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From The CriticsIn the early '70s, John Berger published a book called Ways of Seeing, and the world of art criticism was changed forever. When Berger arrived on the scene, writing about art had long been settled in some conventional attitudes. There were standard histories of schools and movements and habitual ways of venerating great artists. Most significantly, there was the predominance of formalist criticism, which looked at painting mainly as a set of technical problems—as if artists were scientists or philosophers obsessed with abstract questions about how to represent reality. Berger pushed all that aside. For him art wasn't about methodological questions, and it didn't demand pious admiration. It was, as his book's title implied, about the changing ways we see the world. The job of the critic was to illuminate those shifting modes of perception. Art was not a history or a profession; it was above all an "experience" to be felt and understood.
Thirty years later, Berger's ideas have become nearly doctrinal beliefs of the art world—omnipresent and unacknowledged, the subconscious assumptions that guide the greater part of today's artists as well as critics. But as Berger's ideas became commonplace, they lost their radical force, and nothing Berger has written since has had quite the impact of Ways of Seeing. His new collection of essays, The Shape of a Pocket, confirms the trend. With a few exceptions, the pieces assembled here exude an unmistakable air of weariness and resignation. Whereas Berger's early work was provocative and insightful, these essays are maddeningly vague and repetitious. To read them is to encounter a man who fears that history has passedhim by.
Berger explains that feeling by railing against the "dark age in which we are living," the age of "the new world order." Most of the essays in this book are nominally about painting and painters, but nearly a quarter of its length is taken up by a dialogue with Subcomandante Marcos, the leader of the indigenous guerilla movement in southern Mexico, and the ideas expressed there are reiterated frequently throughout the text. They concern what Marcos calls "the Fourth World War" and what more commonly goes by the name "global capitalism." As Berger explains, "the logic of investment" has come to rule nearly the whole world; almost all of life has been reduced to marketable commodities, and an air of unreality has settled over our daily existence. "We live within a spectacle of empty clothes and unworn masks." Hence the book's title. Like Marcos, Berger is offended by the seeming triumph of capitalism, and, like Marcos, he is on a search to discover "pockets of resistance against the new order." His essays on painting suggest that those pockets might be found as much in art and highly charged moments of experience as in armed insurgencies or traditional ways of life. "Our customary visible order is not the only one," Berger asserts. "It coexists with other orders," and in certain "brief moments" we may "catch sight" of the hope of another world.
The irony is that to make his case, Berger has abandoned the very attitudes that made his earlier work so influential. Ways of Seeing spoke eloquently about the dangers of marketing and publicity. But Berger's attitude toward those powers was distinctly ambivalent. On the one hand, the world of advertising was false and manipulative. On the other, the endless reproduction of images worked to democratize and derarify art, stripping it from the "cultural hierarchy of relic specialists." Berger argued that, far from being two radically separate domains, art and advertising amounted to the same thing—the creation of images to move an audience. Our highest task as viewers was not to be scholastic or reverent, but to be wary readers of the way the pictures worked. It was the perfect message for a media-savvy age.
For the young Berger, then, critical intelligence became the supreme value (much as it continues to be a crucial aesthetic principle of an image-conscious art world). And his essays sparkled with brilliant arguments about the political history of images, all expressed in keen, aphoristic prose. Now that capitalism seems to have triumphed, though, Berger no longer sees much point to being a rationalist. Only the obscure and mysterious hold out hope of a better world. "Compassion," he claims in a bizarre and revealing remark, is "best thought of as being in some way supernatural."
Politically, this is the attitude of defeatist romanticism. But its most significant consequence is for Berger's understanding of art. If once he valued artists who struggled intelligently with the history of their medium, Berger now takes flight into gauzy speculation. Degas is extolled as "an aid to living." Van Gogh is celebrated because "he loved what he was looking at." Painting is called "an affirmation of the visible."
There are, however, a handful of astute observations about individual painters sprinkled throughout the book. A brief essay on Michelangelo, and his rapturous vision of the male sex in particular, suggests that for Michelangelo the "body's sublimity lay revealed in the male sexual organ" and that his devotion to it hinted at "the fantasy of men giving birth." Likewise, a poetic meditation on Van Gogh includes the lovely observation that in one early painting, the brush strokes depicting peasants "are identical to those which follow the dips and mounds of the field," fusing figure and ground in a way that corresponds "to the reciprocal exchange of energy that constitutes agriculture." But such insights are rare. Most of The Shape of a Pocket is given over to high-sounding but meaningless statements about the mysteries of existence.
Ironically, they are sentiments Berger once would have scorned. In Ways of Seeing, he excoriated "bogus religiosity." He was referring to the cult of art, but the remark refers equally well to the cult of resistance on display here.