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Ways of Seeing

SELECTED ESSAYS By John Berger Edited by Geoff Dyer Pantheon: 588 pp., $35 * THE SHAPE OF A POCKET By John Berger Pantheon: 266 pp., $24

April 28, 2002|SUSIE LINFIELD | Susie Linfield is a contributing writer to Book Review and teaches in the Cultural Reporting and Criticism program at New York University.

Here is an irony: In 1972 John Berger, one of England's most influential art critics, created a show for the BBC called "Ways of Seeing." It was a phenomenal success. Meant as a corrective to the genteel great-man theory of art history (think Kenneth Clark's "Civilisation"), the show introduced the then-radical but now widely accepted idea that our very vision of the world, and our modes of making art, are expressions not just of personality but of power, class and history.

Not surprisingly, the show and its accompanying book spawned two generations of highly politicized art critics. And here is where the irony enters. For the contemporary criticism--didactic, petulant and often entirely incomprehensible--that Berger's show and books have fostered is the antithesis of his own lucid style and passionately humane substance. Indeed, the difference between Berger and his postmodern children is like that between the Paris Commune and Pol Pot's Cambodia. Something was lost in translation.

Berger, 75, has had a remarkably prolific career. In addition to his many works of art criticism, he is also a painter, poet, dramatist and screenwriter (most notably of "Jonah Who Will Be 25 in the Year 2000"). He's a successful fiction writer too: His 1972 novel "G" won the Booker Prize. (A lifelong Marxist, Berger gave half his prize money to a British branch of the Black Panthers.) Born and raised in London, he has lived for decades as a "voluntary exile" in a tiny peasant village in the French Alps.

The book jacket of "Selected Essays" suggests something of Berger's trajectory. On the front is a large photograph of the author as a young man: handsome, certainly, with a strikingly direct gaze but appearing somewhat startled, as if he is not exactly at home in the world. On the back is an equally large photo of Berger today: still handsome, certainly, but weathered, with a wrinkled forehead, deep bags under his eyes, furrowed brows and a head of tousled white hair. He is squinting, with an expression that implies a wound beyond bewilderment--as if he can't quite believe, much less comprehend, what he is seeing but that he must. Berger doesn't look like a man who's lived an easy life. But he looks as though he's lived an intensely engaged one.

In Berger's essays, one thing naturally leads to another; as with George Orwell (who was, fittingly, one of Berger's first editors), the connections are wonderfully surprising and almost never forced. Meaning unfolds from within. A consideration of 18th century caricatures inspires an analysis of the culture of celebrity, which Berger rightly sees as the antithesis of democracy; a revisit to the Grunewald Altarpiece makes him ponder the left's defeats in 1968 and the ways in which experience alters perception.

Thinking about commodities, he begins thinking about food, which leads to a class analysis of dinner. He's interested in the differences between film, painting and literature. He refers often to sexual passion (he seems to have loved deeply if not, of course, without difficulty). He writes about apes, stones and beds. His ideas about photography, along with those of Roland Barthes and Susan Sontag, revolutionized our critical understanding of that medium. Recently, he has been corresponding with Subcomandante Marcos, the Mexican revolutionary (some of these pieces are included in "The Shape of a Pocket"). The wide range of Berger's interests and the unabashed curiosity with which he pursues them suggest what a free and fearless person might be like.

For the last quarter-century, art criticism has been obsessed with "the gaze"--the ways in which the artist's regard of his subject supposedly reproduces inequalities of race, class or sex. Vision itself--which is always partial and imperfect (unless you are God)--has been indicted as an agent of oppression. In contrast, Berger likes to look. Indeed, he is fascinated, and moved, by the activity of looking, which he considers a key to our humanity. For Berger, seeing the world is the beginning of understanding it, engaging it and changing it.

And more: His work reminds us that vision is a requisite of love. Here, from "Selected Essays," is his description of a nude by Frans Hals: "He painted her breasts as if they were entire faces.... One of her knees is painted as if it revealed as much about her reactions as her chin. The result is disconcerting because ... most nudes are as innocent of experience as aims unachieved. And disconcerting ... because of the painter's total concentration on painting her--her, nobody else and no fantasy of her."

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