Maple Leaf
Thursday, 17 August 2017 19:32

A Coverlet of Green: In Memoriam John Berger

Published in Poetry

A COVERLET
OF GREEN

by David Betteridge

The bare and barren tree
can be made green again...
- Antonio Gramsci

¶ A boy cried.
His bedside cup,
brimful with milk
before he slept, was empty
now, at morning-time.
Not one drop he'd drunk.
How, then, no milk?

The culprit mouse,
her creamy lips a give-away,
felt sorry for the boy.
And still he cried.

She thought:
I'll get the cattle
to make good his loss.

But no: Today our milk's
dried up.

Field, asked the mouse,
have you some juicy grass
to give?

Sorry, the field explained,
I'm parched.
Will you fetch water
from the well?

Brokenly, the well demurred.
My rim's caved in;
I need repaired.

¶ Mason, will you take the job?

Apologetically,
I'm short of stone,
the mason said.

¶ Next, to a bleak hill.
I've granite here
enough to build a town,
but not a single sett will go
to humankind.
Aggrieved, the hill refused
the mouse's plea.

Imagine -
mouse to hill -
imagine that you feel
the balm of maple trees
where you are bare.
If you give the mason stone,
the boy whose milk I took
will come to you a man -
you have my word -
and he will work for you
this remedy I plan.

¶ The hill relented;

the mason fixed the well;

water by the bucketful
      was raised;

the pasture greened;

the cattle's udders
    swelled, and cups
         and bellies
             soon were filled.

Strong as a bull,
     the boy grew,
          a farmer-forester.

The mouse, her children,
    and theirs as well,
        in turn, each year
            reminded him:
a promise had been made.

¶ Hectare on hectare now,

gladdening the hill,

a coverlet of green extends

its shade, a living tribute

to the mouse’s will.

A note on its sources, which are a Sardinian folk-tale, Antonio Gramsci, Hamish Henderson, Gordon Brown, and John Berger.

“A Coverlet of Green” is derived from a folk-tale from Sardinia. This folk-tale was written down in the mid-1930s by the Marxist philosopher and political activist, Antonio Gramsci, in a letter to his son. The letter was smuggled out of one of Mussolini’s gaols, where Gramsci had been imprisoned, “to stop his brain from functioning”. (In fact, his brain functioned all the more powerfully.)

Later, during the Second World War, Hamish Henderson, the Scottish poet, singer, folklorist, teacher, and lots of other things, came across Gramsci’s writings, including his prison letters. Henderson was at that time an intelligence officer in the British Army, and one of his duties was to make contact with Italian partisans opposed to Mussolini. One such group called itself the Antonio Gramsci Brigade. It was they who acted as the link between the philosopher’s ideas and the soldier. Henderson’s translation of Gramsci’s letters were published two decades later by a students’ printing press at Edinburgh University, edited by a radical (even revolutionary) student leader who went on to pursue a noteworthy career in politics, although rather less radical, one Gordon Brown.

Later still, John Berger discovered Hamish Henderson’s translation of Gramsci’s re-telling of the Sardinain folk-tale. He so liked it that he re-told it himself in an essay about Gramsci called “How to Live with Stones”, published in an essay-collection The Shape of a Pocket. He also re-told the tale in a radio interview on BBC Radio 3. It was this broadcast version that sparked my own attempt at a re-telling, in “A Coverlet of Green”.

John Berger’s death on 2nd January, just two months after his 90th birthday, leaves a great gap in literature and cultural politics. My poem, with Bob Starrett’s lovely green evocation of new growth - maple leaves lit by sunshine - was intended for publication as a birthday greeting, but it missed that deadline. Now it can serve as an In Memoriam.

John Berger: an appreciation
Thursday, 17 August 2017 19:32

John Berger: an appreciation

Published in Visual Arts

David Betteridge offers an appreciation of the late, great John Berger.

There are some authors whose way with words not only reflects a way of living, but also excites it. It has a moral force as well as an aesthetic sense. John Berger, who died on 2 January, was an author of this kind.

Year on year, since he began his writing career with art criticism for the New Statesman in the 1950s, an increasingly wide world of readers has been delighted as his latest essay, article, review, novel, memoir, letter, play, film, tale, poem, or whatever was published. I say “whatever” because it is a feature of Berger’s work that it is varied in its scope, and more than that: it is also varied in its mixing of genres within a single text. A novel may contain drawings; an essay may do the same, and then veer into memoir; philosophy and politics crop up everywhere, as do poems, in glorious profusion.

Looking back over Berger’s career, which included such notable achievements as Permanent Red (1960), a collection of the first decade of his art criticism; A Fortunate Man (1967), a study of a country doctor, including photographs by Jean Mohr; Ways of Seeing (1972), a TV series about art history, and also a book, never out of print; G (1972), a novel, winner of that year’s Booker Prize; A Seventh Man (1975), the most mixed of his mixed-genre books, “composed” jointly with Jean Mohr as an investigation into the lives of migrant workers in a Europe that was hungry, and is still hungry, for cheap labour; To the Wedding (1995), a story of multiple loves, lived under a sentence of death from AIDS; and, fast-forwarding to 2016, A Sparrow’s Journey, a study of, and celebration of, and continuation of the storytelling genius of Andrey Platonov - looking back over this career, I am reminded of Coleridge’s wild fig-tree, its old roots deep in a rock, “still starting up anew, with the playfulness of the Boy...”

Berger achieved his evergreen feat “amid the profoundest and most condensed constructions of hardest Thinking.” And not just thinking: feeling, too. Both are in constant play in his writing, each animating the other. There are times when his prose has the articulate energy and sensuous beauty of poetry. Take this little extract (slightly edited), for example, from his story “The Accordion Player”, from Once in Europa (1983), which is the second of his Into Their Labours trilogy, set in the mountains of Haute-Savoie where Berger spent much of the second part of his life:

The milking finished, he entered the kitchen. He had closed the shutters... to keep the room cool. Light from the sunset filtered between their slats. On the window sill was the bunch of flowers he had picked. On seeing them he stopped in mid-stride. He stared at them as if they were a ghost... He pulled a chair from under the table, he sat down and he wept... Odd how sounds of distress are recognised by animals. The dog approached the man’s back and, getting up on its hind legs, rested its front paws on his shoulder blades. He wept for all that would no longer happen...

Berger said of himself, in a recent interview with Kate Kellaway (Guardian, 30 October, 2016), that “If I’m a storyteller it’s because I listen”. Yes, he listened; and, just as importantly, he looked. He looked as intently as a field naturalist, or an artist - which Berger was, all his days – drawing someone’s portrait, or his favourite philosopher, Spinoza, practising his trade as a lens-grinder, or “la vigie - the lookout guy on a boat”, as he told Kate Kellaway. He looked, and he saw more than most of us.

The very titles of some of Berger’s books confirm this commitment to closely examining things in all their minute particulars. There is The Look of Things (1972), About Looking (1980), The Sense of Sight (1993), as well as the already mentioned Ways of Seeing.

If you have watched Berger on TV and heard him speak, you will have detected the way that so long an immersion in his Haute-Savoie neighbours’ French had inflected his native English voice. More significantly, if you have read the many poems that he translated from other languages, you will understand the way that a wide world of inspiration had inflected his thought. Aime Cesaire, Bertolt Brecht, Nazim Hikmet, Mahmoud Darwish, and others: the labour of wrestling their meaning into alternative expression served to broaden Berger’s already broad internationalism. He was the least insular of Englishmen, the least Eurocentric of Europeans. He was a world-citizen, viewing as he did the pages of literature “as if it were a place, an assembly point”: a sort of convivial commons.

All of the titles that I have listed above, plus the many more that I have omitted that I might equally well have listed, are open doors to such places. It is sad to think that their maker and sharer has written his last.

A smuggling operation: John Berger's theory of art
Thursday, 17 August 2017 19:32

A smuggling operation: John Berger's theory of art

Published in Visual Arts

For the late John  Berger, art criticism was a revolutionary practice. The following article by Robert Minto, outlining Berger's theory of art, is republished with the kind permission of the Los Angeles Review of Books, lareviewofbooks.org

Early in his career, John Berger’s weekly art criticism for the New Statesman provoked outraged letters and public condemnation. Once, the British Council issued a formal apology to Henry Moore because Berger had suggested his latest work showed a decline. Nor was the hostility limited to such comic passive-aggression. Berger’s politics were deemed so objectionable that his publisher was compelled to withdraw his first novel, A Painter of Our Time (1958), from circulation.

At 90, Berger is harvesting a sudden flowering of praise. It is well deserved. For more than half a century, he has been our greatest art critic — as well as a superior novelist, a poet, and the star and screenwriter of one of the best art documentaries ever made, Ways of Seeing. Most of the writers currently rushing to canonize him, however, avoid dwelling on the heart of Berger’s point of view — his Marxism. No doubt avoiding this disfavored topic makes eulogy easier, but it reminds me of something Berger wrote about Frederick Antal: “the importance of his Marxism tends to be underestimated. In a curious way this is probably done out of respect for him: as though to say ‘He was brilliant despite that — so let’s charitably forget it.’ Yet, in fact, to do this is to deny all that Antal was.” To make such a denial about Berger should no longer be possible after the publication of Landscapes: John Berger on Art.

Landscapes and its companion volume, Portraits: John Berger on Artists (Verso, 2015), are the best summation to date of Berger’s career as a critic. Both volumes were edited by Tom Overton. In Portraits, Overton made selections from decades of essays on the whole historical gamut of art, from the prehistoric cave paintings of Lascaux to the work of 33-year-old Randa Mdah, and organized them chronologically into a history and appraisal of the art of painting. To read it was to be reminded of Berger’s unique virtues: the clarity of his writing, the historical and technical erudition of his insight, and above all his unique focus on each artist’s way of looking. What Landscapes in turn makes clear, through its assemblage of more programmatic pieces — book reviews, manifestos, autobiography — is that Berger is a rigorous thinker with a theory of art. That theory evolved considerably between the 1950s and the 2010s. Yet two threads hold it together with the tenacity of spider silk: a critique of the political economy of art and a sophisticated account of its human value, each rooted in a committed but elastic Marxism.

A Marxist art criticism of any real subtlety has to be elastic, because it must deal with a problem Marx himself diagnosed but failed to solve. Berger puts it like this:

A question which Marx posed but could not answer: If art in the last analysis is a superstructure of an economic base, why does its power to move us endure long after the base has been transformed? Why, asked Marx, do we still look towards Greek art as an ideal? He began to answer the question […] and then broke off the manuscript and was far too occupied ever to return to the question.

Berger takes up the thread where Marx broke off. He is not, of course, the first Marxist to address the question of art, and he is familiar with most of those who tried before him, sorting through and furthering their legacy.
The most famous of Berger’s influences, Walter Benjamin, wrote the essay “Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” from which came most of the ideas in Berger’s documentary, Ways of Seeing. But Landscapes reveals that his most important influence as a practicing art critic was Max Raphael.

Raphael, an undeservedly obscure theorist, located the value of art in the activity of the artist. According to him, an artist performs two operations. On the one hand, the artist turns raw material into artistic material by shaping it to represent an idea or an object; this is true both of Michelangelo shaping a block of marble into David and of Jackson Pollock embodying the rhythms of jazz in drip paintings. On the other, the artist turns his perception into something external and objective, a representation. The work of art is the result of these two transformations, of raw stuff and of subjective perception into an art object. For Raphael, the point of art is these two transformations: they are the artist’s way of “undoing the world of things” and constructing “the world of values.”

So Raphael’s answer to Marx’s problem — why is art enduringly moving even though it merely reflects its social context? — is to say that art doesn’t merely reflect its social context. It does reflect it, because the artist’s material, style, the things they want to represent, even the way they see, are historically conditioned; but it doesn’t merely reflect it, because the transformed material speaks of something deeper and more voluntary. It speaks of humanity’s ability to make its own world, to become the subject and not merely the victim of history. “The function of the work of art,” Berger sums up Raphael, “is to lead us from the work to the process of creation which it contains.”

Anyone familiar with Berger’s own writing will sit up with a shock of recognition. Here is a theory of art directly correlated to his practice of criticism. Berger takes art out of the sanitizing temples where we store it and drops it firmly back onto the easel, in a messy studio, where a sweaty artist bites her lip and stores her way of looking in an object. Over and over again, he asks us to imagine the artist at work. Many have attributed this to his own training as a painter, which might have inspired his fascination with technique, as I, an amateur pianist, am fascinated by the technique of my favorite recording artists. But I think his admiring discussion of Raphael suggests a much deeper reason. If Berger believes that the most important meaning of art is what it shows us of our ability to create the world we want, it turns out that his criticism is connected to his Marxism much more fundamentally than through the borrowing of a few insights from Walter Benjamin.

For Berger, art criticism is a revolutionary practice. It prepares the ground for a new society. In Landscapes, Overton includes a translation by Berger and Anya Rostock of a poem by Bertolt Brecht. It includes this passage:

Yet how to begin? How to show
The living together of men
That it may be understood
And become a world that can be mastered?
How to reveal not only yourselves and others
Floundering in the net
But also make clear how the net of fate
Is knotted and cast,
Cast and knotted by men?
[…] only he who knows that the fate of man is man
Can see his fellow men keenly with accuracy.

How to begin? Berger answers: In art. There we find proof and prophecy of a different world. In another essay, he writes:

We can no longer “use” most paintings today as they were intended to be used: for religious worship, for celebrating the wealth of the wealthy, for immediate political enlightenment, for proving the romantic sublime, and so on. Nevertheless, painting is especially well suited to developing the very faculty of understanding which has rendered its earlier uses obsolete: that is to say, to developing our historical and evolutionary self-consciousness.

This is the promise, the positive function of art. By looking at it, we are, in effect, looking through an artist’s eyes, entering into a concretized instance of their gaze. We are looking at a looking. And from within an artist’s looking, we learn about the capacities of our kind and the possibilities of our future:

A classical Greek sculpture increases our awareness of our own potential physical dignity; a Rembrandt of our potential moral courage; a Matisse of our potential sensual awareness.

At the same time, Berger is of the opinion that the modern history of art is a history of failure. He won’t compromise on this point, and it is undoubtedly the reason for the stiff resistance that he has often met.
In modern times, Berger believes, the art world has hosted a titanic battle between two conceptions of art. One conception declares that art is valuable because it bodies forth the vision of an artist; it is a good in itself just to the degree that it succeeds at this task. This is Berger’s conception, and it is large enough to embrace all the varying and contradictory proclamations and provocations of the successive factions of modern art. The other conception declares that art is valuable because it is expensive — that, fundamentally, art is property:

Since 1848 every artist unready to be a mere paid entertainer has tried to resist the bourgeoisation of his finished work, the transformation of the spiritual value of his work into property value. This regardless of his political opinions as such. […] What Constructivism, Dadaism, Surrealism, and so on, all shared was their opposition to art-as-property and art-as-a-cultural-alibi-for-existing-society. We know the extremes to which they went […] and we see that their resistance was […] ineffective.

In other words, artists, like all other workers, are victims of a capitalism that alienates them from the fruit of their labor. Berger has nothing but scorn for the commercialization of art: “If you could fuck works of art as well as buy them,” he writes, dealers “would be pimps: but, if that were the case, one might assume a kind of love; as it is they dream of money and honour.” Everything about the modern art world is constructed on the assumption that art is precious in proportion to its price. Even among those who profess a genuine love of art, that passion is often tainted by its ideological function:

A love of art has been a useful concept to the European ruling classes for over a century and a half. The love was said to be their own. With it they could claim kinship with the civilisations of the past and the possession of those moral virtues associated with “beauty”. With it they could also dismiss as inartistic and primitive the cultures they were in the process of destroying at home and throughout the world.

Museums, those seemingly democratic institutions for the dissemination of art appreciation, come in for withering critique: “Anybody who is not an expert entering the average museum today is made to feel like a cultural pauper receiving charity.” From a man who has spent so much time in museums, these are harsh words. Everything about our museums’ operations reveal a slavish dedication to the conception of art as property: from the choice of what to show and what to store, to the obsession with provenance. Provenance is an important question for owners of art-as-property, for whom the price of a work of art, which to them is equal to its value, is directly dependent upon its rarity and authenticity. The museum teaches us that we are paupers in two senses: too poor in money to do anything but stand abjectly before this display of wealth, and too poor in taste to grasp the reason these objects are so highly prized. Before museums can even begin to be useful, believes Berger, “it is necessary to see works of art freed from all the mystique which is attached to them as property objects.”

Berger’s opinion of museums reveals something: our greatest art critic for the last half-century has been conducting a smuggling operation. The bulk of his work as a critic has been a plainspoken attempt to enunciate the meaning of works of art — the process of their creation — under the eyes of their guards. From his perspective, the regime of property has an interest in suppressing his work, not just because art has functioned so well as a form of wealth and an ideological tool, but because its real meaning is dangerously emancipating.

Tom Overton and Verso have provided a real service by supplementing the praxis, the well-known criticism, of the increasingly famous John Berger with his theory. All those who love his writing and profess to take him as a teacher owe it to themselves to peruse Landscapes, and to grapple frankly with the discomforting, clear, and urgent message of his work:

[I]t is necessary to make an imaginative effort which runs contrary to the whole contemporary trend of the art world: it is necessary to see works of art freed from all the mystique which is attached to them as property objects. It then becomes possible to see them as testimony to the process of their own making instead of as products; to see them in terms of action instead of finished achievement. The question: what went into the making of this? supersedes the collector’s question of: what is this?

'Work For It!' John Berger at 90
Thursday, 17 August 2017 19:32

'Work For It!' John Berger at 90

Published in Poetry

John Berger was born on 5th November 1926. To celebrate his 90th birthday, we republish some of his poems, an interview, and some of his quotations.

One of the people who was due to attend the Teeside International Poetry Festival in 2015 was John Berger, the Marxist art critic, essayist, novelist, artist and poet. He could not come in the end, due to severe arthritis, but he appeared via Skype at one of the sessions, and recited some poems from his recent collection, published by Smokestack Books.

Collected Poems reflects Berger's longstanding concerns with art and politics, love and war, history and memory, and the life of the peasantry around him (he used to live in the Haute Savoie, in the French Alps). They demonstrate an enduring commitment to the extraordinary lives of ordinary people.

You can tell from the poems that the writer is a fine draughtsman and artist. Each one of them is like a perfectly framed image, a painted still life, sensual, honest and plain. They are sketches of hard lives, caught between the provisional nature of language and the permanence of things. Here are five of the poems.

16.45h The Firing Squad

The dog carried the day in her mouth
over the fields of the small hours
towards a hiding place
which before had been safe.

Nobody was woken before dawn.

At noon
the dog sprawling in the shade
placed the pup between her four paws
and waited in vain
for it to suck.

A line of prisoners
hands knotted
fall forward
into the grave they have dug.

Belly to the earth
the dog carries the day
which has never stirred
back to its dark.

Under the stars the bereaved
imagine they hear
a dog howling too
on the edge of the world.

This piteous day was born
stone-deaf and blind.

Napalm

Mother let me cry
not letterpress
nor telex
nor stainless speech
bulletins
announce disaster
with impunity -
but the pages of the wound.

Mother let me speak
not adjectives
to colour
their maps of wretchedness
nor nouns to classify
the families of pain -
but the verb of suffering.

My mother tongue taps
the sentence
on the prison wall
Mother let me write
the voices
howling in the falls.


History

The pulse of the dead
as interminably
constant as the silence
which pockets the thrush.

The eyes of the dead
inscribed on our palms
as we walk on this earth
which pockets the thrush.


Seven Levels of Despair

To search each morning
to find the scraps
with which to survive another day.

The knowledge on waking
that in this legal wilderness
no rights exist.

The experience over the years
of nothing getting better
only worse.
The humiliation of being able
to change almost nothing,
and of seizing upon the almost
which then leads to another impasse.

The listening to a thousand promises
which pass inexorably
beside you and yours.

The example of those who resist
being bombarded to dust.

The weight of your own killed
a weight which closes
innocence for ever
because they are so many.


Ladle

Pewter pock-marked
moon of the ladle
rising above the mountain
going down into the saucepan
serving generations
steaming
dredging what has grown from seed
in the garden
thickened with potato
outliving us all
on the wooden sky
of the kitchen wall

Serving mother
of the steaming pewter breast
veined by the salts
fed to her children
hungry as boars
with the evening earth
engrained around their nails
and bread the brother
serving mother

Ladle
pour the sky steaming
with the carrot sun
the stars of salt
and the grease of the pig earth
pour the sky steaming
ladle
pour soup for our days
pour sleep for our night
pour years for my children


Art and Politics

As well as being a major poet, John Berger is a cultural critic who has challenged and changed the way we see the world, in countless essays and in books such as Ways of Seeing, Permanent Red, Pig Earth, and the novel G.

During the Skype session at the Festival, he answered some questions about art and politics. I followed this up with a telephone interview with him, and exchanged some texts, and below I set out the questions he was asked, and the answers that he gave.

Q. What constitutes good art?

A. Good art is like a lorry: it transports.

Q. Are poets, as Shelley famously suggested, the unacknowledged legislators of the world?

A. Poets are not legislators themselves, but they can be great agents of change. They evoke the need for a new politics by being able to envision the world, to summon up the past and future, to make them present, thus making it clearer how things could be different.

Q. Auden said that poetry changed nothing, and Brecht said that art is a hammer with which to change reality. Can poetry make useful political interventions, and change reality?

A. Well you have to remember that reality is not just some outside, fixed given, it includes our experience of what’s out there. With that in mind, it seems to me that poetry can indeed change people, because we all know how a good poem alters, no matter how slightly, our perceptions of the world around us. Those perceptions lead to us making hundreds of different choices, including political choices. So its effect is continuous, and multiple.  It can also encourage disobedience, and demonstrate that language is not necessarily the meaningless crap by which we are surrounded!

Q. You have produced many kinds of writing, including art criticism, novels, essays, and poems. Which discipline do you prefer the most?

A. Nearly all my work has involved collaborations with other people. For example, Ways of Seeing, for which most people know me best, was a collaboration with several others, and this tends to get forgotten.  So I would say that I don’t have a preferred genre as such, but I do have a preferred mode of creativity, and that is collaboration. For me, collaboration is a kind of solidarity, in fact it creates solidarity, and that is for me a very important principle of working.

Q. You spoke of the ability of poetry to envision the world. How should teachers and academics approach poetry, what should they do with it, and how should it be taught?

A. Students and people generally should be encouraged to surround themselves with poetry, with the sounds and forms and silences that are in poems.

Q. What impact do you think the internet has had on the arts and society generally?

A. The internet is a fast, effective way of sharing a lot of information. It thus helps expose and clarify the present structures of power in the world. It makes it clearer how globalised capitalism works, how the world is run by decisions taken by giant transnational corporations, by tiny elites of capitalists.
I think many young people see this clearly, partly because of the ease with which they handle new technology, but also because they are one of the main victims of unemployment, low pay and insecure employment.

Politicians have lost power, or perhaps it has become clearer how little power they ever really had. But they won’t admit it, and this leads to great folly and doublespeak in the use of language, which alienates people, it makes us feel lost and desperate. But we can resist it when we realize where power comes from, and as I say, the internet and new technology generally can help clarify where real power lies.

Q. What would be your parting message be to us?

A. We live in a dark age. Art has existed for at least 30,000 years. Another age of hope will come.

Work for it!

Some Quotes from John Berger


'the issue is between a total approach to art which attempts to relate it to every aspect of experience and the esoteric approach of a few specialised experts, who are the clerks of the nostalgia of a ruling class in decline. In decline, not before the proletariat, but before the new power of the corporation and the state.'

‘I now believe there is an absolute incompatibility between art and private property, or art and state property, unless the state is a plebeian democracy. Property must be destroyed before imagination can be developed any further.'

'My aim has been to try and destroy this bourgeois society'

'The poverty of our century is unlike that of any other. It is not, as poverty was before, the result of natural scarcity, but of a set of priorities imposed upon the rest of the world by the rich. Consequently, the modern poor are not pitied...but written off as trash. The twentieth-century consumer economy has produced the first culture for which a beggar is a reminder of nothing.'