John Berger R.I.P. (Essays by and for a Hero of Our Time)

One night in bed you asked me who was my favourite painter. I hesitated, searching for the least knowing, most truthful answer. Caravaggio. My own reply surprised me. There are nobler painters and painters of greater breadth of vision. There are painters I admire more and who are more admirable. But there is none, so it seems—for the answer came unpremeditated—to whom I feel closer.

This passage is from John Berger’s meditation on Caravaggio—the first essay in the following tribute to Berger, which includes contributions by Marita Sturken, Peter Wood, your editor and First respondent Ty Gelmaker (who wrote these rapt lines after reading Berger’s Caravaggio piece on this site a couple years ago):

After long dog walks at dusk, a WeHo City Council meeting lasting past midnight and then cooking our usual dinner of one thing or another, and then trying to glance through the Times, both NYT and LA, here now collapsing at dawn in the West, just a note to say that my last personal pleasure/duty tonight was to read the Berger on Caravaggio, sitting in our little salotto with fans blowing. I am in Heaven,  going to sleep next to the slumbering guy now with 35 years.  Who could be more content? 

Caravaggio (Redux)

By John Berger

Each is going to his own rest. But they are all returning to the world, and its first gift is its space; later, its second gift will be a flat table and a bed. For the most fortunate the bed is shared.

Even after the great separation we shall return to you at the end of the day, out of the unimpeded sky, and you will recognise us by our fatigue and by the heaviness of our heads on your bodies, of which we had such need.


According to whether we are in the same place or separated one from the other, I know you twice. There are two of you.

When you are away, you are nevertheless present for me. This presence is multiform: it consists of countless images, passages, meanings, things known, landmarks, yet the whole remains marked by your absence, in that it is diffuse. It is as if your person becomes a place, your contours horizons. I live in you then like living in a country. You are everywhere. Yet in that country I can never meet you face to face.

Partir est mourir un peu. I was very young when I first heard this sentence quoted and it expressed a truth I already knew. I remember it now because the experience of living in you as if you were a country, the only country in the world where I can never conceivably meet you face to face, this is a little like the experience of living with the memory of the dead. What I did not know when I was very young was that nothing can take the past away: the past grows gradually around one, like a placenta for dying.

In the country which is you I know your gestures, the intonations of your voice, the shape of every part of your body. You are not physically less real there, but you are less free.

What changes when you are there before my eyes is that you become unpredictable. What you are about to do is unknown to me. I follow you. You act. And with what you do, I fall in love again.


One night in bed you asked me who was my favourite painter. I hesitated, searching for the least knowing, most truthful answer. Caravaggio. My own reply surprised me. There are nobler painters and painters of greater breadth of vision. There are painters I admire more and who are more admirable. But there is none, so it seems—for the answer came unpremeditated—to whom I feel closer.

The few canvases from my own incomparably modest life as a painter, which I would like to see again, are those I painted in the late 1940s of the streets of Livorno. This city was then war-scarred and poor, and it was there that I first began to learn something about the ingenuity of the dispossessed. It was there too that I discovered that I wanted as little as possible to do in this world with those who wield power. This has turned out to be a lifelong aversion.

The complicity I feel with Caravaggio began, I think, during that time in Livorno. He was the first painter of life as experienced by the popolaccio, the people of the backstreets, les sans-culottes, the lumpen-proletariat, the lower orders, those of the lower depths, the underworld. There is no word in any traditional European language which does not either denigrate or patronise the urban poor it is naming. That is power.

Following Caravaggio up to the present day, other painters—Brower, Ostade, Hogarth, Goya, Géricault, Guttuso—have painted pictures of the same social milieu. But all of them—however great—were genre pictures, painted in order to show others how the less fortunate or the more dangerous lived. With Caravaggio, however, it was not a question of presenting scenes but of seeing itself. He does not depict the underworld for others: his vision is one that he shares with it.

In art-historical books Caravaggio is listed as one of the great innovating masters of chiaroscuro and a forerunner of the light and shade later used by Rembrandt and others. His vision can of course be considered art-historically as a step in the evolution of European art. Within such a perspective a Caravaggio was almost inevitable, as a link between the high art of the Counter-Reformation and the domestic art of the emerging Dutch bourgeoisie, the form of this link being that of a new kind of space, defined by darkness as well as by light. (For Rome and for Amsterdam damnation had become an everyday affair.) For the Caravaggio who actually existed—for the boy called Michelangelo born in a village near Bergamo, not far from where my friends, the Italian woodcutters, come—light and shade, as he imagined and saw them, had a deeply personal meaning, inextricably entwined with his desires and his instinct for survival. And it is by this, not by any art-historical logic, that his art is linked with the underworld.

His chiaroscuro allowed him to banish daylight. Shadows, he felt, offered shelter as can four walls and a roof. Whatever and wherever he painted he really painted interiors. Sometimes—for The Flight into Egypt or one of his beloved John the Baptists—he was obliged to include a landscape in the background. But these landscapes are like rugs or drapes hung up on a line across an inner courtyard. He only felt at home—no, that he felt nowhere—he only felt relatively at ease inside.

His darkness smells of candles, over-ripe melons, damp washing waiting to be hung out the next day: it is the darkness of stairwells, gambling corners, cheap lodgings, sudden encounters. And the promise is not in what will flare against it, but in the darkness itself. The shelter it offers is only relative, for the chiaroscuro reveals violence, suffering, longing, mortality, but at least it reveals them intimately. What has been banished, along with the daylight, are distance and solitude—and both these are feared by the underworld.

Those who live precariously and are habitually crowded together develop a phobia about open spaces which transforms their frustrating lack of space and privacy into something reassuring. He shared those fears.

The Calling of St Matthew depicts five men sitting round their usual table, telling stories, gossiping, boasting of what one day they will do, counting money. The room is dimly lit. Suddenly the door is flung open. The two figures who enter are still part of the violent noise and light of the invasion. (Berenson wrote that Christ, who is one of the figures, comes in like a police inspector to make an arrest.)

Two of Matthew’s colleagues refuse to look up, the other two younger ones stare at the strangers with a mixture of curiosity and condescension. Why is he proposing something so mad? Who’s protecting him, the thin one who does all the talking? And Matthew, the tax-collector with a shifty conscience which has made him more unreasonable than most of his colleagues, points at himself and asks:Is it really I who must go? Is it really I who must follow you?

How many thousands of decisions to leave have resembled Christ’s hand here! The hand is held out towards the one who has to decide, yet it is ungraspable because so fluid. It orders the way, yet offers no direct support. Matthew will get up and follow the thin stranger from the room, down the narrow streets, out of the district. He will write his gospel, he will travel to Ethiopia and the South Caspian and Persia. Probably he will be murdered.

And behind the drama of this moment of decision in the room at the top of the stairs, there is a window, giving onto the outside world. Traditionally in painting, windows were treated either as sources of light or as frames framing nature or framing an exemplary event outside. Not so this window. No light enters by it. The window is opaque. We see nothing. Mercifully we see nothing because what is outside is bound to be threatening. It is a window through which only the worst news can come.

Caravaggio was a heretical painter: his works were rejected or criticised by the Church because of their subject matter, although certain Church figures defended him. His heresy consisted of transposing religious themes into popular tragedies. The fact that for The Death of the Virgin he reputedly took as a model a drowned prostitute is only half the story: the more important half is that the dead woman is laid out as the poor lay out their dead, and the mourners mourn her as the poor mourn. As the poor still mourn.

There’s no cemetery at Marinella or Selinunte, so when somebody dies we take him to the station and send him to Castelvetrano. Then us fishermen stick together. We pay our respects to the stricken family. ‘He was a good man. It’s a real loss, he had lots of good years ahead of him.’ Then we go off to tend to our business in the port, but we never stop talking about the deceased and for three whole days we don’t go out to fish. And close relatives or friends feed the mourners’ families for at least a week.

Other Mannerist painters of the period produced turbulent crowd scenes, but their spirit was very different; a crowd was seen as a sign of calamity—like fire or flood—and the mood was of terrestrial damnation. The spectator observed, from a privileged position, a cosmic theater. By contrast, Caravaggio’s congested canvases are simply made up of individuals living cheek-by-jowl, coexisting in a confined space.

The underworld is full of theatre, but one that has nothing to do with either cosmic effects or ruling-class entertainment. In the daily theatre of the underworld everything is close-to and emphatic. What is being ‘played’ may any moment become ‘for real’. There is no protective space and no hierarchical focus of interest. Caravaggio was continually being criticised for exactly this—the lack of discrimination in his paintings, their overall intensity, their lack of a proper distance.

The underworld displays itself in hiding. This is the paradox of its social atmosphere and the expression of one of its deepest needs. It has its own heroes and villains, its own honour and dishonour, and these are celebrated by legends, stories, daily performances. The last are often somewhat like rehearsals for real exploits. They are scenes, created on the spur of the moment, in which people play themselves, pushed to the limit. If these ‘performances’ did not take place, the alternative moral code and honour of the underworld would be in danger of being forgotten—or, to put it better, the negative judgement, the opprobrium of the surrounding society, would advance apace.

The underworld’s survival and pride depend upon theatre, a theatre where everyone is flamboyantly playing and proving himself, and yet where an individual’s survival may well depend on his lying low or his not being seen. The consequent tension produces a special kind of expressive urgency in which gestures fill all the space available, in which a life’s desire may be expressed by a glance. This amounts to another kind of overcrowding, another kind of density.

Caravaggio is the painter of the underworld, and he is also the exceptional and profound painter of sexual desire. Beside him most heterosexual painters look like pimps undressing their ‘ideals’ for the spectator. He, though, had eyes only for the desired.

Desire changes its character by 180 degrees. Often, when first aroused, it is felt as the desire to have. The desire to touch is, partly, the desire to lay hands on, to take. Later, transformed, the same desire becomes a desire to be taken, to lose oneself within the desired. From these two opposed moments come one of the dialectics of desire; both moments apply to both sexes and they oscillate. Clearly the second moment, the desire to lose oneself within, is the most abandoned, the most desperate, and it is the one that Caravaggio chose (or was compelled) to reveal in many of his paintings.

The gestures of his figures are sometimes—given the nominal subject matter—ambiguously sexual. A six-year-old child fingers the Madonna’s bodice; the Madonna’s hand invisibly caresses his thigh under his shirt. An angel strokes the back of St Matthew’s evangelical hand like a prostitute with an elderly client. A young St John the Baptist holds the foreleg of a sheep between his legs as if it were a penis.

Almost every act of touching which Caravaggio painted has a sexual charge. Even when two different substances (fur and skin, rags and hair, metal and blood) come into contact with one another, their contact becomes an act of touching. In his painting of a young boy as Cupid, the feather of one of the boy’s wing tips touches his own upper thigh with a lover’s precision. That the boy can control his reaction, that he does not allow himself to quiver in response, is part of his deliberate elusiveness, of his half-mocking, half-acknowledging practice as a seducer. I think of the marvelous Greek poet Cavafy:

“For a month we loved each other
Then he went away, I think to Smyrna,
To work there; we never saw each other again.
The grey eyes—if he lives—have lost their beauty;
The beautiful face will have been spoiled.
O Memory, preserve them as they were.
And, Memory, all you can of this love of mine
Whatever you can bring back to me tonight.”

There is a special facial expression which, painted, exists only in Caravaggio. It is the expression on Judith’s face in Judith and Holofernes, on the boy’s face in the Boy Being Bitten by a Lizard, on Narcissus’s face as he gazes into the water, on David’s as he holds up the head of Goliath by the giant’s hair. It is an expression of closed concentration and openness, of force and vulnerability, of determination and pity. Yet all those words are too ethical. I have seen a not dissimilar expression on the face of animals—before mating and before a kill.

To think of it in sado-masochistic terms would be absurd. It goes deeper than any personal predilection. If it vacillates, this expression, between pleasure and pain, passion and reluctance, it is because such a dichotomy is inherent in sexual experience itself. Sexuality is the result of an original unity being destroyed, of separation. And, in this world as it is, sexuality promises, as nothing else can, momentary completion. It touches a love to oppose the original cruelty.

The faces he painted are illuminated by that knowledge, deep as a wound. They are the faces of the fallen—and they offer themselves to desire with a truthfulness which only the fallen know to exist.

To lose oneself within the desired. How did Caravaggio express that in the way he painted bodies? Two young men, half dressed or undressed. Although young, their bodies bear the marks of use and experience. Soiled hands. A thigh already going to fat. Worn feet. A torso (with its nipple like an eye) which was born, grew up, sweats, pants, turns sleepless in the night—never a torso sculpted from an ideal. Not being innocent, their bodies contain experience.

And this means that their sentience can become palpable; on the other side of their skin is a universe. The flesh of the desired body is not a dreamt-of destination, but an immediate point of departure. Their very appearance beckons towards the implicit—in the most unfamiliar, carnal sense of that word. Caravaggio, painting them, dreams of their depths.

In Caravaggio’s art, as one might expect, there is no property. A few tools and recipients, chairs and a table. And so around his figures there is little of interest. A body flares with light in an interior of darkness. The impersonal surroundings—like the world outside the window—can be forgotten. The desired body disclosed in the darkness, the darkness which is not a question of the time of day or night but of life as it is on this planet, the desired body, flaring like an apparition, beckons beyond—not by provocative gesture, but by the undisguised fact of its own sentience, promising the universe lying on the far side of its skin, calling you to leave. On the desired face an expression which goes further, much further, than invitation; for it is an acknowledgment of the self, of the cruelty of the world and of the one shelter, the one gift: to sleep together. Here. Now.

The Death of the Virgin, 1604–06

Thanks to Verso Books—and Colin Beckett in particular—for enabling First to reprint Berger’s piece, which is included in the collection, edited by Tom Overton: Portraits, John Berger on Artists.

Black Lives Matter (Per Winslow Homer)

By Peter Wood

Near Andersonville by Winslow Homer Newark Museum

Near Andersonville, Winslow Homer (Newark Museum).

Peter Wood’s recovery of the revolutionary content of Homer’s “Near Andersonville” reminded your editor of John Berger’s work (and T.J. Clark’s). When I asked Wood if I might include a talk he gave on “Near Andersonville” as part of First‘s tribute to Berger, he not only gave me dispensation to repost his revelatory rap at the Smithsonian (see the video below) but recalled how…

Berger has always been a hero of mine.  In  the 1980s, I created an unusual interdisciplinary course at Duke entitled “History and Visual Image.”  The first and most important book was “Ways of Seeing.”

It was also in the 1980s that I worked with art historian Karen Dalton to create an exhibition and catalogue entitled “Winslow Homer’s Images of Blacks: The Civil War and Reconstruction Years.”  The exhibit opened in Houston, since we had strong support from that city’s Menil Foundation, which had embarked on a monumental project, now housed at Harvard, entitled “The Image of the Black in Western Art.”

That exhibition had a significant impact on a generation of American art historians and admirers of Winslow Homer, since this aspect of the famous artist’s work had rarely been acknowledged or discussed.  I went on to write an entire book “Weathering the Storm,” about Homer’s best-known and most powerful black image, the 1899 oil painting in New York’s Metropolitan Museum entitled “The Gulf Stream.”

Interest in that book led to an invitation to give the Nathan Huggins Lectures in African American History at Harvard, where I chose to focus on Homer’s earliest and least known African American image, a painting from 1866 in the Newark Museum of Art.  Harvard University Press published the lectures in 2010 as “Near Andersonville: Winslow Homer’s Civil War.”

Since the book appeared at the start of the Civil War Sesquicentennial, I gave numerous lectures about the subject over the next few years, and I would be honored, of course, if you could embed one of those talks in your tribute to Berger.

Peter Wood is the first speaker in the Smithsonian panel embedded below.

Hear in the City

By Benj DeMott

I had a dream where I was a strange dealer, a dealer in looks or appearances. I collected or distributed them.  And in the dream, I had just discovered a secret. I discovered it on my own, no help. The secret was to get inside whatever I was looking at.  Get inside it. When I woke up from that dream, I couldn’t remember how it was done. And I now no longer know how to get inside things.—John Berger

I once dreamt I knew. Here’s an essay (originally published in The City Sun in 1990) inspired by Berger’s practice…

The first thing you notice is a vertical walkway winding through the middle of the cityscape. Fernand Leger’s paining, The City, invites you to climb up and into its bright billboard of life. And once you’re there, it’s the move. Zero in on any corner of this cubist block and the whole picture changes before your eyes. All that’s solid melts into another point of view, another warm angle.

Inside The City, at MOMA, I felt how I feel when I’ve been away from New York and whip back into town with my brain between my legs. I seemed like a picture of happiness. Until I looked at it with a Detroit-bred buddy. His experience tells him The City is a well-lit nightmare—a maze of killing hopes and double-binding attractions. Instead of being taken in by the picture’s illusions of depth, he assumes its heap of angles are all dead ends.

Leger was no folkie and no dystopian—The City is pumping with possibility—but my main Motown man wasn’t forcing a morose mood on the picture. Brilliant reds and greens run into walls of black paint. That heavenly stairway vertigos to No Exit. Two figures on it may be going down slow—sliding from a block of urban delights to bleaker streets. Their progress links The City’s thrill with a million miseries now.

It’s rare to find high art like Leger’s that maps felt intersections in modern cities. And that’s why rap music matters and why it should be on the soundtrack for MOMA’s High Low show. Hip hop’s most inventive pop modernists are Leger’s soulmates.

The storylines of two current rap tracks—Ice Cube’s “The Product” and Eric B and Rakim’s “In the Ghetto”—lead listeners into city lives. Ice Cube gives up charismatically as he plays a stick-up kid who goes straight but still ends up in the joint after a run-in with a dirty cop. Playing himself, Rakim comes correct and overcomes.

“In the Ghetto’s” spare, echo-y mix hollows out a black hole for Rakim’s rap. He rolls out of this sound tunnel, taking you on a night-trip into—and beyond—the ghetto.  “The Product” gets busy like a Public Enemy arrangement or an Altman soundtrack. Before Ice Cube enters venting, you’re stuck on the street, surrounded by gritty city sounds and a crowd of amped up voices – little Sisters and pissed-off parents, lost soul singers and stranger homies, a tv talking head and L.L. Cool J.

Up in front of this sampled society, Ice Cube’s narrator reviews his past. Which is always in his face. He’s stuck in a rigid present tense. Now he’s in history class “learning about a sucker who didn’t give a fuck about me.” Now he’s on the street steady mobbing. Now he’s in prison “where all products go.” Ice Cube’s con artist regrets his crimes. He’s a baby daddy who’s ashamed to be away from his son, yet his mea culpas are muted. He saves most of his pity for himself. Ice Cube’s history of this systematically fucked-over fool is marked by a backward, exculpatory logic. “The Product” jumps off with a fatal, macho vision:

“I didn’t witness the whole act
In and out was the movement of the bozack
It was hot and sweaty and lots of pushing
Then the nut came gushing
And it was hell trying to bail to the ovary
With nothing but the Lord looking over me
I was white with a tail
But when I hit the finish line

Ice Cube invokes official jargon of law enforcement, defining his generic homie as a perp in the making—“So now I’m an embryo, so I gotta hunch I’m gonna be in lockdown for nine months.” This prisoner of sex’s lines may be over the top but his artful exaggerations get all up in your mind.

“The Product’s” production means to make Cube’s case. His doomy naturalism is in the mix which features soundbites of negative reinforcement. Elder Afro-Americans dis on him—“You ain’t shit!” — and a tv voice provides objectifying analysis.

Samples of negativism turn up in Rakim’s “Ghetto,” too. The chorus marries a dour b-boy. (“Nobody’s smiling”) to a chilly Sister (“You ain’t gonna think positive”). But Rakim divorces them. Inching past resignation, R’s on the rise:

“Times were hard on the boulevard
It seemed like I was locked in hell
Looking over the edge, the R never fell
Or tripped or slipped cos my Nikes got grip.”

Rakim is kicked back — “I’m so low-key, you might not even notice me.” He’s much cooler than Ice Cube. His autodidact’s style makes “In the Ghetto” a lesson in life-time learning. The verbal example of his young pro proves rap offers B-boys an alternative to throwing down mindlessly or throwing up their hands. The message in his chorus: “It’s not where you’re from but where you’re at”—contradicts Ice Cube’s.

Rakim’s not beyond institutional “be-all-I-can-be” positivity. But at the hot Afro-center of his rap, he waits for truer inspiration—“I relax in my room”—and gets some by imagining his own conception:

“Thinking how hard it was for me to be born
Me being cream with no physical form
Millions of cells with one destination
To reach the best part of…it’s life’s creation”

Ice Cube’s own creative speech-act beats Rakim’s. But the R got there first. Competition between their rhythm methods defines the relation between tradition and individual talent in Hip Hop’s counterculture.

Rakim’s sexual stance couples boasting with Black Nationalist romance. This love man from the projects has “visions of Nefertiti.”  He doesn’t share Ice Cube’s frostiness toward Black women. Rakim loves himself (and his mama).

After idealizing “through the womb,” he’s off on an African head trip to the Motherland. As he goes solo, there’s a moment of silence in the city. Freed from New York (and “In the Ghetto’s underwordly mix) he socializes in the dark—“I stop and think the Brothers and Sisters in Africa.”

When the beat’s back, Rakim’s back on the block, where every Brother ain’t a brother. But he’s returned with an internationalist view of the ghetto. “Under the dark skies, on the dark side. Not only there but here’s an apartheid.” His Black consciousness politicizes his idea of self-control. He urges his community to think forward and critiques criminal-mindedness.

He’s on his way to becoming the kind of hero John Berger once envisioned: “The function of the hero in art is to inspire the reader or spectator to continue in the same spirit from where he [sic] the hero left off. He must release the spectator’s potentiality…And to do this the hero must be typical of the characters and class who at that time need only to be made aware of their heroic potentiality in order to make their society juster and nobler.”

Rakim’s already helped to release Ice Cube’s rap-potentiality. Cube, however, seems content to remain an anti-hero. He intends to offend racists but his stance is pre-political.  “The Product” is nihil-prop. Ice Cube’s reject of responsibility might cause heart failures; his rhymes imply ghetto vets can’t make history. Yet Ice Cube’s rap-acting gives the lie to his downpressing determinism. When his con curses his own condition—“I’m FUCKED!”—his explosive voicing of that expletive proves he has the energy to fight the power. What’s missing is Rakim’s faith…


Looking back now, I realize there’s one more thing to get inside (and one more R&B hero to invoke) before this movement of mind feels done.  My wannabe Bergeresque journey into the city should’ve ended with an evocation of Donny Hathaway’s “The Ghetto” (1970)…

Hathaway’s sound of the city aims for a loose house party feel though it’s as carefully constructed as the surrounds on Ice Cube’s and Rakim’s tracks. Hathaway’s underscores the currency of his riffs on electric piano—a novel instrument in 1970—with bluesy comping on acoustic piano. As his keyboards flash and burn, blackground voices contextualize: “You better get a job.”…“Party tonight ya’ll”…. “Where at?”  “Pass the joint”… The pianos answer and a male chorus gets heavier, naming the place to be—“The Ghetto”—relentlessly.  Hathaway’s song—according to unpretentious liner notes for the 1970 solo album on which it appeared—“takes you not on a tour of desperation and deprivation but an exploration of the elements of the street that we enjoy.” Yet Hathaway’s joy encompasses hoods full of hurt.  His signifying shout-out “Everything is Everything”—explains “The Ghetto” better than his official interpretation. Desperation and deprivation are in the tense mix. Congas beat down the pianos’ lyricism and an impassioned voice drops pressure—“You better leave her alone.” When a baby’s cry morphs into horn-like high notes, “The Ghetto” gets it all. There’s nothing reductive about this moving sound. It wails the need behind a Nation’s natural-born artists—that original dependent relation to the universe which makes their self-mastery and soul fulfillment so very necessary to black have-nots. In art begins freedom (and responsibilities).

Ways of Seeing, Practices of Looking

By Marita Sturken

I count Ways of Seeing as one of my early influences. My copy of the book still has marginalia that I scrawled on its pages when I was an undergraduate in the late 1970s (outraged notes of ‘no!’ at the declaration ‘men act and women appear’ [original emphases]) that indicate that I had yet to develop the reading skills to understand the difference between embracing a position and critiquing it. That seems like a very long time ago, certainly long enough ago for nostalgia. Yet the book’s ongoing resonance is remarkable. The revolutionary qualities of Ways of Seeing have only become more apparent with time.

I attribute much of the book’s continued relevance to its declarative voice–assured, unapologetic, and bold. It is filled with highly quotable phrases: ‘Seeing comes before words’; ‘To look is an act of choice’; ‘The visible world is arranged for the spectator as the universe was once thought to be arranged for God’; and even, it must be admitted, that vexing ‘men act and women appear.’ The mode of address of Ways of Seeing manages to be both declarative and suggestive. The book does not do a significant amount of textual analysis, rather it gives the reader various frameworks to interpret a broad array of images on its pages. Some of its essays are purely visual, inviting viewers to make connections and see patterns without guiding them with a proscribed narrative.

My co-authored book, Practices of Looking: An Introduction to Visual Culture, written with Lisa Cartwright, deliberately riffs off Berger’s title (from ways of seeing to practices of looking) and, in our words, takes the cross-disciplinary model of Ways of Seeing as a ‘distant inspiration’. In an early version of Practices of Looking, we submitted a manuscript that attempted to replicate this declarative tone, one with images that, like Ways of Seeing, dotted the pages in a way that asked the viewer to do their own interpretation. It is perhaps not incidental that we were told by readers (this would have been in about 1999) that this declarative–suggestive approach would not work, that we needed to guide, analyze, and demonstrate visual analysis more. Our book thus migrated from the Ways of Seeing free form, one that has appealed for 40 years to general readers as well as students, to a more insistently pedagogical style. One could speculate that Ways of Seeing paved the way not only for teaching books on visual culture but for the vast publishing domain of books that have minimal text and many images open to interpretation exemplified by Taschen (a publishing enterprise that replicates its embrace of images without, of course, its Marxist critique).

It is precisely the unself-conscious way in which Ways of Seeing makes connections across social arenas that marks the most radical nature of its intervention. At the time of the BBC series and the book’s publication in 1972, the kind of contemporary disciplinary boundary crossing that now characterizes the field of visual culture had little currency. The mixing of art history, cultural analysis, and communication theory, the deployment of Walter Benjamin and Marxist theory, all commonplace within a decade or two, were adept and crucial interventions when Berger and his collaborators enacted them. Most importantly, in the approach of the book and the TV series, it is a given that images from different social arenas such as news, advertising, and art, not only influence each other but share vocabularies, approaches, and intents.

The radical nature of the book’s interdisciplinary approach can be seen most clearly in the book’s final chapter on publicity and art. While the notion that art and advertising occupy different social realms and registers continues to hold sway (with art retaining much higher cultural capital and advertising defined as a debased form of visual culture), the fact is that their histories are long intertwined and the industry of advertising has long borrowed from art and modern art from advertising. In the 1910s and 1920s, for instance, modern design evolved across art, industrial design, and advertising in cross-fertilized ways, with art deco and art nouveau very common styles for the advertisement of modern products.

The move in Ways of Seeing to see advertising, a visual form relegated to the study of communication and persuasion, in relation to art history, with its own disciplinary boundary policing, was certainly bold. And it is precisely the declarative tone of the book that allows this new way of considering publicity/advertising to make sense. Thus, the book shifts an analysis of publicity/advertising from the study of the industry’s strategies, rhetoric, and persuasive tactics, to an understanding of advertising as a language of transformation, as part of a visual language that intersects with and borrows from art, news images, and other visual forms. As the book declares:

Publicity is not merely an assembly of competing messages: it is a language in itself which is always being used to make the same general proposal … It proposes to each of us that we transform ourselves, or our lives, by buying something more. (p. 131)

Transformation and envy are the key themes made clear in this final chapter. Glamour is defined here not as a standard of beauty or way of looking so much as it is the state of being envied. The glamorous do not see us, we gaze upon them with envy and, in another highly quotable phrase, this ‘explains the absent, unfocused look of so many glamour images. They look out over the looks of envy which sustain them’ (p. 133). Publicity works on anxiety, it defines the present as insufficient as it speaks a language of the future, and it is eventless: ‘Experience is impossible within it. All that happens, happens outside it’ (p. 153).

The migration from publicity/advertising as a category of visual images to the complex multi-media saturation of brand culture has created a dramatically different world of consumerism in 2012 from that of 1972. Yet, the declarative statements of Ways of Seeing remain sharply relevant in the context of iPad and social media culture. The language of publicity is not just of selling, it is that of transformation. And, in the complex image culture today, with its digital networks, linkages, aggregation, and rapid, viral circulation, we can still say, ‘Seeing comes before words.’

Originally published in Journal of Visual Culture (2012).


By Benj DeMott

An exchange between John Berger and Susan Sontag in an otherwise bland tv talk about storytelling has stayed with me. After Sontag had talked up the novel’s “rites of intensity,” Berger brought her up short:

Here we really differ. There is no intensity in a story that matches the intensity of what is lived. And we have two different views because in a way you – you say want to be carried away by a story. I want the story to stop things being carried away into…oblivion, into indifference.

I’ve invoked Berger’s point on occasion over the years, and I’ve been struck by the intensity of the resistance to it (from academics in particular). I suspect a refusal to accept Berger’s break between lit and life may be a sign not of high bookishness but of dessication.

I don’t want to leave the impression Berger cultivated grubby anti-intellectualism. In a wonderful story, “Krakow,” based on his own coming of age, he tells how he shared with his most important early mentor “a tacit understanding…that we learn—or try to learn—how to live partly from books.” He cherishes the books (and authors) his knowing friend steered him to—Down and Out in Paris and London and Homage to Catalonia, Swann’s Way, Ulysses, The Tropic of Cancer, The Elephant Man and Other Reminiscences, The Life and Opinions of Tristam Shandy. (As I read through Berger’s good list, I was reminded of one that got away. Perhaps because another literate Marxist, C.L.R. James, once mused that Vanity Fair, which he read over and over as a child, mattered more to him than any work by the Old Moor.)

Berger’s teacher taught him plenty about books and life but his story implies his older friend, “Ken” (whose invented name invokes the vision thing), took lessons from him too, learning, for example, “how to read well out loud.” The trick? “You didn’t read the end of the sentence until you got there, that was your secret. You refused to look ahead.” Which is the way to roll if you’re out to nurture a child’s faith books are wha’ppening things.

I should allow there was a stretch when Berger lost his capacity to surprise me. I was put off by his refusal to celebrate 1989 and, later, by his post-9/11 flirtations with anti-anti-Islamism (and the celeb-mongering Left). Even after the sweetness of his life’s work won me back over, my instinct to counter his “permanent red” politics made me think of pairing a review of his last collection, Landscapes, with a look at Kingsley Amis’s memoir.  Echt Brit Amis (who started out on the Left but famously became a Tory) was driven right in part by Leftists’ failure to think straight about Soviet Communism. In his memoir, Amis recounts a conversation between his friend, Robert Conquest, who wrote definitive histories of Soviet crimes against humanity, and a young editor who contacted Conquest after the Wall came down, proposing to put out new editions of Conquest’s works on the Soviets. That bright young editor, though, wanted to give those books new titles. Conquest came up with one right away: “I Told You So You Fucking Fools.”

I doubt Berger could’ve slipped that hit, though he was some kind of Trot not a proud Stalinist.

Berger and Amis shared a refusal to bow to the religion of modernism. Amis and his crew despised “Pound, Parker and Picasso.” Berger, of course, was more ambivalent as the title—The Success and Failure of Picasso—of his most sustained work of criticism suggests. Beyond, or better beneath, their differences over politics and modernism, was a divergence in their angles on their motherland. Amis felt at ease in the UK (even as he was taking the piss out of it).  Berger had to get OUT!  He ended up migrating to a French peasant community in the early 60s. (No swinging London for him. Amis, OTOH, was, ((as soon to be ex-wife once wrote on his back as he lay drunk on a beach)): “1 Fat Englishman. I fuck anything.”)

Berger recalls in that story/essay, “Krakow,” how he prepped during his adolescence for his eventual move away from England. His mentor Ken was a worldly sort—a New Zealander who’d fought in Spain and loved Paris.  Berger calls Ken his “passeur”—the French term for a person who helps you cross borders.

Berger’s passeur steered the teenager toward cosmopolitanism and adulthood. And there was another border they crossed together. Ken wasn’t just Berger’s mentor; he was his lover too.

Beneath the damasked bedcover, during nights punctuated by air raid sirens, I sometimes felt a burning in Ken’s erect member. The tumescence came unasked and waited like a pain, a pain that had to be staunched low down in the middle of his long body.  Soon afterwards, in the bed damp with spunk and tears from his eyes without glasses, sleep came swiftly to both of us.

A passage that now ripples over any reading of Berger on Caravaggio (or Modigliani).

In “Krakow” Berger’s imagined return to his passeur Ken (who died decades before) is suffused with a sense of mortality. Berger knows he has one more border to cross before his Big Sleep.

But this reader don’t need no rockin’ chair yet. Bet Berger wouldn’t have minded if I leave off this tribute to his vision by looking for more light.

I’ve got lousy eyes and my sight has gotten worse lately due to cataracts. (It’s too early, apparently, for any heavy intervention now as cataracts must “ripen.”) Late in his life, Berger had cataract surgery. His report on the aftermath has me feening for my dewy seventies:

The removal of cataracts is comparable to the removal of a particular sort of forgetfulness. Your eyes begin to remember first times. And it is in this sense that what they experience after the intervention is a kind of visual renaissance. The unstartling heterogeneousness of the existent has marvelously returned. And the two eyes, portcullises now removed again and again register surprise.  Tomorrow it will be eight weeks after the operation. If I try to sum up the experience of looking, I’d say it’s like suddenly finding oneself in a scene painted by Vermeer. The surface of everything you are looking at is covered with a dew of light.