Reviews — From the February 2016 issue

Outside the White Box

Can art make anything happen?

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In the writings of John Berger we find a passion for art itself, for the created thing, that is everywhere tempered by an awareness of the social and political world, which too many theorists, whatever their special pleadings, simply ignore. Berger’s Ways of Seeing (1972) was a landmark book and television series that deployed Walter Benjamin’s insights about mechanical reproduction, glamour, and “aura” to create a popular manual of critical aesthetic theory. “Glamour,” Berger writes, is “the happiness of being envied.” His central concern is the role of art in performing what Theodor Adorno called “seeing-through”: the critical penetration of capitalism’s shiny consumer surfaces, exposing the ugly machinery behind.

Three Figures and a Portrait, 1975, by Francis Bacon © The estate of Francis Bacon/DACS, London/ARS, New York City/Art Resource, New York City

Three Figures and a Portrait, 1975, by Francis Bacon © The estate of Francis Bacon/DACS, London/ARS, New York City/Art Resource, New York City

Berger introduces his new book, Portraits, a monumental late-life collection of some six dozen appreciations of individual artists, by noting that he has always hated being called an art critic. “Since I was a teenager, to call somebody an art critic was an insult. An art critic was somebody who judged and pontificated about things he knew a little or nothing about.” But a critic he is: there is no procrustean bed of theory here, no elegant device to identify the essence of art. Instead, he confronts artists, from the Chauvet cave painters to current rising stars, with close, often relentless observation.

The governing idea is familiar enough: that art is revelatory of the human condition. In 1956, after being accused of political grandstanding, Berger declared, “If I am a political propagandist, I am proud of it. But my heart and eye have remained those of a painter.” The defiance and the deflection are typical, though Berger’s heart and eye can generate dubious claims. Is hell as imagined by Hieronymus Bosch really “a strange prophecy of the mental climate imposed on the world at the end of our century by globalisation and the new economic order”? But then listen to this: in Francis Bacon’s work

pain is being watched through a screen, like soiled linen being watched through the round window of a washing machine. Frida Kahlo’s work is the opposite of Francis Bacon’s. There is no screen; she is close up, proceeding with her delicate fingers, stitch by stitch, making not a dress, but closing a wound.

Above all, there is a series of claims, delivered in a pivotal essay on Vincent van Gogh, that marks out Berger’s ars poetica. “All modern artists have thought of their innovations as offering a closer approach to reality, as a way of making reality more evident,” he argues. “It is here, and only here, that the modern artist and revolutionary have sometimes found themselves side by side, both inspired by the idea of pulling down the screen of clichés.”

The political metaphysics here are traditional, even retrograde — the philosophers of appearance and reality whom Berger mentions are Plato and Marx, who were hardly anti-foundational in their notions of what lies behind the scrim of social convention and ideological self-deception. Still, there is something impressive in a faith, shared by the artists and their viewers, that flat representations of the world can, like words themselves, reveal more than is available to the naked eye. “The first, the basic, purpose of painting is to conjure up the presence of something which is not there,” Berger says.

Of course, Plato himself knew that the magic sorting of good images from harmful ones was no business for the weak-minded. Absent the benign guidance of philosopher-kings, we are cast adrift on a sea of our own perverse desires. Meanwhile, the greatest desire of them all, for a reality that we can reveal behind, beyond, or beneath what appears, is easy prey for demagogues and tyrants. The desire for truth is itself the subject of this philosophical journey to enlightenment and anticipation, those endless iterations of the utopian dream of perfect justice, which is the assumed practical payoff of grasping the Good.

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is a contributing editor of Harper’s Magazine and a professor of philosophy at the University of Toronto. His most recent book is the essay collection Measure Yourself Against the Earth (Biblioasis).

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