I am ramfeezled (new word from my new book; it means exhausted and sounds it, too, doesn't it?). I'm not going to last, but John Berger (1926-2017) died and I have to acknowledge his influence during a period of my life.
John Berger died on January 2 – another icon. He was, as I’m sure you know, a British art critic, essayist and novelist. I’ve read one of his novels (A to X, I think, was the title), but not the Booker prize-winner, G. It was the BBC series he did in 1972 that blew my mind and influenced me profoundly. Ways of Seeing had that effect on a lot of people. I still have my copy – it cost $6.95 then – lovingly marked up. Oh, how I loved it and used it!
I had a grant and I was writing in the Banff Writing studio, working on a novel (never published) about a woman artist. Banff was an ideal place to be with a wonderful library full of art books, critical essays about and journals by artists, including women. I don’t know where I found Ways of Seeing but it was serendipitous. I was molten, writing about 40 pages a day. You would have thought I was Joyce Carol Oates – but she got published.
Ways of Seeing is a visual essay as well as a verbal one. Section I has pictures (paintings), too, but as illustrations supporting Berger’s ideas about art. (He acknowledges his debt for many of his ideas to the German critic and philosopher Walter Benjamin.) He said that the art of the past no longer existed as it once did, truer today. The Millennials have short-term memories – not entirely true. You can’t remember what you never knew.
The second section of WOS is all pictures: paintings, photographs and modern ads, making another kind of editorial statement. Section 3, the one that really hit me, presents Berger’s theory about women in art, not only in art. “One might simplify…by saying: men act and women appear.” He thinks that this unequal relationship still structures the consciousness of many women: “they do to themselves what men do to them.”
Section 4 is all paintings; Section 5 is editorial again with capsule critiques and explications of different artists; Section 6 is all pictures again, preparing the viewer, I suppose, for the relationship between classic art and current advertising art and its influence on the latter. Berger writes “Publicity is, in essence, nostalgic. It has to sell the past to the future.”
I have to read the book again but I’m going to have to buy another one because mine is falling apart. I’m not worried. I’m sure it will still be in print.
I didn’t know until he died that John Berger’s name was pronounced with a soft g: berjer. I guess I never heard anyone speak his name.