Countless articles eulogizing and commemorating John Berger's life and work have appeared since his death on January 2, 2017 - the vast majority of them have lauded him to the stars. Most of these articles have focused on the immense influence he had on society and culture through his analysis and critique of art. I would be hard-pressed to disagree; he certainly was influential. But in the innumerable articles that have appeared since his passing, the true nature of his influence has not been fully addressed. I found one surprising exception, in the online magazine Salon of all places:
First, he was an avatar of a certain historical-materialist take on culture, in which the halo around literature and music and the arts gets blown off and replaced with discussions of race, class, gender, sexuality, and “power.” The demystification of culture that Berger, Barthes, Julia Kristeva, Warhol, John Cage, Susan Sontag, and other left-intellectuals practiced in the ‘60s and ‘70s has not been all good. We gained a deeper understudying of how the arts originate and how they work, but culture itself paid a price — as did anyone who looked to culture for soul-nourishing rather than ideological reasons. (The 17th century English Puritans, who smashed stained-glass windows and destroyed the pews where church choirs sang, probably did more damage to the arts. But not by much)
Full article here: http://www.salon.com/2017/01/04/remembering-john-berger-the-english-art-critic-helped-bring-ideas-to-tv/
The paragraph above perfectly exemplifies why I do not have an affinity for John Berger's art criticism or political views (much less the writings and views of other left-intellectuals mentioned above who all made lucrative careers out of laying siege to Western tradition in the 60's and 70's and whose works still form the backbone of nearly all study of the humanities today.)
An avowed Marxist-humanist, Berger made sure everyone knew he had a red star in his head. I draw this term from my novel The City of Earthly Desire where I used it to describe true Marxists like Berger. As a Marxist, Berger had no belief in the sacred. He saw nothing transcendental in art. Since he did not believe in the existence of the soul, he saw nothing in art that could "nourish" it.
Though he is most famous for his Ways of Seeing, in reality he knew only one way of seeing - through the materialist vitriol of resentment. Through the lenses of the red star. As the Salon article rightly states, he reduced great art to the historical-materialist level, to his own Marxist-humanist ideology of race, class, gender, sexuality, and “power." Art. History. Tradition. Religion. That was all about the oppressor and the oppressed to him. Nothing more. Nothing less.
To get back to the point about influence, there can be no denying Berger and his contemporaries continue to be incredibly influential. We live in a world where ideology permeates everything. John Berger and his comrades were instrumental in sowing the seeds of this ideology.
Today, all public discourse obsessively centers around race, class, gender, sexuality and power. Think about it for a minute. When was the last time you read a newspaper article or attended a university lecture or sat in an human resources training session that did not focus upon one or all of these things? It is inescapable, even in art.
When one visits a great art museum today, one is more prone to overhear discussions of how such and such painting reveals the deep oppressiveness of medieval patriarchy and how that connects to modern oppressive patriarchy rather than how such and such a painting reveals the profound connection between the Divine and man.
This is the legacy John Berger and others like him have left behind.
John Berger had a great influence on me as well, but not in the manner he sought. Rather than turn me on to his ways of seeing, Berger's transparent Marxist criticism, which strangely established a direct and continuous historical link between the world depicted in traditional European paintings and the world of depicted in the print advertisements of a crass and commercialized 1970's Britain (all without really delving into the real causes of the rise of crass commercialism) inspired me to take a closer look at the ideology he exalted and the tradition he scorned. I came to conclusion that the ideology that Berger and others like him espouse is a deeply flawed and pernicious one that needed to be challenged at every turn.
Berger's views on the tradition of European painting influenced me significantly in the sense that they helped me better understand the fundamental and axiomatic truths he so steadfastly held in contempt. With me, Berger failed in his mission to make me see art from a Marxist-humanist perspective. Rather than weaken my appreciation of traditional art, Berger's writings strengthened my distrust of Marxism and allowed me to see the greatness and transcendence that is inherent in the iconic works of Western culture. His writings formed part of the inspiration for my novel The City of Earthly Desire, which, in essence, is an epic refutation of everything for which Berger and his red star comrades stand.
At the end of his famous four part BBC television series, he states that everything he has said or shown "must be judged against your own experience." I did that. And my experience showed me that his criticism of tradition was shallow, faulty, and utterly moored in resentment.
Nevertheless, I learned much from John Berger. Foremost, he taught me that the ideological discussions about race, class, gender, sexuality, and power in art need to be demystified and that the halos that he and others blew off by stripping art of its religiosity in the 60's and 70's need to be reinstated to their proper places. Above all else, art and culture should return to its role of nourishing the soul. I agree with the sentiment the Salon article mentions - culture has paid a price. There is no need to continue paying it.
John Berger helped me to understand this - and for that I am grateful.
Note: This post originally appeared in January 2017, shortly after John Berger's death. I felt inspired to update it and repost it after recently reading yet another ridiculous article praising John Berger's art criticism to the stars.