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
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.
“And from this nakedness of his, which his contemporaries saw as naivety or madness, came his capacity to love, suddenly and at any moment, what he saw in front of him. Picking up a pen or a brush, he strove to realise, to achieve that love.”
In other words, the act of painting or drawing, as pursued by Van Gogh is the fulfilment of an aspect of his character-it is the outcome of his way of experiencing himself and the world. And, Berger hopes, if we learn to love his work then we learn to be like him. Any account of the value of art has to look at life in general. It has to paint in a background picture of the human condition against which evaluations come to make sense.
Berger starts with a contrast between the endless profusion of images in the world and modern unhappy solitude. We are, he suggests, surrounded by images of sociable, fulfilled, enviable people, while we feel isolated, insecure and unsatisfied. These are, he argues, “false images.” Such images are radically different from those “true images” Berger admires. Some of the most memorable phrases in the book come when Berger is trying to express his sense of what a “true image” is. The true image…