Spinoza of Wall Street

John Berger Writes on Art, Politics and Philosophy

Two Wheels Good: John Berger briefly discusses this 60-year-old bicycle, a painted sketch of which he includes in ‘Bento’s Sketchbook.’
berger/ pantheon books
Two Wheels Good: John Berger briefly discusses this 60-year-old bicycle, a painted sketch of which he includes in ‘Bento’s Sketchbook.’

By Ezra Glinter

Published December 15, 2011, issue of December 23, 2011.
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In “Bento’s Sketchbook,” Berger further distinguishes between two types of art: that which is “introverted” and that which is “extroverted.” He means this “not psychologically but corporally, in terms of focus and attention … the priority given to the hidden or the displayed, to the invisible or the visible, to the contained or the free.” Both are valid forms of expression, but it is the former category that pertains most to our time. While art directly related to the condition of the world might seem more crucial, “introverted” art is better able to persist in the face of insoluble difficulty. It is powerful, Berger writes, “because its stories remain unfinished … because for them mystery is not something to be solved but to be carried.”

Berger’s own work exemplifies both categories. In his criticism he is fiercely political and he does not shy away from naming injustice where he sees it. Throughout his life he has identified as a Marxist, and he regularly argues for leftist political positions. In 1972, when he won the Booker Prize for his novel “G.,” he caused a furor by using his acceptance speech to criticize Booker McConnell Ltd., for its business interests in the Caribbean, and to donate half of the prize money to the British Black Panther party.

Yet Berger’s is a humanistic, open-minded Marxism. His opposition to capitalism stems not from a narrow theory of history but from the lived experience of people the world over. Even when his politics lead to controversial positions, he articulates and pursues them with characteristic nuance. In 2006, he supported a cultural boycott of Israel, but qualified it by saying that it was intended only to affect the Israeli government and corporations. In his case, he wrote in the Guardian, he refused to have his books brought out by major Israeli publishers but would be happy to have them published by smaller houses that worked to further Israeli-Palestinian literary exchange.

When it comes to art, Berger’s political outlook manifests itself as a refusal to examine works in a vacuum. He considers not just their aesthetic qualities, but also their social function, in historical as well as contemporary contexts. He has frequently argued that the primary function of most art works is as property, and that they are therefore reactionary, regardless of their content. (For this reason it seems that for Berger, Spinoza’s lost notebook may be the perfect work of art, precisely because it doesn’t exist, and therefore cannot be owned.) It is a position with which, given the intense commercialization of the contemporary art world, it is difficult to disagree.

Yet Berger is also fascinated by the formal properties of art, and is an expert at revealing the layers of meaning contained in a single painting. Though art may serve ulterior social and economic functions, it can also possess its own autonomous existence, reordering and presenting our visual experience of the world. As an artist himself, Berger is entranced by the moment when marks on a piece of paper start to become a drawing — the “moment of crisis” when one “begins to draw according to the demands, the needs of the drawing” — or by the gulf that lies between a painter’s glance at the landscape before him and the canvas by his hand.

Although much of Berger’s criticism consists of tightly argued, analytical interpretations of paintings and artists, he is also a master of the informal, observational essay, and it is this type that dominates “Bento’s Sketchbook.” He writes lyrically about trying to draw a cluster of quetsch plums growing in his yard and about the time he gave away a Japanese sho brush to a Cambodian friend he met at the public swimming pool. Other essays address the pleasures of riding his Honda CBR 1100 motorcycle and his relationship with the East German publisher Erhard Frommhold, whom he considers a kind of “elected elder brother.”

Berger’s drawings have a similarly tender quality. They are delicate, almost fragile, and seem to exemplify his idea of “introspective” art. As he writes in a kind of refrain that follows the first few pieces in the book, “We who draw do so not only to make something observed visible to others, but also to accompany something invisible to its incalculable destination.”

For Berger, this kind of work, with its “incalculable destination,” also has a unique relationship to our experience of time. In his landmark 1972 BBC television series and its accompanying book, “Ways of Seeing,” Berger observes how “it’s as if the painting — absolutely still, soundless — becomes a corridor, connecting the moment it represents with the moment at which you are looking at it.” This idea is inspired by Spinoza, for whom all things have an equal degree of reality, regardless of when, or for how long, they existed. “Everything,” Spinoza writes, “whether it be more or less perfect, will always be able to persist in existing with the same force with which it began to exist, so that in this all things are equal.”

This notion is crucial to Berger’s approach to the problem of powerlessness. If one considers each moment to have its own intrinsic significance, then what exists in that moment is as important, and as real, as what the outcome of that moment might be. While art illustrates this truth, its implications are political. “One protests,” Berger writes, “in order to save the present moment, whatever the future holds.” Moreover, as he argues in an earlier essay, “The foreseeing of this final logic is part of what enables a man or a people to fight against overwhelming odds. It is part of the secret of the moral factor which counts as three to one against weapon power.”

It is hard not to read these sentences without thinking not only of current events, but of untold episodes in Jewish history. When the Warsaw Ghetto fighters took up arms, it was not because they believed they could beat the entire Nazi war machine. When protesters in Syria go out today, it is with the knowledge that they may not come home. But in all cases the present can, and has been, saved.

Unlike many other political thinkers, Berger has remained true in his old age to the ideals of his youth. What has sustained his optimism, his idealism, his ability to persevere? Perhaps it is just such an outlook. It does not promise victory, but it is resistant to defeat. It is skeptical, but remains steadfast. It is a philosophy of hope, tempered by experience, and without illusion.


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