John Berger’s Life Between Art and Politics

John Berger’s Life Between Art and Politics

Ways of Being

John Berger’s life between aesthetics and politics.


So vegetables are politics now!” The line is pronounced by a character in Alain Tanner’s 1976 film Jonah Who Will Be 25 in the Year 2000, a film that bids farewell to the political hopes of 1968 but somehow manages to be upbeat. John Berger, the English art critic, novelist, and universal man of letters who cowrote the film with Tanner, also managed to sustain an almost magical political buoyancy in the grim and uncertain years that followed the ’60s—and, like the character in Tanner’s film, he seems to have done so in part through vegetables, as well as animals, relocating so as to live in proximity to both.

I met Berger in Geneva a couple of years after the film came out. At the time, he was living in the French Alpine village of Quincy. There were already whispers about how, after the heady 1960s, his work had become too nostalgic for the apparently disappearing simplicities of peasant existence, and the day I met him he did nothing to dissuade me of this view. He was speaking, in torrential French, at the launch of an exhibition of Jean Mohr photographs of mountain villagers. I don’t remember much of what he said, except that, like Mohr’s portraits, he found in his neighbors a nobility that otherwise seemed to be lacking in modern life. In a café afterward, he invited me to Quincy. I was looking forward to the visit with embarrassing eagerness, but it was not to be. Before it could be arranged, I wrote something on the nostalgia question, beginning with an examination of Pig Earth, Berger’s newly published account of French peasant experience. I sent him a draft and got a letter back signed by his wife, Beverly Bancroft. The letter was slightly ambiguous: He hadn’t read it, and he didn’t like this sort of thing. That was the end of our budding relationship.

Berger had arrived in the Alps after a sensational debut in London. As Joshua Sperling tells the story—and it is a story, with a plot and peripeteia—in his sharp, moving, and immensely readable new book, A Writer of Our Time: The Life and Work of John Berger, Berger’s career began when he gave up his ambition to be a painter after World War II and almost instantly made himself a loud and provocative voice on the London art scene. (The usual phrase is “enfant terrible.”) He didn’t pull this off by the originality or consistency of his left aesthetic. At first, he championed socialist realism (for example, the so-called Kitchen Sink painters) in a Popular Front kind of way, distancing himself from modernist elitism and abstraction. But by 1965 he was praising Cubism as “the only example of dialectical materialism in painting,” an abstraction that was needed in order to see the destructive as well as the creative potential unleashed by modernity. Never a member of the Communist Party, Berger was close enough in his positions to pass and to be attacked, both as a Soviet stooge and—after he’d abandoned some of them—as a sellout and a running dog of the decadents.

In these early years, Berger grabbed the spotlight not as a theorist but as a polemicist, picking fights with the establishment, happy to take on whatever it happened to be saying and whoever personified it in his mind. (Kenneth Clark was a particular bête noire.) According to Sperling, Berger needed an opponent in order to get himself going. The oedipal pattern is inescapable in G. (1972), Berger’s Booker Prize–winning update of the Don Juan myth, in which the protagonist falls for women who always seem to be the property of older, richer, and more powerful men. Indeed, one aspect of Berger’s later retreat to the domain of vegetables and animals is that by then, he was trying to find his way toward a way of living and a politics that no longer required the incitement of male rivalry. In this stage of his career, Sperling suggests, giving his plot its biggest twist, Berger became less political, more appreciative of the beauties of art and of life.

Sperling has a point. Like others of his generation, Berger certainly suffered from a dashing of his revolutionary hopes. And yet he was never tempted by a depoliticized aestheticism. Throughout the various stages of his long and astonishing career, beauty and commitment were always intimates.

Born to middle-class parents in London in 1926, Berger was sent to a boarding school in the country at the age of 6. He hated it, and he left at 16, just as London was being bombed, for an art school in the city. In 1944, when he was old enough to join the army, he did. Refusing to apply for an officer’s commission, as his class origins seemed to dictate, Berger was stationed in Northern Ireland, where he spent two years bunking with the barely literate working-class recruits and, so the story goes, often serving as their scribe. The war experience helped politicize him; it also gave him subjects for his art. After the war, his first paintings were of men doing manual labor. “It was the collective spirit of the home front and of postwar reconstruction,” Sperling writes, “that nourished his early socialism and cultural convictions.”

Art proved to be an important arena in which Berger could advocate for his socialist and cultural convictions; it was, he insisted, a weapon in the “culture wars” of the era. Only with the passage of time would art become something else, and for the moment, that something else didn’t interest him. Meanwhile, politics was in flux: The events of 1956, the year of the Hungarian uprising and its Soviet suppression, drove many of Berger’s generation away from communism and politics. But 1956 was also the year of the Suez crisis, when Israel, France, and the United Kingdom invaded Egypt to regain control of the Suez Canal and depose Gamal Abdel Nasser, who had nationalized it. Coming after the Bandung Conference of nonaligned nations, this fresh assertion of Western colonial force—halted, perhaps surprisingly, by pressure from the United States, the Soviet Union, and the United Nations—suggested not only that the left could not give up its political commitments but also that the struggle, no longer defined by the binaries of the Cold War, now demanded creative and critical engagement with both the West and “the rest,” in particular the world’s newly decolonized or still colonized territories. For the emergent New Left, this would mean not disillusion but realignment.

A new internationalism was beginning to emerge, sure of its anti-militarism but of little else. How much of modernity was the European left called upon to repudiate from the moment when the divide between the country and the city (Raymond Williams’s terms) was now being played out on a global scale, with Europe cast in the role of modern metropolis? A certain confusion, an alienation from accustomed roles within domestic politics, seemed inevitable.

In the early ’60s, Berger moved to Geneva, where his third wife, Anna Bostock, a double refugee (from Russia and Austria) and a brilliant translator of left-wing writers like Lenin and Trotsky, got a job with the United Nations. This self-imposed exile did not entail any neglect of realities at home. Collaborating with Mohr, Berger wrote A Fortunate Man (1967), a beautiful study of an English country doctor whose strenuous intimacy with the physical and mental suffering of his rural patients makes him a sort of model for the intellectual who gets his hands dirty. Berger also published two novels and acquired a solid foundation in a set of European authors, then still untranslated into English, who would soon help define the British New Left, in particular Walter Benjamin and Georg Lukács, whom Bostock translated. Berger drew inspiration from her other translations as well: the writings of Ilya Ehrenburg, Wilhelm Reich, and the Austrian dissident communist Ernst Fischer, author of The Necessity of Art. Together, Berger and Bostock also translated a book of Bertolt Brecht’s poems.

In art and in politics, “Make it new” became something of a mantra for Berger. At least to him, the newness of ’60s aesthetics and left politics seemed made for each other. “As the New Left grew to encompass the counterculture of the West, the cultural thaw of the East and the anti-imperial movements of the South,” Sperling writes, “Berger came back to the modernists with a newfound certainty that the historical ice age separating past and present was melting.” This meant the art of the past—especially but not exclusively the recent modernist past—was, in his view, now of enormous political importance. “Though revolution failed to come on schedule even where conditions for it were thought to be ripest, the anticipation of its imagined arrival produced a spark, now distant, whose indirect preservation in art can prevent us from accepting the present as immutable. The paintings may have been like an ark: vessels built to store the hopes of a century before the flood of war.” Thus Berger wrote in a 1967 essay that “the moment of Cubism,” which flourished in the first two decades of the century, is actually now. In 1972, Berger’s modest art-scene fame exploded onto a larger stage. First there was Ways of Seeing. Before it became a widely and enduringly successful book, probably his best known, it was a revolutionary television series on the unsuspected politics of images, both inside and outside museums, charismatically moderated by the uncannily handsome Berger. Others had noticed the compulsive sexualizing of the female body in Western art and the association between landscape painting and property ownership. Some—notably Benjamin, whom Bostock had translated—had discussed how modern advertising continued the least savory aspects of these artistic traditions. But Berger, opening up and extending Benjamin’s esoteric lessons for the instruction of a wider audience, gave these arguments a push so enormous, it can still be felt. This was demystification on a grand, even heroic scale.

In the same annus mirabilis Berger published G., a historical novel (it contains an unforgettable representation of the Milan food riots of May 1898 and their brutal suppression by the Italian military) filled with self-conscious reflections. The events of May 1968 in Paris, a direct inspiration for Tanner, Berger’s film collaborator, also worked their way into the novel. The serial seductions carried out by his latter-day Don Juan are presented as acts of liberation, and they are experienced as such by the women he targets, rather than as predation. Today they might map more reliably onto the ambiguous sexual politics of the period, as we have come to perceive it: one part women’s liberation, one or more parts male self-indulgence.

Berger’s celebrity did not suffer from the accident that threw up two such acclaimed and revolutionary works in the same year or, for that matter, from the newsworthy spectacle Berger made at the Booker Prize presentation ceremony when he reminded the audience, including the judges who were in the act of honoring him, where the Booker family money came from (sugar plantations in the Caribbean, which is to say from slavery) and pledged half his prize money to the Black Panthers.

By the middle of the ’70s, Berger was publicly triumphant. Yet it was at this very moment that he chose to retreat from public life and move to a mountain village above Geneva. Sperling does not say—perhaps no one knows—how much that move owed to the breakup of his marriage to Bostock and his new relationship with Bancroft. (Sperling is frustratingly tight-lipped about Berger’s romantic life.) But we do learn a lot about his new existence. “Many of his older neighbors continued to live by agrarian methods more or less unbroken for centuries,” Sperling tells us, and “Berger started to work alongside them. They became his teachers.” Recalling these years, Berger observed, “It was like my university. I learnt to tap a scythe, and I learnt a whole constellation of sense and value about life.” Sperling lists the activities Berger participated in—ones involving hay, cows, trees, weeds, apples, and plenty of manure—and notes that “Berger found in the working life of Quincy not only a home but an anchor: a community.”

According to Sperling, this newly Tolstoyan life corresponds to a momentous shift in Berger’s attitude toward art. Ways of Seeing, Sperling argues, marked Berger’s pinnacle as a demystifier. In the series and the book, he focuses on art as “a social practice to maintain illusions.” Yet “almost everything he wrote after Ways of Seeing“—most of it composed while he was already living in the countryside—presents art as “a glimpse of what lies beyond other practices.” The phrase “what lies beyond” is a bit of a mystery, if not actual mysticism. But Sperling seems right that if demystification was indeed the keynote of Berger’s earlier writing on art, then his later writing marked a reversal—which does leave one wondering if Berger, now tapping his scythe in the foothills of the Alps, had decided to cut loose from history even while history kept chugging along. “The truth,” Sperling writes, “is that the figure who emerged from the culture wars of the 1970s was a writer defined less by what he was against than by what he loved.”

On the subject of what Berger loved and why he loved it, Sperling unfortunately ends up being a bit blurry, as if the things that lie beyond also lie beyond articulation. Yet whatever drew Berger to village life, he seems to have genuinely loved it. Shoveling manure and the other manual duties of animal and vegetable nurture delighted him in themselves while affording him fresh material for description and contemplation. In his essays and books from these years—works like the “Into Their Labours” trilogy Pig Earth, Once in Europa, and Lilac and Flag—Berger found a new subject: the beauty of traditional peasant experience and the tragedy of its displacement by urban modernity.

Love and critique went hand in hand. It’s therefore a bit oversimplified to oppose a period of pure love to a period of pure critique. Even as a hypercritical young man, Berger always found ways of writing about what he loved, and later in life he proved even more resolute in his commitment to the idea that love and criticism required each other. For example, in his essay “Why Look at Animals?” the demystification of zoos depends on a piercing and palpable love of animals as they exist (or existed) outside zoos. In Sperling’s view, however, the shift was radical. What changed between 1965’s The Success and Failure of Picasso, which one critic described as “bent on puncturing the charmed life his prey has been permitted to live too long,” and 1967’s “The Moment of Cubism” was not Berger’s attitude toward art “but rather everything else the art was attached to: the nature of revolutions, the political potentialities of the present, the workings of historical time.” Berger had suffered something like a loss or at least a realignment of his political faith, which is what led him to the Alps and to a more positive, less demystifying approach to art. He was, in Sperling’s words, on the hunt for an “idealized, rooted Gemeinschaft,” one that might replace the broken sense of community produced first by the events in Hungary in 1956 and then by the events throughout Europe in the late ’60s.

One does not have to be a principled city dweller to wonder whether gemeinschaft was what—or all—that Berger found in the village, a collectivity that (if one glances under the hood) comes with its own array of self-destructiveness, irreconcilable grudges, and an often fatal lack of cooperation. Sperling might also have said more about where Berger’s income came from. Even in a book on Berger’s life and works, Sperling does not seem to think the sources and quantities of the money mattered. Unlike the peasants of Quincy, Berger was living not just off the land but also off his books. (The other half of his Booker Prize, for example, went into the writing of his 1975 A Seventh Man, a collage of text and photographs about the experience of foreign workers in Europe, most of them former peasants. There were also fellowships.) But Sperling does document how Berger found something else on his hillside. During his first years in Quincy he wrote “Why Look at Animals?”—now a staple in the still recent field of animal studies—​and the essay says a lot about what he sought and found in the Alpine village. Its most quoted passages show Berger still vividly demystifying the places where the relationship between humans and animals is expected but glaringly absent, like zoos. “The animals,” he writes, “seldom live up to the adults’ memories, whilst to the children they appear, for the most part, unexpectedly lethargic and dull. (As frequent as the calls of animals in a zoo, are the cries of children demanding: Where is he? Why doesn’t he move? Is he dead?)” We look at animals, but they no longer look back. (Here Berger is riffing on his treatment of “the look” in the politics of gender from Ways of Seeing.) The relationship between human and animal was far from ideal, but what has replaced it is, for the most part, no relationship at all.

When I read Pig Earth in 1979, eagerly but also skeptically, I worried that for Berger, peasant experience was serving as a pastoral refuge for the truly human. I worried that it defied analytical knowledge that did not come from direct experience and, what was worse, that it denied that paradigmatic modern experiences like migration were capable of producing genuine experience. If there are no more peasants, then there would be no more experience. Since that time, however, I have done some backtracking. After all, the peasant way of life, in which the slaughter of animals is artisanal rather than industrial, is not disappearing everywhere. The village where I’m sitting right now has survived various life-​threatening assaults—being burned by the Germans in reprisal against the Resistance; losing hosts of its young men to jobs in America and Australia; having its school closed by the government, its potable water diverted and shipped out of the country by a multinational company, its markets and pensions cut to the bone by a banker-​​imposed austerity regime. But it remains a live village. If petroleum for trucks and tractors (which has to be purchased abroad) could be replaced with solar power, it would be almost self-sufficient. Not that anyone here wants to give up the Internet or the other modes of national and international connectedness they have learned to cultivate over many decades. Still, there are resources here for useful political thought.

It seems absurd to imagine Berger’s move as a response to some kind of Kantian moral imperative, as if everyone were enjoined to move to a tiny village and live the way the villagers do in order to preserve the true essence of humanity. However, this is not as silly as it may sound. Peasants, like the world’s indigenous peoples, function today as repositories of knowledge that will increasingly be needed as a poisoned, overdeveloped world tries to model sustainable ways of life. When, in the afterword to Pig Earth, Berger juxtaposes the goal of “revolution” with that of “survival,” he is not just speaking about the survival of the peasant way of life; he is also, in a nonnegligible sense, speaking about the survival of humanity. Anyone reading his “Into Their Labours” trilogy today would be obliged to think first and foremost of the climate crisis, the increasingly likely devastation of the planet, and the possibility that the peasant way of life offers the rest of us lessons that are applicable on a larger scale. Whether a revolution would be required in order for these lessons to be applied is another question.

The attractions of small-scale but realized alternatives to actually existing social life were, of course, already a part of the 1960s counterculture. In this sense Berger’s move to the Alps was neither all that peculiar nor really a withdrawal at all. He was, like many veterans of the New Left, compromising on long-term goals in order to invest in community, in whatever form and on whatever scale it could be found. It is not entirely surprising, then—though the plot twist is elegant—that at the end of Sperling’s book Berger returns to history in the shared, public sense. In 2001, the attack on the World Trade Center and the United States’ military response to it appeared to change everything for him; 9/11 allowed Berger to recover his old talents for intellectual and political conflict and to be embraced for his efforts by allies around the world. So the reader ultimately is not asked to choose between the late Berger (aesthetic, mystical) and the early one (political, demystifying). His expressions of solidarity were circulated by appreciative readers in Chiapas, Mexico; in Palestine; and elsewhere around the world. “The militancy of his youth was back,” Sperling writes, “and with it the moralism—but also the power.” As Tom Overton, an editor of Berger’s writings on art, told me, the Milan massacre description from G. was read aloud in Palestine.

Berger’s own view, expressed toward the end of his long life, rightly suggests that he was never anything other than militant. Everything he wrote, Berger says, was written “during the period of the Wall.… Everywhere the walls separate the desperate poor from those who hope against hope to stay relatively rich. The walls cross every sphere, from crop cultivation to health care…. The choice of meaning in the world today is here between the two sides of the wall. The wall is also inside each one of us. Whatever our circumstances, we can choose within ourselves which side of the wall we are attuned to.”

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