A man walks into an art gallery and cuts up a Botticelli with a Stanley knife. “The art of the past no longer exists as it once did,” explains the tousle-haired, shining-eyed Marxist commentator. “Its authority is lost. In its place there is a language of images. What matters now is who uses that language for what purpose.”
First shown in 1972, John Berger’s BBC television series Ways of Seeing radicalised the way an entire generation looked at art. Before Berger, painterly detail, the development of a style, attributions and authentications, were the tools of an art historian’s trade, and those practising it most successfully in the 20th century – Bernard Berenson in the splendour of his Florentine villa, Kenneth Clark, who bought himself Saltwood Castle in Kent and was knighted for his stately TV series Civilisation – had always been unashamedly elitist in both their work and their lives. Then came Berger, born in Hackney, east London, in 1926, educated not at Harvard or Oxford but at London art schools, hanging out not with collectors and dealers but with the revolutionary Black Panther Party, to which he donated half the money from his 1972 Booker Prize-winning experimental novel G, about a rich Italian’s journey to class consciousness.
Berger taught us that oil painting was a celebration of social standing, that landscapes were created for landowners, and that “you paint a naked woman because you enjoyed looking at her”. The accompanying paperback, with its shrieking bold typeface and hazy black and white reproductions of Old Master nudes placed alongside provocative photographs from contemporary magazines, became a bestseller. I was one of countless students in the 1970s and 1980s, many of us chafing at traditional, male-dominated Oxbridge readings of art and literature, for whom Berger was a blast of truth. He demystified high art, repackaged it in terms that related to everyday life, and proved that a love of great paintings need not be elitist but could co-exist with communitarian values. Today, social and political contexts are so integral to our reading of a picture or story that it is easy to forget how revolutionary Berger’s stance was. No commentator on art since – from Robert Hughes to Sister Wendy – has escaped his influence.
However, copyright restrictions on the hundreds of paintings and advertising images quoted in Ways of Seeing have made it impossible to release the series on DVD. Available only in grainy, bootleg copies, it is seldom seen. But next week comes a rare chance to revisit: a 40-year anniversary screening of the four 30-minute episodes, shown back to back, at the British Film Institute, forms the core of a Berger-fest of films and talks, and invites us to reconsider his legacy – among the most paradoxical of any British intellectual in the past half century.
For while the framework of Berger’s vision of art history, derived from Marxist philosopher Walter Benjamin’s 1936 essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”, quickly looked out-dated, his insights proved not only pertinent and liberating but pragmatic. Ways of Seeing broke down the class-bound walls of the museum to let everyone in – so successfully that the statistics Berger quotes, showing that less than one per cent of Europeans without educational qualifications visited galleries, and his claim that “the majority of the population do not visit art museums”, are perhaps the most dated aspect of his book when reread in today’s context of Tate Modern’s 6m annual visitors, or the more than 1m people who saw the National Gallery’s 2006 show Manet to Picasso. The effects of Berger’s thinking – in the democratisation of culture, the dissemination of art through TV and other populist media, the accessible character of public galleries and exhibitions across the country – continue to reach and benefit millions who have never heard his name.
Yet this democratisation hardly happened the way Berger hoped: in the conclusion to Ways of Seeing, he warned precisely of the danger of the celebrity art’n’money culture that now surrounds us. “Glamour cannot exist without personal social envy being a common and widespread emotion. The industrial society ... recognises nothing except the power to acquire ... No other kind of hope or satisfaction or pleasure can any longer be envisaged within the culture of capitalism.”
Berger ended hopefully, however, with a reproduction of René Magritte’s surrealist “On the Threshold of Liberty”, depicting a cannon pointing at various traditional paintings – landscapes of sky and forest, a nude – and, in the book, the words “To be continued by the reader ... ” And the conceptual artists who were children when Ways of Seeing was first shown did, indeed, turn the cannon on the landscape and the nude, but they hardly stormed the barricades; instead, they became global capitalists like Damien Hirst, with an estimated wealth of £215m, or Tory voters like Tracey Emin.
By chance, Ways of Seeing launches in the same week that, a few strides along the Southbank, Hirst’s first British retrospective opens at Tate Modern. Hirst’s subjects are money – the £50m diamond skull “For the Love of God”, the performance-piece that was Sotheby’s £111m sale Beautiful Inside My Head Forever – and his method is branding. Such combinations have made fortunes for many of the world’s best-known contemporary artists, such as Jeff Koons, Takashi Murakami, and Richard Prince.
When money talks this loudly, does it render a voice such as Berger’s old-fashioned, quaintly utopian? Or is he more relevant than ever in our current materialist delirium, when obscene prices – $33m for a Francis Bacon last month, £19m for a Henry Moore – blind us to anything except art’s value as a commodity? Or have his ideas been assimilated into establishment viewpoints so smoothly that they have been neutralised, tamed?
What distinguished Berger’s art criticism from the start was a unique mix of stridency and poetry. Writers before him had been impresarios for innovation – Guillaume Apollinaire and cubism in the early 20th century, Clement Greenberg and abstract expressionism in postwar America – but they remained essentially connoisseurs. Berger can adopt a refined, art-critical vocabulary – in reviews in recent months he has explored Cézanne’s use of black and Degas’ relationship to Mantegna – but Ways of Seeing deliberately broke free of that style.
Crucially, the series operated as a leftwing, populist riposte to Clark’s Civilisation (1969), one of the first TV documentaries made in colour. In the gap between these two programmes, just three years apart, we see British culture exhilaratingly transform, expand, both lose and gain confidence in its global outlook.
Clark, the greatest 20th-century British art historian, was a protégé of Berenson and every inch the establishment aesthete – in 1933, aged 30, he became the youngest ever director of the National Gallery.Civilisation, filmed in 11 countries in settings ranging from the library lined with leather-bound volumes at Osterley Park to Paris during the 1968 uprisings, was Euro-centric, pro-individualist, dismissive of modernity. “I can see [the students] ... impatient to change the world, vivid in hope, although what precisely they hope for, or believe in, I don’t know,” Clark mused loftily in the penultimate episode.
With hindsight, one perceives how the series’ bombast masked collective insecurity: as Clark later acknowledged, it was conceived in answer to growing criticism of and fears for western civilisation, crystallised in Cyril Connolly’s dirge in 1949: “It is closing time in the gardens of the west and from now on an artist will be judged only by the resonance of his solitude or the quality of his despair.”
If Clark was late gatekeeper to those gardens, Berger smashed the fence and messed up the lawns. Clark in his programme on “The Nude” had discussed classicism’s ideal forms; Berger answered with a sequence that juxtaposed Rubens’ “Judgement of Paris”, a Rajasthani depiction of a copulating couple and a snap from Playboy to show that in European convention “men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at.” Where Clark in “Landscape into Art” had lingered on the sensitively executed background in Gainsborough’s “Mr and Mrs Andrews”, Berger saw “landowners [whose] proprietary attitude towards what surrounds them is visible in their stance and their expressions”. We take this for granted now, but it was controversial in 1972.
Today, Gainsborough reeks of privilege to us all, and every exploration of his work has to confront that response. In fact, more or less any exhibition in a public gallery has to deal with issues of class and gender, and museum directors and curators tend to choose subjects encouraging debate around these themes – as the big shows in London this spring confirm.
Migrations at Tate Britain retells the history of British art through the contribution of immigrant, especially black, communities, and Tate Modern celebrates the feminist journey of Yayoi Kusama. The Royal Academy interprets 18th-century portraitist Johann Zoffany as an outsider-satirist of the English upper crust. The National Portrait Gallery positions Lucian Freud as chronicler of social change and collapsing hierarchies in Britain. In such interpretations, reaching audiences of millions, lies the real, continuing impact of Berger.
It is worth noting that exhibitions of this ambition and scope in Britain tend to be more politically charged than their equivalents in France or Germany. Postwar Europe has not been short of theorists who encouraged a reading of the social and political signs underlying a work of art. Berger, who moved to Haute-Savoie in the mid-1970s and still lives and farms there, is a direct contemporary of the French semioticians Michel Foucault, Jean Baudrillard, Jacques Derrida; Germany since 1955 has focused cultural-political debate at Documenta, the contemporary art forum in Kassel. But none of these are as accessible or practical as Berger, and none has permeated so widely the cross-currents of culture.
Simon McBurney, director of the Complicite theatre group who adapted The Three Lives of Lucie Cabrol, Berger’s novel about a French peasant woman, for the stage in 1995, recalls reading Berger as an English literature undergraduate at Cambridge in the late 1970s. “Ways of Seeing was one of the key texts we looked to for elucidation. It was that heady time when everyone was in thrall to Barthes and the French structuralists, this whole new way of looking at art and literature, and Berger, in retrospect, stood out because his voice was absolutely direct, and practical and clear. It was his clarity and, of course, his compassion, that entered my consciousness and has stayed with me ever since.”
The clarity of Ways of Seeing was partly rooted in Berger’s uncompromising political commitment but also, I think, in something that is as important to hold on to in our climate dominated by conceptual art: an instinctive understanding that art is about the power of images. It is vanity for artists and curators to forget this, for history does not – and nor do audiences: repeatedly, the most successful public exhibitions – from the Royal Academy’s 1999 Monet in the 20th Century, which drew more than 700,000 visitors, to the current David Hockney show, which looks set to approach this figure – are those that offer memorable images created by great artists.
Hockney often quotes from the American art historian David Freedberg’s seminal 1989 work The Power of Images: “When the history of art parts company with the history of images, the power is with the images – and art becomes just a small thing.” For Berger art is a big thing; he shows us how images carry ideas, emotions, visions of history. “I can’t tell you what art does and how it does it, but I know that art has often judged the judges, pleaded revenge to the innocent and shown to the future what the past has suffered,” he wrote in the essay “Keeping a Rendezvous (1992). “I know, too, that the powerful fear art, whatever its form, when it does this, and that amongst 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.” In our depoliticised 21st-century art world, whose trophy artists, billionaire collectors, obsession with money and status, and wildly unregulated market all trumpet the victory of global capitalism, Berger’s idealism and rage matter.
Ways of Seeing: John Berger on the Small Screen, April 3-17 at BFI Southbank www.bfi.org.uk/southbank
Marcus Prince on how TV has covered the arts: From Kenneth Clark to cultural ‘ghettos’
The John Berger season, which opens next week at the National Film Theatre, inaugurates Broadcasting the Arts, a new BFI programme set up to explore, using the vast amount of material available, how television has responded to the arts, from fine art to jazz, dance, opera, theatre and literature.
While the work of radical art critic Berger seems a natural place to start, the series will in future years explore the many styles and approaches taken by television as it became an art form in its own right. These developed swiftly, from the patrician tones of Kenneth Clark, in Is Art Necessary? (ATV 1958), with its simple studio set-up of an expert talking head speaking to camera – to Clark’s later landmark series Civilisation (BBC 1969), with its real locations and complex editing techniques.
Today there are myriad approaches to the subject of art history on TV, from straight biographies of great artists, to the more tangential, opinionated approaches of individual presenters and critics such as Waldemar Januszczak and Ben Lewis.
Along the way TV has produced arts presenters who have become cultural totems themselves, from Sir Huw Wheldon (Monitor BBC) to Melvyn Bragg (The South Bank Show LWT).
Seen from today’s perspective, the shows they presented capture a cultural moment in time; Monitor was, along with Tempo (ABC), a mirror for the creative dynamism of the 1960s, a role performed by Aquarius (LWT) in the 1970s and Omnibus (BBC) and The South Bank Show from the 1980s. They have been accompanied by topical arts magazine shows such as Full House (BBC) and more recently The Review Show (BBC), which feature revolving panels of the great and the good. The latest developments and debates centre on the emergence of dedicated arts channels on pay TV. While some have bemoaned the creation of arts “ghettos” away from the mainstream, and the lost opportunity for a mass audience to “stumble” across something wonderful, others point to the increased hours of coverage and Sky Arts’ recent tripling of its budgets.
Marcus Prince is TV programmer at BFI Southbank