art criticism is full of a lot of solemn guff, but I really don't think the piece of writing about Hais that Berger holds up as a bad example was really so terrible. It might have been long-winded, and not particularly good prose, but there wasn't any actual jargon in it, and I'm not sure that critic choosing to talk about colour contrasts in the Hais picture is really such a worse thing to think about than the children talking about the ambiguous gender of the figure in the Carravagio.

Anyway, those are only my doubts about the argument of the thing, when the real draw of the programme is the style- the playing around with music, silence and odd juxtapositions is fantastic. Including that actual execution footage does seem a bizarrely brutal way to make a point, though.

I think I'll go and watch the rest now...
Thanks for the links manticore.

manticore

  • 'nut with really wacky opinions'
Re: John Berger
« Reply #11 on: November 04, 2018, 02:21:09 AM »
Okay, re-watching episode one - Berger becomes terribly unstuck at around twenty minutes in suggesting that there can be any kind of direct, unmediated experience of art. That idea is as much a mystification as the one he criticises, and contradicts what he was saying previously. No work can be understood outside of its historical context and the conventions which it obeys in order to become a semblance of reality. The 'art expert' might mystify a work, and the example he quotes does do that to some extent with stuff like the 'closer view of life's vital forces' hack critic-speak, but any work of art is an invitation to criticism and interpretation, and like Astronaut I can't see anything wrong with the discussion of composition and colour contrasts. Berger seems to want to reduce art to the status of a social document.

In his promotion of the merits of reproduction he repeats Benjamin's mistake in ignoring the way it turns art into exchange value, a commodity, something that certain late modern artists tried to resist.

It's a joy to see the children talk about the painting though, I like that just for itself, but again Berger romanticises children and their perceptions just as Benjamin did.

So much good and bad in that programme, and I like the 'be skeptical of it' at the end. Will be re-watching the rest of the series - from memory the discussion of the portrayal of women in art is one of the best things about it, and also the most influential.

Re: John Berger
« Reply #12 on: November 04, 2018, 06:39:30 PM »
For almost everybody but a minority of specialists, a trip to an art gallery is a trip to see images that you've not seen before, (even as reproductions), by artists you've either not heard of, or are only dimly aware of.  Most of the pictures you might see in any given gallery are not preceded by any special reputation. Even if you went to an exhibition of pictures by Leonardo Da Vinci, you wouldn't know most of the pictures. Most of art history is not that readily accessible.
 
Berger is saying that because reproduced images are easily available and widespread, people only want to see the originals out of some misplaced, quasi-religious notion that the originals are more authentic: he thinks art punters are like pilgrims going to see sacred relics. But for most people, I think they go to galleries because otherwise they just wouldn't know about the images. And when they're in the gallery, even if they came through the door because of a famous name, they broadly respond to pictures in the way Berger praises the children for doing- they think about what's being depicted in the pictures and they relate it to their lives.

This may be true for a gallery as a whole, but not for the star attractions. Berger may be ignoring this aspect of gallery-going that you outline, but you're also ignoring the clear attraction people have to famous — through being infinitely reproduced — originals.


manticore

  • 'nut with really wacky opinions'
Re: John Berger
« Reply #13 on: November 04, 2018, 08:10:30 PM »
Personally I find gallery-going a mostly pretty dispiriting experience. For a lot of people going to see a big exhibition of one of the Great Artists, there seems to be a distinctly ritualistic aspect to it. It's something that you do to fulfil your need to see yourself as cultured, and there is an element of religious reverence about it, of which the phenomenon of Mona Lisa-viewing is the ultimate example.

Re: John Berger
« Reply #14 on: November 05, 2018, 12:46:59 PM »
This may be true for a gallery as a whole, but not for the star attractions. Berger may be ignoring this aspect of gallery-going that you outline, but you're also ignoring the clear attraction people have to famous — through being infinitely reproduced — originals.

 What you say is definitely true of the Mona Lisa, but I bet there are only about two dozen or so other paintings in the whole world that create the same effect- people jostling like idiots to get a glimpse of "the real thing".
Of course, you are right if we are talking about The Last Supper, The Scream, Sunflowers etc. But I just can't see that most of the works Berger talks about in the programme- the Breughel, the Caravaggio, even Leonardo's Virgin of the Rocks, have the same level of fame. Straw poll of this (perhaps very ignorant) punter- I didn't know a lot of these paintings. I did recognise most of the names, though, and I suspect that famous names rather than famous images might be what draws people in. That, and the desire to go to a popular show other people are going to, and the promise of a couple of hours of entertainment. I think pleasure rather than cultural snobbery or religious reverence is what brings people into galleries.

Speaking of ignorance, I had to google Hals earlier (and I spelt his name wrong anyway), and I was interested to see that he'd painted the Laughing Cavalier,  a painting which seems to have lost its status as one of the top ten mega-famous paintings since I was a kid. Maybe "The Scream" has gained in fame since then, too.


Re: John Berger
« Reply #15 on: November 05, 2018, 02:28:17 PM »
I think his argument hasn't aged so well in part because advertising has changed. Pre-80s there were far more ads that tried to project a high culture vibe with all the trappings of posh paintings, stately homes etc, and so through references and the like maybe the number of familiar Proper Art paintings was higher. I do take your point that name recognition might be more important, though.

The religious reverence thing is to try and explain why people feel the need to see the original at a time when reproductions are very easy to get hold of. It's not that this behaviour is religious, it's that it grew out of a long standing reverence of original relics in history.

manticore

  • 'nut with really wacky opinions'
Re: John Berger
« Reply #16 on: November 06, 2018, 12:16:37 AM »
I did recognise most of the names, though, and I suspect that famous names rather than famous images might be what draws people in. That, and the desire to go to a popular show other people are going to, and the promise of a couple of hours of entertainment. I think pleasure rather than cultural snobbery or religious reverence is what brings people into galleries.

This is the nature of mass culture - having a good time means being present at the enjoyment of others, which in turn has as its only content being present. It's all the better if you can imagine that in the process you can imagine you're engaged in something elevating. The 'famous names' might as well be the names of any other kind of celebrity. Like a rock concert, it's a ritual for the sake of itself.

It all ends up with a crowds queueing round the block for the latest exhibition by a superstar pure huckster like Jeff Koons or any of the Saatchi imbeciles.