Tuesday, April 15, 2014


A few paragraphs from John Berger

Here are a few paragraphs from the British Marxist art critic John Berger, from his essay "A Professional Secret," in his Selected Essays published 2001 by Vintage Books. Berger talks here primarily about some of his encounters with paintings, visual art; his comments surely are relevant to poetry writing and other creative work as well.

I've read much of John Berger's writing over the years, mostly his art criticism and other essays, also his novel From A to X, which I loved. I often go to his writing when I need to clear my mind, sharpen my critical thought, step back and get some perspective on things. I've learned a great deal from Berger's work, about looking at art and looking at the world.

In his essay "A Professional Secret," originally published in 1987, Berger begins by talking about a painting by Hans Holbein he wants to go and see in Switzerland (he's lived for many years in the foothills of the French Alps). He arrives in Berne, discovers the Holbein painting is in a different city in Switzerland, so he and his companion go and visit an art museum in Berne.

He talks a little about painted Christian images of violence and brutality (depictions of Christian martyrs, the crucifixion, etc.) -- the contradictory nature of such images, such subject matter painted so beautifully -- and then he asks: "how can the brutal be made visibly acceptable?"

Berger continues:

The question begins with the Renaissance. In medieval art the suffering of the body was subservient to the live of the soul. And this was an article of faith which the spectator brought with him to the image; the life of the soul did not have to be demonstrated in the image itself. A lot of medieval art is grotesque -- that is to say a reminder of the worthlessness of everything physical. Renaissance art idealizes the body and reduces the body to gesture. (A similar reduction occurs in Westerns: see John Wayne or Gary Cooper.) [...]

At the beginning of the nineteenth century Goya, because of his unflinching approach to horror and brutality, was the first modern artist. Yes those who look at his etchings would never choose to look at the mutilated corpses they depict with such fidelity. So we are forced back to the same question, which one might formulate differently: how does catharsis work in visual art, if it does?

Berger then says, in effect, that catharsis doesn't work in art: "Paintings don't offer catharsis. They offer something similar, but different."

Berger mentions several paintings in the museum, from the late nineteenth century and the twentieth century: Courbet, Monet, Braque, Klee, Rothko.

Quoting Berger again:

How much courage and energy were necessary to struggle for the right to paint in different ways! And today these canvases, outcome of that struggle, hang peacefully beside the most conservative pictures: all united within the agreeable aroma of coffee, wafted from the cafeteria next to the bookshop.

The battles were fought over what? At its simplest -- over the language of painting. No painting is possible without a pictorial language, yet with the birth of modernism and after the French Revolution, the use of any language was controversial. The battles were between custodians and innovators. The custodians belonged to institutions that had behind them a ruling class or an élite who needed appearances to be rendered in a way which sustained the ideological basis of their power.

The innovators were rebels. Two axioms to bear in mind here: sedition is, by definition, ungrammatical; the artist is the first to recognize when a language is lying.

I read this passage, and I think immediately of those poets and writers I've known over the years who have survived (and occasionally prospered) by getting one foundation grant after another, eventually settling into teaching jobs somewhere; poets and writers who have spent much of their lives and efforts in service of the custodians Berger talks about here: adept at (and comfortable with) rendering appearances in a way which sustains the ideological basis of the power of their custodians.

And again from Berger's essay:

Image-making begins with interrogating appearances and making marks. Every artist discovers that drawing -- when it is an urgent activity -- is a two-way process. to draw is not only to measure and put down, it is also to receive. When the intensity of looking reaches a certain degree, one becomes aware of an equally intense energy coming towards one, through the appearance of whatever one is scrutinizing. Giacometti's life's work is a demonstration of this.

The encounter of these two energies, their dialogue, does not have the form of question and answer. It is a ferocious and inarticulated dialogue. To sustain it requires faith. It is a burrowing in the dark, a burrowing under the apparent. The great images occur when the two tunnels meet and join perfectly. Sometimes when the dialogue is swift, almost instantaneous, it is like something thrown and caught.

I offer no explanation for this experience. I simply believe very few artists will deny it. It's a professional secret. [...]


There's much more in Berger's essay, and much more in his other writings. If you're not familiar with John Berger's art criticism, a good place to start might be his book Ways of Seeing, published in the 1960's, based on a BBC T.V. series of the same name that he was involved with. I found the book especially useful because of the many pictures it includes to illustrate the art and art criticism concepts he talks about.

I've written about John Berger's novel From A to X previously in this blog, here. I highly recommend it also.

Thanks so much for this post, Lyle. I've read a very few Berger essays in the pages of Harper's, but clearly I need to read more.

"The custodians belonged to institutions that had behind them a ruling class or an élite who needed appearances to be rendered in a way which sustained the ideological basis of their power."

This says a lot about the poetry scene in the U.S. and the academy's antipathy toward vigorous rhythms, polyvalent images, and political content. What serves the custodians better than art reduced to a grad school game?

"[T]he artist is the first to recognize when a language is lying."

Yes, but then what? I just got an issue of The Writer's Chronicle, which the AWP folks send me because I once considered advertising one of my books there and requested a rate sheet. An interview with Wanda Coleman is the only writing in it that isn't rooted in the jargon of Theory and the kind of cleverness we find in the patter poets use as a bridge between poems at readings.

Anyway, it's exciting to think about all this, and I definitely plan to add a Berger book to the stack on the floor beside my bed. Thanks again!
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