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A Gift for John Berger by Ali Smith

"John Berger is one of the world’s most vital corresponders" - Ali Smith introduces John Berger at a landmark British Library event.

Ali Smith 6 December 2018

John Berger and Ali Smith backstage at the launch of Portraits: John Berger on Artists at the British Library, September 2015. Photo credit: Verso Books

There’s a piece in a recent issue of the New Statesman where John Berger, who is one of the world’s most vital corresponders, talks, in a letter he writes, to Rosa Luxemburg, the long-dead (murdered in 1919) revolutionary socialist writer, Marxist activist and philosopher. Yes, but he doesn’t just talk to her, he talks with her, via some of the writing from letters she wrote herself, often when she was in prison. “Freedom,” Luxemburg tells him, and he reminds us, “is always the freedom of the one who thinks differently.” In this piece, Berger writes a freedom for her. “No single page and none of the prison cells they repeatedly put you in could ever contain you,” he writes. He also sends her a gift, a wooden box of painted birds, painted words – a box, it says on it, of bird song. He tells her its history and he sends that history along with the box. “I can send it to you by writing, in this dark time, these pages.”

Here’s the gist of an email that came for me a couple of months ago. Dear Ali, can you write an “appreciation” of John’s writing, ideas and influence, about why his work truly matters, and can it be between five and eight minutes long?

How about forty years long? Because I could say that everything I’ve ever written or aspired to write has been in one way or another an appreciation of the work of John Berger. Berger, a force of unselfishness in a culture that encourages solipsism, an insister on open eyes, on the recalibration and re-energising of thinking, feeling, fiercely compassionate, fiercely uncompromising vision in a time that encourages looking away or looking only at the mirror images that create power and make money. Berger, who suggests that the aesthetic act, that art itself, is always collaborative, always in dialogue, or multilogue, a communal act, and one that involves questioning of form and of the given shape of things and forms. Berger, who can do anything with a text, but most of all will make it about the gift of engagement, correspondence – well, I can’t give him anything but love, baby, it’s the only thing I’ve plenty of, and that’s what comes off all his work for me, fervent and warm and vital, an inclusive and procreative energy I can only call love. 

My encounters with John Berger, whom I hadn’t met till tonight, have always been vitally personal, coup de foudre then coup de foudre again, then the next time I read him, coup de foudre, struck by light, by enlightenment. I suspect many of his readers would recognise that sense of being literally struck, gifted something that makes you more than yourself – the thing that happens when the work you’re reading or the art you’re seeing actually demands of you that you engage, passes out of itself and takes up residence in the self, in correspondence with it.

This movement, which happens so often in the reading of Berger, concerns art and love and the political heft of both, because in John Berger’s work love and art and political and historical understanding are always in layered combination. There are many other writers and artists who work with this relation, but none with quite the transformatory fusion of his combining, which is a bit like encountering what clarity really is, what the word means, like looking through pure water and seeing things naturally magnified. He writes, in Portraits, a new collection of his writing on art over his lifetime, about the working presence of the word “art” in the word “articulation”, about how the two words share a root, “to put together, to join, to fit . . . a question of a comparable flow of connections”.

In this flow, things simply become apparent, or more apparent. “The speed of a cinema film is 25 frames per second. God knows how many frames per second flicker past in our daily perception. But it is as if, at the brief moments I’m talking about, suddenly and disconcertingly we see between two frames. We come upon a part of the visible which wasn’t destined for us. Perhaps it was destined for night-birds, reindeer, ferrets, eels, whales . . .” as he writes elsewhere. Berger grants or creates something extrasensory by what he writes, and in the most natural possible way, as if nature and the human eye are already in their own liaison, and we have to catch up the knowing, get to where we’ll begin to know what it is we’re seeing. It’s a democratic looking. Berger’s take on invisibility is always about inclusion, has always been about the politically not-seen, the dispossessed, the people made to serve under so that there can be ruling classes, and via Berger the ear acts with the eye to hear the otherwise drowned-out and inaudible – the voices of the invisible. 

The act of going beyond ourselves is the art act. Writing about Cézanne he calls it “his love affair, his liaison, with the visible”. Here he is on Rembrandt’s A Woman Bathing: “We are with her, inside the shift she is holding up. Not as voyeurs. Not lecherously, like the elders spying on Susanna. It is simply that we are led, by the tenderness of his love, to inhabit her body’s space.” He quotes Simone Weil: “Love for our neighbour, being made of creative attention, is analogous to genius.” Unsurprisingly then, but always electrifyingly, he is one of the great writers on the subject of love: “A person loved is recognised not by attainments but by the verbs which can satisfy that person.” And love is an art, and art is a matter of physical love and generation: “At the best moments one draws with the whole body – genitals included,” he says in a piece on Maggi Hambling, in Portraits

One of the things I love in Berger’s vision is his insistence on the artist not as creator, but receiver, as a figure crucially open and receptive, since art’s impetus is essentially collaborative or communal. Storytellers, he suggests, must “lose their identities”. It’s the only way to be “open to the lives of other people”. This open self-effacement is part of the act: as he says in A Seventh Man, his 1975 book on migrant workers in Europe, “To try to understand the experience of another it is necessary to dismantle the world as seen from one’s own place within it and to reassemble it as seen from his.” Art as a natural border-crosser: “If one thinks of appearances as a frontier, one might say that painters search for messages which cross the frontier.” And since we’re talking frontiers and the crossing of them – if Cézanne said of Monet, “Monet is only an eye, but my God, what an eye,” I’m going to say of Berger, Berger is only a man, but my God, the multitude of us, here, gone, and yet to come, that’s in him.

What a fruition, what a seer of past and of futures, of the damage that “the poverty of the new capitalism” would do to the multitude across all the frontiers, the people desperate right now to cross the frontiers as the only way to survive. What a gifting of voice to – and recognising and celebrating of, and fury at the injustices done to – the working classes, the underclasses and the people who have had to become migrants is in his work. What a clear vision of “consumerist ideology . . . the most powerful and invasive on the planet”, and of “the innate paranoia of the politically powerful” and the narratives this paranoia inflicts on the world. “Look,” he says, “at the power structure of the surrounding world and how its authority functions. Every tyranny finds and improvises its own set of controls. Which is why they are often, at first, not recognised as the vicious controls they are.” What a foul improvisation millions of people are caught up in at this moment.

Meanwhile, what an energy and a pleasure and a humanity there is, he points out, against the odds, of the poor, and of the people called migrants, when it comes to that survival. That “ingenuity of the dispossessed” is always up against a reductive power at every point, he says: “There is no word in any traditional European language which does not either denigrate or patronise the urban poor in its naming. That is power.” Berger is clear about Power with a capital P, or what he calls in his letter to Rosa Luxemburg, “power-shit”.

“Today, to try to paint the existent is an act of resistance instigating hope.” Yet, “To face History is to face the tragic.” Despair is “intrinsic to the practice of painting”, he says in a piece about Frans Hals; Goya’s light is merciless for the cruelty it reveals; the Fayum painters “worked from dark to light”. And “the self and the essential come together in darkness or blinding light”. Everything in Berger’s own art of describing to us, of picturing for us where it is we live right now, is an act of resistance and hope.

Portraits is full of references to darkness and light, the unifying properties of light, “the attraction of the eye to light”, but the attraction of the imagination to light, he says, is more complex, “because it involves the mind as a whole . . . vision advances from light to light, like a figure walking on stepping stones”. He quotes Pasolini. “Disperazione senza un po’ di speranza: for we never have despair without some small hope.” And here’s Rosa Luxemburg, via Berger, from that recent letter to the past: “‘To be a human being,’ you say, ‘is the main thing above all else. And that means to be firm and clear and cheerful . . . because howling is the business of the weak. To be a human being means to joyfully toss your entire life in the giant scales of fate if it must be so, and at the same time to rejoice in the brightness of every day and the beauty of every cloud.’”

So. A ten-year-old girl in the Scottish Highlands, way back in history, in 1972, is walking to school. It’s an ordinary day, and everything has changed, everything is new, and this has happened simply from a single phrase, a simple verbal act, having entered her consciousness. So, she is thinking, looking at the garage that she takes a short cut through, with the cars up on their raised platforms so that you can see underneath the part of them usually practically invisible, that’s always closest to the road, looking at the mechanics covered in oil and grease with their heads lost in the bodies of the machines, so, she thinks as she walks through the school gates, stands in line with all the other kids, sits down in the given place in the church and looks at the Stations of the Cross on the walls, how they stick out dimensionally, are three-dimensional pictures, and the blue-painted statue of the Madonna up at the front, so there is more than just seeing, there are WAYS of seeing.

That was a start. And “there’s never a conclusion”, is what Berger says in his preface to Portraits. In a world capable of reversing the meanings of “democracy, justice, human rights, terrorism” (“Each word,” he has written, “signifies the opposite of what it was once meant to signify”) we have a writer like Berger, who opens, reveals and reverses the given power relationships so that how we see changes. Way back, in Ways of Seeing (1972), he wrote warningly about how much we are led to “accept the total system of publicity images as we accept an element of climate”. He recognised a new nature, and Berger is, you might say, one of the most potent and authentic of our nature writers when it comes to the nature of the political structuring that gets called the world. He reveals and constantly reasserts the actual nature of things. “Tyrants”, he writes, “have no knowledge of the surrounding earth” from their “guarded condominiums” and their cyberterritories. He quotes Cézanne: “The landscape thinks itself in me, and I am its consciousness.” 

From his piece on Jackson Pollock, here’s his definition of genius: “. . . the genius is by definition a man who is in some way or another larger than the situation he inherits.” Look at Berger in the world, and the world after him, then, now and to come. Not that I would characterise John Berger, whom I love, by his attainments, since, remember, a person loved is recognised not by attainments but by the verbs which can satisfy that person. Instead, in appreciation of him, I am and will be verbal: I see. I see in multiple ways. I veer towards that light in all the darknesses, real, historic, contemporary. And because of it, I will see. More, I will look. I will connect. I will co-respond. I will always know the life of dialogue. I will know the value of mystery, of not knowing. I will open. I will shout at the walls and the frontiers to break open. I will keep my nose open for the power-shit. If I despair, it’ll be with hope. I will attempt to pay, at all times, not just attention, but creative attention. I will love. And I will pass on, both to the past and the future, what generosity and gifts and sight and insight have been passed on to me, with love.

John Berger and Ali Smith backstage at the British Library, September 2015. Photo credit: Verso Books

- The text above is a speech given by Ali Smith l in 2015 at the British Library, at an event to launch Portraits: John Berger on Art, in honour of his contribution to art and politics.

Portraits by John Berger is 50% off as part of our end-of-year sale (ends January 1, 2019). Full details here.

Read more:
To Tell a Story: John Berger and Susan Sontag in conversation 
John Berger at 90: The Verso podcast in collaboration with the London Review Bookshop

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John Berger, one of the world’s most celebrated art writers, takes us through centuries of drawing and painting, revealing his lifelong fascination with a diverse cast of artists.

John Berger, one of the world’s most celebrated storytellers and writers on art, tells a personal history of art from the prehistoric paintings of the Chauvet caves to 21st century conceptual artis...

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