In the studio of sculptor Henri Presset, Geneva, 1962. Photograph: © Jean Mohr, Musée de l’Elysée, Lausanne.

‘JOHN BERGER: think with the eye, act with the text’, by Luiz Camillo Osorio

After reading the biography of the writer and art critic John Berger, “A Writer of Our Time: The Life and Work of John Berger”, edited by Verso and written by Joshua Sperling, the PIPA Institute curator Luiz Camillo Osorio compares the politics of the 20th century, of ‘thinking the impossible’, with the 21st-century experience. This second one, according to the curator, configures somber times marked by the non-thought. 

Inspired by the bestseller “Ways of seeing” (1972), which followed the 1972 television series of the same name, Luiz Camillo analyses, with a nostalgic tone, that period when it was trivial to imagine numeral possibilities to an open future. In the artistic field, Berger represented this paradigm of fighting for heterogeneous and anti-hegemonic movements at the television. On the screens, Berger explored the temporalities of the fragmented images, the voice and the performance body, a language that configured a new visual writing of art history in the 1970s. 

“John Berger talked about the images and talked about what was not visible in them. Or rather, he removed from the visible, from what is seen, the obvious and preconceived”, Camillo wrote. Nowadays, according to him, “Public intellectuals like Berger, for whom thinking can be heretical, are missed in our time”.

JOHN BERGER: think with the eye, act with the text

In the difficult times in which we live, I feel a certain nostalgia for the twentieth century. This is not escapism; it’s just a feeling. Not that the last century was a period without turbulence. On the contrary; we had two terrible world wars, totalitarian regimes and the holocaust. It was a time that transformed radical evil into the banality of evil. However, there was  a horizon for us to imagine other possible worlds. In the second half of the century we constructed the tangible possibility of combining a certain freedom with a certain equality. The future was open. 

A recent reading of John Berger’s biography “A Writer of Our Time: The Life and Work of John Berger”, published by Verso and written by Joshua Sperling, was another ingredient to season this nostalgia. Berger’s intellectual life evolved in the post-war period. A controversial writer and critic, he transformed the text into a weapon, mixing urgency with poetry.  Berger’s struggle – and that of his generation – was always for an art and writing that remained true to the struggle against oppression and in tune with heterogeneous and anti-hegemonic forms of life. 

The sense, reading this biography of John Berger, is that his writing fought for breaches in relation to the future. It mattered more to open up paths than to arrive. Today we experience the management of non-time. A desperate contradiction. We have lost rhythm, which is to say, we have succumbed to the anxiety of movement, of doing everything and wanting nothing. We are surrounded by people and our loneliness increases. Rhythm attunes us to the world, and creates possible ways of living together.

During the course of his career, John Berger changed the rhythm of his writing, his style, and his critical and creative activities, constantly seeking new forms of life. From the 1970s (until his death in 2017), he lived between Paris and a village in the Alps, with less than one thousand inhabitants and a life connected to the land and nature. There, according to him, he found himself in the world. His texts were less indignant, but no less combative. There he found a different time; he found his rhythm and his breath.

He is known for his bestselling book “Ways of Seeing” which followed the 1972 television series of the same name. When I started studying art history in London in 1985, it was one of the first books I read. I read it admiring his capacity to connect things, historical moments, contrasting cultural types, artistic and advertising images. The history of art was permeated with life. His first lesson was the ability to translate what we see into forms of intervention in the world – in our world. This is not a matter of illustrating or ideologically determining art and ways of seeing. On the contrary, it was a question of always seeking to commit seeing with imagining and living. As he observed, as early as 1959, “every way of looking at the world implies a certain relationship with that world, and every relationship implies action”1.

In addition to the pleasure inherent to the experience of art, the guiding thread was the question of what we do with art, how it permeates people’s lives and indicates the  problems to be addressed – whether in fact we want to give art, ourselves and the world what is ours by right. To speak of art was to speak of something both simpler and more complex than we normally read in regard to it. Simple because it is life, complex because life is not given, resolved, willing to be recognized by those who see it. There was no sense of an engaged art; what there was, was the certainty that art engages us in the search for something indeterminate to be shared.

One point that was never resolved was his resistance to abstract art. He didn’t know how to see it and considered non-representation to be self-referentiality, art for art’s sake, alienation. No one is perfect. He got embroiled in numerous unnecessary fights and failed to notice much of the best art of the 20th century. At one point, perhaps aware of this deficiency, he began writing about modern masters and photography. It was in photography that he assumed his contemporaneity. It was with the Swiss photographer Jean Mohr that John Berger wrote his most thought-provoking political-visual essays: Fortunate Man and Seventh Man. The first about the life of a modest provincial doctor, dedicating his life to care and public health; the second on images of emigrants in Europe, written in the 1970s, but which has recently gained acute relevance. In addition to these two, there is also the magnificent Another way of telling.

John Berger talked about the images and talked about what was not visible in them. Or rather, he removed from the visible, from what is seen, the obvious and preconceived. I find in Foucault’s words, written a little earlier, in 1967, in a review he wrote of two books by Erwin Panofsky, something that jibes with Berger’s project and his desire to shift our ways of seeing. According to the French philosopher: “We are convinced, we know, that everything speaks in a culture: the structures of language give their form to the order of things. Thus, … plastic forms were texts inscribed in stone, in lines or in colors; to analyze a capital, an illuminated manuscript, was to express what “this meant”: to restore the discourse there where, to speak more directly, it had been stripped of its words.2

Whether in the book Ways of Seeing, or more clearly in the television series, Berger made his words intervene in the image, making them mobilize the gaze in order to restore less evident and more current senses. It is interesting to compare this art program for television with another previous and also hugely successful one, presented by Kenneth Clark, called Civilization. This used television as a neutral medium that always had the narrator talking about the works as if it were an illustrated book. Berger intervened in the language of television; he used his urgency and dynamism; he accelerated and decelerated his gaze; he made the viewer aware of the vehicle and how its ways of seeing were conditioned by this device.

There is something in Berger that is very close to Malraux’s Imaginary Museum: both rethink the history of art in its relationship with the technical image and the way the structure of perception has been shattered by the new means of reproduction (photography and TV). Together with a huge montage of appropriated and arbitrarily combined images, both disrespected the academic norms, betting their chips on the empirical clash and the power of words, on the style of writing, to express a moment of experience that was also a discursive invention. The legible and the visible are committed to criticism and the enchantment inherent to the eye and spirit. 

However, what in Malraux was transformed into an intense search for the timelessness of forms, in Berger was a continuous effort to locate the images in time. Thus, we can observe the effort to work at the limit of television, tensioning the temporalities of the (tele)visible and the audible, performatizing the narration, giving body, voice and image to a new visual writing of the history of art. When the BBC program became a huge success, it was decided to transform into book form. A process that implied an updating and a new way of linking text and image. In this case, the 4 episodes became 7 chapters, of which 3 are purely visual, an experiment in montage which highlights how the critical gesture turns into the curatorial gesture: linking visual forms and historical moments that often seem unrelated, but which, once joined together, become highly thought-provoking.

Public intellectuals like Berger, for whom thinking can be heretical, are missed in our time. Even if we often disagree with him, we are constantly prompted to move away from the commonplace. Reading it brought me a sense that radicality and vivacity, which is to say, the politics of the 20th century, had to do with thinking the impossible. For better and for worse. To some extent, the mediocrity inherent in non-thought, so in vogue in dark times, has something to do with thinking that is only committed to the possible. To think, after all, is to invent ways of seeing.

 1- Berger, J. – “This Century”, New Statement, 11 July, 1959.

 2- Foucault, M., Dits et écrits, I, Gallimard, Paris, 1994, p.621 (Translation by Katia Muricy)

PIPA respects the freedom of expression and warns that some images of works published on this site may be considered inappropriate for those under 18 years of age
Copyright © Instituto PIPA