John Berger's attempt to explain why true art must come from the margins is a flawed but noble visionby John Armstrong / August 20, 2001 / Leave a comment
Published in August 2001 issue of Prospect Magazine
in his latest collection of essays The Shape of a Pocket John Berger elaborates a thesis about the political and moral significance of art. It is an ambitious attempt to say why art is important today. This is wonderful but treacherous territory. The temptation to think in crude terms about such matters often seems irresistible. To say, as Wilde did, that morality has nothing to do with art is frivolous; Wilde surely meant only that art has no obligation to uphold conventional morality.
Berger sees art as an arena in which we may come to a greater awareness of what is important to us; it is, potentially, a special part of morality. The process of artistic creation is a model for-and a prime instance of-the kind of careful, loving attention we ought to give to ourselves, to others and to the world. This way of thinking is brought into focus in a short but enlightening mediation on Van Gogh. Berger comments on what he sees as Van Gogh’s “nakedness,” by which he means a refusal to idealise or elevate or denigrate what he encountered in the world.