John Berger: "Never again shall a single story be told as though it were the only one."
Image source: Franck Courtès/Agence Vu
John Berger died on 2nd January 2017. Many obituaries begin with the most basic of facts, such as his age (90), or his occupation. And yet here is the first hurdle; Berger was many things. While it may suit the reader to be informed that he was an art critic, Berger resisted the term himself. Even his own output defies the prescriptive, and perhaps tired, title of ‘critic’. Novelist, painter, teacher, theorist, playwright, poet and farmer; Berger did it all. In his own words, he often described himself as a storyteller. In Bento’s Sketchbook Berger wrote that ‘hope is a contraband passed from hand to hand, and story to story’ – and this is how he saw himself; defying borders and boundaries by telling stories that passed on, above all else, hope.
It is for the 1972 TV series and book Ways of Seeing that Berger is popularly celebrated. Ways of Seeing was a gauntlet thrown down to the status-quo, the artistic elites and to received ideas about our visual culture. Berger wanted to disrupt what he saw as the harmful bourgeois approaches that plagued discussions of the visual, and so the series set out to challenge views on the framing of art, reproduction, advertising and depiction of women. Although relying for the most part on works by others (the first episode / essay is a retelling of Walter Benjamin’s ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’) Ways of Seeing continues to open eyes and minds.
And seemingly, for those who explored his work outside Ways of Seeing, there is another connection. This is the Berger depicted in the 2016 films, The Seasons in Quincy and John Berger or The Art of Looking. Here Berger, while characteristically intense and thoughtful, is unequivocally generous, warm and kind. This is the John Berger of the small rural village of Quincy; the Berger of long discussions over preparation for an apple crumble. When talking about the role of the storyteller, Berger had said that if he was a successful one it was only ever because he listened. This is the John Berger that we know through his essays, his poetry, his fiction and conversation.
A recent collection of his writing, Confabulations brings together some of the essence of Berger beyond Ways of Seeing. Including poetry, memoir and his own illustrated short essays, Confabulations meanders in places, and yet characteristically is often intensely specific. Often funny, but always illuminating, Berger’s ability to turn a situation on its head is born of the ability to see with other eyes – that is to resist the easy interpretation, to play with language in its relation to the visual and to recognise that the cultural and political are inextricably bound up in our consumption of visual media.
‘Most mainstream political discourse today is composed of words that, separated from any creature of language, are inert. And such dead “word-mongering” wipes out memory and breeds a ruthless complacency.’ – John Berger, Confabulations
It’s therefore not hard to see why Berger was fascinated by the Dutch philosopher Spinoza. When he wasn’t philosophising, Spinoza earned a living grinding lenses to be used in telescopes and microscopes. Berger ground his own lenses in the form of language, and will therefore go on, through his writing, helping others to see with clarity and precision for what can feel like the first time.
'Those who read or listen to our stories see everything as through a lens. This lens is the secret of narration, and it is ground anew in every story…' – John Berger, And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief As Photos