The Death of John Berger
1926 - 2017
John Berger died just as the United States of America was crossing over from the triumph of neoliberalism to the final melding of corporate power with state power that defines fascism. I never had a chance to talk with him about this latest development, but we had talked a good deal about the steps leading up to it, over the years. His fundamental impulse was to see things in terms of changes in the communications environment. In his introduction to my book Between the Eyes, in 2003, he wrote:
The new tyranny, like other recent ones, depends to a large degree on a systematic abuse of language. Together we have to reclaim our hijacked words and reject the tyranny’s nefarious euphemisms; if we do not, we will be left with only the word shame.
Not a simple task, for most of its official discourse is pictorial, associative, evasive, full of innuendoes. Few things are said in black and white. Both military and economic strategists now realize that the media play a crucial role—not so much in defeating the current enemy as in foreclosing and preventing mutiny, protests, or desertion. Any tyranny’s manipulation of the media is an index of its fears . . . .
Every form of contestation against this tyranny is comprehensible. Dialogue with it is impossible. For us to live and die properly, things have to be named properly. Let us reclaim our words.
John Berger spent the ninety years given to him reclaiming our words and saying things in black and white. He was a lifelong committed socialist and anti-fascist, and his first collection of art criticism was titled Permanent Red for a reason. He paid a personal price for his radical politics early on, and he became more radical, not less, as he aged. At one point he said, “I now believe there is an absolute incompatibility between art and private property, or between art and state property—unless the state is a plebian democracy. Property must be destroyed before imagination can develop further.”
Looking back on John’s introduction to Between the Eyes, I am surprised to find his repeated references to the Kurds, which I’d forgotten when Mick Taussig, Peter Lamborn Wilson, Dilar Dirik and I put together the book on the Rojava Revolution last year. He was always ahead of us in his analysis. When asked what he thought his most important book was, he usually pointed to A Seventh Man, from 1975. Its subject, migrant workers in Europe and “the basic bourgeois claim that social inequality is finally an expression of natural inequality,” is even more relevant today than it was forty years ago.
When I first read Berger’s essays, it opened everything up for me. I could see a way forward. For me, at that time, it was a way to write about photography (this was in the ’70s and into the ’80s), but it became more than that. A long time later, I published a piece in The Nation about John and his daughter Katya, and said this:
Where would any of us be without the example of John Berger? I mean any of us who care about the conflicted relation between art and politics, and who crave a radical criticism that is both accessible and deep, embodied and informed. Berger has survived and flourished for over fifty years as a radical writer outside of the academy, reaching a wide audience with his lucid prose. The key to his success has been his continued willingness and ability to approach works of art with a clear and questioning eye, sweeping aside a priori assessments to deal with what is actually before him. In a 1970 essay on one of his most influential forbears, Walter Benjamin, Berger wrote, “Works of art await use. But their real usefulness lies in what they actually are—which may be quite distinct from what they once were—rather than in what it may be convenient to believe they are.” In Berger’s writing, as in Benjamin’s, this radical realism has a political base.
This is one of the most important things about Berger’s achievement: this implicit, or, I would say, implicate, relation between aesthetics and politics. Benjamin said it can’t be good criticism if it’s not good writing—it can’t be true politically if it’s not true aesthetically. This changes things.
The reason that Berger gathered such a large audience for his work is that this implicate politics of writing necessarily includes the reader in the process of making meaning. Everyone feels like he speaking directly to them, with them. It’s not about an expert delivering specialized information. It’s a conspiracy of engagement—a collaboration.
In 1998, I began writing to John, and sent him the manuscript of my first book of essays, Between Dog & Wolf. A week or so later, he called me from Paris, and we talked for over two hours. It was as if we’d known each other for years. We didn’t meet in person until 2009, when I visited him in Quincy. He and Beverly and Yves opened their house to me completely, and we had a wonderful time. Late into the night, deep into the eau de vie, John and I exchanged secrets, and he charged me to do certain things in my writing that I only pray I have enough time and courage to do.
Many people had similar experiences with John. He was extremely generous, and had a rare talent for listening, and for getting people to tell him their stories. This was a part of his gift as a writer, and as a person—to make every reader, and everyone he opened up to personally, feel this singularity.
There is much, much more to say, but we will have time to do that. John had just enough time, to live and love and write some of the clearest essays on art and politics ever written. He taught me that, in writing about art and politics, one could write about every other human thing in the world. Looking back, I’m struck by how much he wrote about death. I know that he was not afraid of death, and I suspect that this might have been why death was in no hurry to take him. I loved him and I miss him terribly, but his work will live on.
ContributorDavid Levi Strauss
DAVID LEVI STRAUSS is the author of Words Not Spent Today Buy Smaller Images Tomorrow (Aperture, 2014), From Head to Hand: Art and the Manual (Oxford University Press, 2010), Between the Eyes: Essays on Photography and Politics, with an introduction by John Berger (Aperture 2003, and in a new edition, 2012), and Between Dog & Wolf: Essays on Art and Politics (Autonomedia 1999, and a new edition, 2010). He is Chair of the graduate program in Art Writing at the School of Visual Arts in New York, and he is on the faculty of the Milton Avery Graduate School of the Arts at Bard College.