❚ 40 YEARS AGO AN ART CRITIC TOOK A STANLEY KNIFE to a Botticelli masterpiece in the National Gallery, and cut the head of Venus out from the canvas. (No, not the real painting, but a reproduction, obviously.) And what he held in his hand was the typical picture postcard by which many of us know this beautiful and all-conquering goddess. The critic and iconoclast John Berger was making a point that it is through reproductions that most of us view the world’s great art. He argued that paintings had been stripped of their context to raise money through sales of reproductions.
“With the invention of the camera, everything changed,” he said, meaning the ways our perceptions shifted. “The days of pilgrimage are over. It is the image of the painting which travels now. The meaning no longer resides in its unique painted surface which it’s only possible to see in one place and at one time. Its meaning has become transmittable. It comes to you, like the news of an event.”
This is how Berger launched Ways of Seeing on Jan 8, 1972 — four pioneering TV films which themselves were extended into a Penguin Modern Classic (set entirely in a heavy Univers font for a reason the author explains), and itself in turn is considered a seminal university-level text for current studies of visual culture and art history.
Yesterday’s BBC radio strand Archive on 4 made exciting listening of judicious extracts. Titled The Politics of Art, it teased out Berger’s then revolutionary way of discussing paintings as commodities, under the themes of society and context, the nude, the power of money and advertising.
The historian Tim Marlow, currently director of exhibitions at White Cube, shows how Ways of Seeing was provocative and up-to-date in seeking out the opinions specifically of women and children. He believes the politics still matter. Berger challenged 600-year-old notions of ownership. “Previously art celebrated wealth and power: gods, princes and dynasties were worshipped… But the European oil painting served a different kind of wealth. It glorified not a static order of things, but the ability to buy, to furnish and to own.” In the late 20th century Berger subjects art to a Marxist critique that reminds us of the role of the makers. Being naked, he argues, is to be oneself. But a woman posing nude “is to be seen as an object”.
Marlow asks how far the message of this series is pertinent again today. As a powerful corrective to glibness in much contemporary culture, The Politics of Art is well worth catching on the radio iPlayer, for Berger’s own bluff opinions, and those of several pundits, including the British novelist Marina Warner who is hooked on his phwoarr factor as well as his intellect: “Physically he was a powerful, beautiful man. And then his Mick Jagger-like charisma: he’s a thrilling performer. It’s a shame this kind of sexual magnetism is rarely seen now on TV — because it’s not permissible”!
There’s also a priceless sequence where the patrician connoisseur Lord Clark (of Civilisation, the earlier landmark TV survey of Western art) confesses to incomprehension before Picasso’s gigantic anti-war painting, Guernica, which invokes the aerial bombing of a Basque town during the Spanish civil war in 1937. Then Berger the passionate ideologue gives an assured deconstruction of the images of slaughter, its screaming civilians and symbols of freedom.
Now aged 85, Berger said recently of his TV series: “The programmes seem as urgent now as then. That’s because what’s happening in the world hasn’t changed very much — it’s only got more extreme. This political approach was prophetic about the world today.”