Berger, now 90, has changed his life so radically and so often because he cannot bear idle conversationby Colin MacCabe / October 13, 2016 / Leave a comment
Published in November 2016 issue of Prospect Magazine
He has asked, as Bob Hope did, for no celebrations of a birthday where “the candles cost more than the cake.” There can, however be no doubt that glasses will be raised across the world on 5th November for his 90th birthday by those who have worked with John Berger. There are certainly hundreds, maybe even thousands of them because Berger has always managed to live several lifetimes at once. Some of his collaborators are well known: Arundhati Roy in Delhi, Geoff Dyer in Los Angeles, Mike Dibb in London, Sebastião Salgado in Paris, Jean Mohr in Geneva, Tilda Swinton in Nairn. But there are many others who are less famous, who have known the joy and equality of collaborating with him.
Berger was always committed to both criticism and creation: to the production of painting and fiction. His television programmes made modernist art completely contemporary. And nearly half a century on, the culmination of the on-screen aspect of his career is still revered.
Ways of Seeing consisted of just four 30-minute episodes, first shown in 1972. Looking back, the ambition was extraordinary. With little more screen time than a typical Hollywood film, the series did not merely canter through the evolution of western art, but located that history in its ideological and economic settings.
Only three years before, Kenneth Clark’s 14-hour BBC blockbuster, Civilisation, had told the story of the artistic canon as if creativity had no connection to material history. Berger refused that account. And remarkably, his disruptive documentaries would ultimately have more effect than the cultural juggernaut that was Civilisation. The film and the spin-off book which followed have been crucial primers to many generations of students struggling to conjugate art and politics, and even today are enjoyed on YouTube.
It was an unlikely triumph that undoubtedly bears testimony to the fact that Berger—unlike Clark—was bursting with truly new ideas. His own long interrogation of the role of class in art had recently been energised by two new developments in particular. Walter Benjamin’s work was just being translated into English, and his great essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” underpins the whole of the first episode. Berger had also spent the previous three or four years debating with his “sisters in women’s liberation,” and the series is energised by this new feminist thinking.