Felix Stalder on Mon, 2 Jan 2017 21:13:38 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> John_Berger (5 November 1926 - 2 January 2017)

John Berger is dead. He died today, at the age of 90. Orbits are surely
being written right now. However, Sally Potter's birthday thoughts
from last November seem a more apt and personal way of remembering.
"Ways of Seeing was, together with Robert Hughes' "Shock of the New",
one of the first books about art I read as teenager. It stayed with me
ever since.

As if as a testament to his continued relevance, the LA Review of
Books published today a long article on his theory of art.

> That theory evolved considerably between the 1950s and the 2010s.
> Yet two threads hold it together with the tenacity of spider silk: a
> critique of the political economy of art and a sophisticated account
> of its human value, each rooted in a committed but elastic Marxism.
> A Marxist art criticism of any real subtlety has to be elastic,
> because it must deal with a problem Marx himself diagnosed but
> failed to solve. Berger puts it like this:
> A question which Marx posed but could not answer: If art in the last
> analysis is a superstructure of an economic base, why does its power
> to move us endure long after the base has been transformed? Why,
> asked Marx, do we still look towards Greek art as an ideal? He began
> to answer the question […] and then broke off the manuscript and
> was far too occupied ever to return to the question.



Artist, visionary and writer - John Berger is undimmed at 90


John Berger is 90. An excellent age. In his presence, however, age
seems utterly irrelevant. This is not just because John seems to live
in a perpetual present, forever scanning the world around him with
as much intensity as he might ever scan the world within – and
therefore seems to live without a trace of nostalgia – but also
because he is full of excitement and curiosity about the future.

The story of my encounters with him begins before I was born. John
taught art to my mother. She was a teenager and he was only a few
years older. It was probably for no more than a few months, a
temporary job in a school in north London. Yet somehow, throughout
my childhood, his name floated in my consciousness, conjuring up
the image of a dashing young soul, handsome, charming, militant and
dedicated to the making of art. At 21, already an inspiring teacher.

The next moment that he came sharply into focus for me was with his
book – and the television series that it emerged from – Ways of
Seeing. His way of expressing ideas – pithy, plain language, bold
– and, above all, the ideas themselves that he shaped with such
clarity, had the startling effect of feeling both brand new and yet
obvious, creating a feeling of recognition. Of course, of course, we
all thought; that is how it is; it’s just that we hadn’t found the
words for it before.

No one had found the words for it before.

Some years later, sitting in Tilda Swinton’s bedroom, surrounded
by piles of books and clothes – it may have been in the midst of
dissection of part of my screenplay for Orlando – she pulled out her
copy of Ways of Seeing in order to read out one particular sentence
to me. It was a sentence with which I was familiar but which bore

“Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at.”

I was in the process of looking at her, I was already the eyes of the
camera in our collaboration. She was looking at herself being looked
at by me. We became conspirators in the conceptual field so neatly
laid out by John. Except that I was a woman.

After I had finished my journey through the epic process of making
Orlando and found myself, to my surprise, wanting to be looked at,
as a woman in motion – dancing – I made The Tango Lesson. After
its release in France, somewhere near the beginning of a long run in
a cinema in Montparnasse, I received, out of the blue, a handwritten
letter from John.

John Berger had written to me saying that he liked my film. But he
didn’t use the word “like”. He used long, flowing sentences
and short staccato ones expressing with the utmost generosity and
precision the experience he had had while watching the film. If I
remember correctly, what struck him in particular was its exploration
of the nature of relationship; the intimate space existing in the
relatedness of all people and all things, the dance of “I and
Thou”. The feeling when receiving and reading his letter was exactly
that: it was he who was creating a space, the space of relatedness, in
which what I had given out to the world, not knowing where it would
land, had landed in him. He had received it. He had thought about it.
He had made the effort to pick up his pen and write a letter to me.
The film had become a conversation.

This was the beginning of a conversation with John that has continued
to this day. I still can hardly believe my good fortune that I exist
somewhere in his field of vision, among the many who know and admire
him, either close or far.

And now? His books keep coming, the essays keep appearing in
newspapers and magazines. He reminds us how to think about Charlie
Chaplin, how to listen to songs, how to rage about prisons, how to
remember that everything matters. Not just big politics, or big ideas,
not just paintings or novels, but also the meal put on the table, the
glass of wine shared; the sweetness in a bear hug, the complicity in a
chuckle, the pleasures of a shared rage against injustice.

John the encourager, John the enthusiast, John the true critic, John
the friend. John at 90 or at any ageless age. Are we not blessed?


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