Books 2018 – Ways of Seeing

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Phew, what a read;  I think I read each paragraph, on average, three times or as many times as it took for me to comprehend what was on the page.  You see, when it comes to art, I don’t know my stuff.  The book is attributed to John Berger as author but inside its making is credited to five individuals, none of whom I have heard of, except for John Berger.

John Berger, I know, was an intellectual.  I have watched a couple of videos of him including one of him in conversation with American intellectual giant Susan Sontag and I recently finished another of his books, Confabulations (see previous review).

Published in 1972, Ways of Seeing is written by an intellectual in an intellectual style.  But at a time when there were only 2 or 3 TV channels and AJP Tayor could command a huge prime-time TV audience just by standing infant of a camera and speaking, off the cuff, about history for half an hour.  Our population at that time had not yet been subject to the dumbed-down, celebrity led culture which began in earnest in the 1980s.  Before then, when miners formed their own poetry groups, people could read this kind of stuff and understand it.  I often struggled but even though I feel like I read this book three or more times in one go, I kind of got it.  In fact, part way through I visited Manchester’s Whitworth Art Gallery and the knowledge I gained from both this book and the recently read Keeping an Eye Open by Julia Barnes helped me enjoy a much more tangible experience with art.

John Berger was a committed Marxist and saw art as the province of the ruling classes.  He makes many references to capitalism, ownership, class and the objectivity of women in art.  Many of his political points are supported by the inclusion of a gallery of paintings depicted in black and white thought the book.  Published in 1971 it is the earliest example in a book I know of which covers the subject of sexism by the objectification of women in culture and art in the centuries of patriarchal society.  Berger describes a painting of a nude woman by Memling (1435-1494).  An attractive woman painted in full frontal nudity, is holding a mirror and thus the painting is called Vanity.  The mirror is a device simply used to disparage the woman and detract from the real intention of the commissioner or buyer of the painting to provide sexual titillation, a  form of 15th century pornography.

The final chapter brings art up to date (or as up to date as it could have been in 1971) by both focussing on publicity and drawing on the parallels between painting in oil and advertising.  I took from this chapter the line, “Publicity is the culture of the consumer society.”   Where art was once commissioned by men of property to project their status, now, publicity is used to fill the space caused by the deficit in democracy in our age of consumerism by projecting the image of our future selves which, as much as we envy it, is never attainable always deferred.

If, like me, you’ve been to a gallery and felt intimidated by the sheer volume of art on display without having a real understanding of whether it’s any good or not, you will gain a great deal of insight from this book and books like it.  I read it through over three days but feel like I read it three or four times it was that much of a challenge.  It was first published in 1972 at a time when miners formed poetry groups at colliery meetings and austere historian AJP Taylor could command an enormous prime-time TV audience just from standing before a camera and speaking, unscripted, for thirty minutes on a topic from history.  It’s a reminder of just how dumbed-down our culture has become over the past three decades but this book remains accessible if challenging and the reward for reading it is immense.  Read it and then visit a gallery.  I was pleased to note that some of the art on display at The Whitworth was crap but other was sublime – that will be Francis N Souza.

Books 2018 – Confabulations

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What would you like to know about this book?  That I couldn’t put it down?  That I read it over two days?  That I can’t remember much of the content?  That it is utterly brilliant?

When a friend mentioned the name John Berger to me recently it lightly tinkled a bell in my subconscious but nothing Quasimodo would be interested in peeling.  But on being told his book Ways Of Seeing is a must read insight into understanding art, I was more intrigued by the content of the back cover of Confabulations which begins, “Language is a body, a living creature…”  I bought it.

John Berger is a story-teller; or rather was.  I learned he died in 2017 and, prompted to look at some videos he produced, I recognised that familiar, rugged face.  There is an episode of a 60 minute programme he made for Chanel 4 television back in 1984 called About Time in which he explores the concept of time, punctuating his own thinking with fables and stories of old in a style reminiscent of Aesop and a book of his fables I read as a small boy.  Another video sees him in an hour long tête-à-tête with Susan Sontag.  They discuss story-telling but lofty as the conversation is, it felt contrived.

Confabulations is a book of stories from Berger’s own experience which he relates to the subject of language.  Language in all things, song, in art, in objects, even in flowers all born of the mother tongue.  I was reminded of a line in Maggie Nelson’s book, Argonauts, my first reading of 2018 in which she asked, are words good enough?  John Berger is certain they are not:

“A spoken language is a body, a living creature, whose physiognomy is verbal and whose visceral functions are linguistic.  And this creature’s home is the inarticulate as well as the articulate.”

John Berger’s stories are wonderfully entertaining and the great thing about reviewing a book is it provides an opportunity to revisit them.  I did and they contain more and offer more the more they are read.  They are mainly about lives, lives different to our own but appealing lives, lives we would perhaps like to live ourselves if only we weren’t so tied to the lives we live.

Please read this book.  It has helped me understand where language exists and where to find it.  It is a book of discoveries and to discover it is to enrich.