The Cave of Gold
Thursday, 18 July 2024 23:53

The Cave of Gold

Published in Fiction

 David Betteridge re-tells an old tale, inspired by John Berger, Timothy Neat, and Margaret Bennett, with drawings by Bob Starrett

The Cave of Gold

by David Betteridge

On 23rd February, 2017, in Edinburgh, an event was held by the Royal Scottish Academy, in commemoration of an honorary member who had died a few weeks earlier, on 2nd January, in Paris. That member was John Berger, the Marxist critic, writer, and artist, who was not only honorary, but honoured, and also greatly loved. You only need to read a few of the obituaries that were published at the time to get a feeling for the fact that here was a friend to many, a giver and receiver of goodwill, as well as an artist, critic, story-teller, essayist, poet, dramatist, film-maker, etc. of international reach.

Ali Smith’s obituary, written for “The Guardian” on 6th January, provides a good example. She concluded that, “A reader coming anywhere near his work encounters life-force, thought-force – and the force, too, of the love all through it.” Then there is Jacob Brogan’s obituary, written for “The New Yorker” on 9th January. “It was hope,” he wrote, “that allowed Berger to write so beautifully... Hope names a commitment to change the world.” And there is Yasmin Gunaratnam’s obituary, written for “Red Pepper”, on 19th January. “Immersed in his story-telling and stories about him,” she explained, “I saw up-close what he meant by a story-teller’s hospitality, how language and writing can offer a sense of community.”

You will also find voices raised in hostility to John Berger’s memory – as in Michael Henderson’s obituary, for example, in “The Spectator” on 4th January – because, being anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist and fiercely combative all his life, in fact being “Permanent Red”, to quote the title of an early collection of his essays, Berger quite properly made enemies as well as friends.

The Edinburgh event served as the best of obituaries, a multi-disciplinary and multi-genre affair, attended by a multiplicity of friends, including some who had never met the man, or corresponded directly with him, but who felt they knew him through the comradeship of his works, as Gunaratnam described.

One contributor to the event was Timothy Neat (artist, photographer, biographer, poet, historian, teacher, and expert in mushrooms and honey), who screened a film that he had made in 1989, “Play Me Something”. In this film, John Berger plays a leading role, that of a story-telling Stranger. The story that he tells is one of his own, the last in his “Once in Europa” collection, about a chance meeting of two lovers-to-be at a Festa de l’Unita on the Venetian island of Giudecca, one of the couple being a cattle farmer from inland, the other a shopworker from the city.

As well as being narrated in Berger’s voice-over, this story is partly dramatised in the film, and is embedded in a second film-drama about strangers meeting on the Hebridean island of Barra. As they sit waiting at the tiny airport for a delayed flight to Glasgow, they get drawn into the Stranger’s story-telling, and, in the process discover unexpected affinities. This latter drama, the Barra one, is acted by a motley selection of players, including the cultural earthquake, Hamish Henderson, and the great folklorist and singer and teacher and publisher, Margaret Bennett. She rounds off the film with a singing of the magnificent Gaelic song, “Uamh an Oir” (“The Cave of Gold”).

At our event on 23rd February, again Margaret Bennett sang this song, and explained to us its significance in Gaelic culture, conveying as it does truths about gifts and debts, beauty and horror, tradition and hope, all in a few minutes of compressed beauty.

What, you may wonder, has such an ancient song, from Scotland’s cold Atlantic seaboard, got to do with Berger’s modern story about a workers’ rally on a warm island in a Mediterranean lagoon? Is it not a strange film that sets out to make a unity of such opposites, including such disparate characters? The answer lies in the relevance of the story to our political imaginations. Neat’s film and Berger’s story inside it express an age-old longing for a future that transcends the past, and gives us a pre-echo of dreams come true, even when we know such a thing will be difficult to achieve. “Play Me Something” celebrates love, hope, and the need to change the world politically to achieve a fully human community : the very values highlighted in the Berger obituaries quoted above.

Berger’s friend and mentor, the Marxist philosopher Ernst Fischer, made a convincing case for such “heart of the heartless world” creations as “Play Me Something”. He saw them as a necessary complement to cultural creations of the “tell it like it is” sort. He argued for a both-and culture, without which we cannot see the world, and time, and ourselves as we really are, in the round:

... the function of art is to re-create as every individual’s experience the fullness of all that he is not, the fullness of humanity at large. And it is the magic of art that, by this process of re-creation, it shows that reality can be transformed, mastered, turned into play.

Being a poet as well as a philosopher, Fischer underscored his case in verse, in an elegy:

Deep in the dreams of the world’s morning
may the future’s face be mirrored,
and may legend become the goal
of a mature people...

(See Fischer’s “The Necessity of Art: A Marxist Approach”, translated by Anna Bostock, 1963, slightly edited above.)

With these ideas buzzing in my head, I decided to delve into the history of the song that Margaret Bennett sang. There I discovered a Gaelic ur-story, of deep resonance, from which the “Uamh an Oir” song sprang, a story which I already knew (in part) under the title of “The Silver Chanter”, but which I had not realised was kith and kin with the song. It is one of the great stories of the world, from the same deep source as Orpheus.

Inspired by its magic, I decided to try my hand at re-telling it. Here is that re-telling:-


We have words; we have tunes. Having them, we have wings. We can be eagles, or wrens, or swallows, or snow geese, or golden orioles, or any kind of bird we like. Fly with me now. We have a cloudless sky, or can imagine one. Look, below us, there! lying off Scotland’s Atlantic coast, do you see a mountainous island shaped like a riding-boot that has come apart at the top? Zoom in close now! Do you see a high cliff facing West, and at its foot the entrance to a sea-cave? The cave is called Uamh an Oir, the Cave of Gold.


I can tell you four things about this cave. One: it is very deep. Some say it extends as far as Fairyland; others say it extends as far as Hell. Two: somewhere in the cave there is a hoard of gold; or maybe it is the glow of the setting sun falling on the rocks at the cave’s entrance that makes it seem a Cave of Gold. Three: the cave is guarded by a ferocious Green Dog. It hides in the dark, always ready to kill. Four: no-one who has gone into the cave has ever come out.

One day, centuries ago, a piper stood on the cliff-top, in a grassy hollow, out of the wind. He was a tall young man, as strong as a bull leaping. At his feet lay a little grey dog, his constant companion. The young man’s pipes were in his hands, but he was not playing. He was groaning and sighing, despairing of ever mastering the instrument. How he longed to play the music that was in his heart and head, but not yet in his fingers!

A woman appeared at his side, so quickly he didn’t see her coming. “I have watched you,” she said, “over many days and many years. I have seen, and heard, your devotion to the pipes. You deserve to succeed; and you deserve to be helped.”

She was slender, like a birch tree. She wore a velvet cloak the colour of moss. She had bare feet. The young man realised that this woman speaking to him was one of the Fairy Folk.

“Answer me this question,” said the fairy woman. “Think hard: would you rather be a famous piper, with wealth and honours, but without much skill; or would you rather be a skilful player, the world’s best, but without fame?”

The young man’s answer came swift and sure: “I would rather be skilful,” he said.

“In that case,” said the fairy, “you will be rewarded not only with skill, but also with fame. Your answer proves that you are worthy of both.”

The fairy then pulled a strand of hair from her head, and took the young man’s pipes from his hands into her own. She wrapped the strand of hair round and round the pipes’ chanter, tying the circlet with a tight knot.

“As long as that hair remains in place on the chanter,” she said, “your playing will have in it all the beauty that your heart and head long for; but there is one condition that you must accept: a year and a day from now you must stand before me, in Fairyland, which you will enter through the Cave of Gold, and there you must play for me.”

The young man accepted the condition. Then, as quickly as the fairy had appeared, she disappeared.

For the next year and a day, the young man travelled among his clans-people. He travelled far and near, high and low, playing for them, his little grey dog always with him. Like spring rain and summer sun, the magic of his music refreshed all who heard it. They were happy as never before. They felt vigour and health rise up in them. They made peace with their neighbours, wherever there was conflict. They saw their cattle and their crops grow fat. It was a golden age, still remembered, still spoken of; and the echo of the young man’s playing is still heard in the best of today’s piping.

On the 366th day, the time came for the young man to keep his promise. As the sun began to set over the sea, he went down from the cliff-top by way of a zig-zag path, down to the Cave of Gold, his dog trotting after him.


 A great number of his clans-people went with him, to wish him well. They were afraid for him, knowing that the cave was a great swallower of lives; but “No,” the young man reassured them, “I will be back soon, believe me. The power of my music will tame the Green Dog, and any other beast or fairy or person who might wish me harm.”

The piper went into the cave, his dog too. All the while, the piper played; and, as he played, his clans-people plotted his progress, step by step, even after he had disappeared into the dark. You see, there is a kind of speech woven into pipe music. If you listen with understanding, the pattern of the music’s notes and grace-notes speaks to you, and you know all that the piper intends you to know.

After a few minutes, the piper sent this coded message: I’ll be back with you, out of this cave, with a tale to tell, maybe good news. I’ll be back in less time than it takes a singer to start and finish her song.

On he went, further and deeper. The sound of his playing grew fainter. Then he sent this second message: I’ll be back with you, out of this cave, in less time than it takes a calf to grow to a heifer, and give birth to her own calf.

On and on he went, towards his meeting with the fairy woman, until the sound of his playing was so faint it could hardly be heard. Then he sent this third message: I’ll be back with you, out of this cave, in no less time than it takes an infant boy at the breast to train as a warrior, and become the chieftain of his clan.


It was nearly nightfall now. The setting sun showed only its topmost rim over the sea’s horizon. Its golden glow on the rocks at the cave’s mouth was darkening to grey.

Suddenly, there was the sound of a scrabbling of claws on these rocks, and the piper’s dog hurtled out of the cave, its eyes wide with a great fear. All of its grey hairs had been shed. Naked, it trembled in the gloom.

The clans-people standing there strained to hear what next the piper might communicate.

Oh, that I had three hands came the young man’s utterance, only just audible, from far underground, maybe from Fairyland, maybe from Hell. Oh, that I had three hands - two hands for the pipes and one for my drawn sword!

After that, there was only silence.



To hear Margaret Bennett’s beautiful and compelling singing for yourself, see here.....

......Or get a copy of the CD produced by her son Martyn in 2002, “Glen Lyon”. It is a notable recording, full of imaginative musical effects and sound effects, and includes “The Cave of Gold”, sung by Margaret Bennett, as one of its tracks.  

I started with John Berger. I want to round off with a poem inspired by remarks of his about the power of song, remarks contained in a late compilation of his writings, “Confabulations”. He wrote: “A song narrates a past experience… it fills the present… it leans forward…” None better than “Uamh an Oir”.


by David Betteridge

Imagine a song so crammed with gold
it rings like a giant gong
or the Big Bang
conveying memories and desires,
facts and dreams,
traversing time.

As one voice in tradition’s relay dies,
another joins, keeping the beat,
keeping the tune,
chasing forever each next year’s Spring,
each next sunrise.


Our song bestows on future folk
the world’s past,
for the world’s gain.






Os Semeadores
Thursday, 18 July 2024 23:53

What Do Marxists Have To Say About Art?

Published in Cultural Commentary

Richard Clarke introduces some of the main Marxist insights into the nature and value of art, and its links to political and economic realities.

Most Marxists would say that the value of a work of art such as a painting, or the pleasure they get from it - in its original or as a reproduction - is above all else an individual matter, not something that ‘experts’ (Marxist or otherwise) can or should pronounce upon. At the same time experts can enhance that pleasure, for example by explaining the technique and methodology of the composition of a painting. Again, this is no more the exclusive province of a Marxist than (for example) a commentary on the technical skills embodied in the design or manufacture of a washing machine.

However a Marxist approach may help to deepen the appreciation or understanding of an art work by revealing the historical context of its production and the relation of a work of art or of an artist to society. Art, just as any other human activity, is always created within a specific social and historical context, and this will impact on the art work itself. This is why Marxists argue that one can only begin fully to appreciate and understand a work of art by examining it in relation to the conditions of its creation.

Here a fruitful starting point for discussion is a materialist view – looking at the production and consumption of art, the position of artists in relation to different classes, and the conflicts embodied in a work of art and in the history of which it is a part. For example, Ernst Fischer’s seminal essay The Necessity of Art (1959) is a Marxist exposition of the central social function of art, from its origins in magic ritual through organised religion to its varied and contradictory roles within capitalism and its potential in building socialism.

The Marxist art critic John Berger in his Ways of Seeing (a 1972 four-part television series, later adapted into a book, Ways of Seeing) was hailed by many people for helping to deepen their understanding of art. Berger argued that it was impossible to view a reproduction of ‘old masters’ (generally paintings by European artists before 1800) in the way they were seen at the time of their production; that the female nude was an abstraction and distortion of reality, reflecting contemporary male ideals; that an oil painting was often a means of reflecting the status of an artist’s patron; and that contemporary advertising utilises the skills of artists and the latest artistic techniques merely to sell things for consumption in a capitalist market. 

Berger’s work remains controversial and has been revisited many times, particularly since his death in January 2017. Many have argued that he over-simplifies and that he incorporates the deeper perceptions of others such as Walter Benjamin, working at the interface between Marxism and cultural theory. Some have asked (for example) why there is no reference to feminist theorists in Berger’s chapter on the ‘male gaze’. However Berger’s work needs to be seen in context as a polemical response to the ‘great artists’ approach which characterises much establishment art history and ‘art appreciation’ typified by Kenneth Clark’s (1969) Civilisation television series.

What is clear is that cultural expression (art, lower case) is characteristic of all human societies and that while art and society are intimately connected, the former is not merely a passive reflection of the latter. The relationship is a dialectical one. As Marx declared in A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy: ‘The object of art, like any other product, creates an artistic and beauty-enjoying public. Production thus produces not only an object for the individual, but also an individual for the object’. 

A distinction is often made between the performing arts (including music, theatre, and dance) and the visual arts (such as drawing, painting, photography, film and video). Performing arts are of their nature ephemeral, and as Robert Wyatt, the communist percussionist of the ‘60s psychedelic rock group Soft Machine, declared, ‘different every time’. The performance is the initial product, although it may be recorded, reproduced and subsequently sold.

‘Art’ (as in painting, on canvas) is sometimes presented as the highest point in the development of ‘civilised’ culture. Jean Gimpel, an historian, diamond dealer, and expert in art forgery, attacked the concept of ‘high art’ in his book The Cult of Art (subtitled Against Art and Artists). He argued that the concept of Art - especially oil paintings, on transportable framed canvas - is specifically a product of capitalism, personified in the Florentine artist Giotto ‘the first bourgeois painter’ of the Renaissance and his successors.

Under the patronage of the Medici and other nouveau riche Italian patrician families, the ‘artisan’ workmanship of frescos on church walls or decorated altarpiece was superseded by the movable (and marketable) canvas. In short, it was commodified. ‘People no longer wanted a 'Madonna' or a 'Descent from the Cross' but a Leonardo da Vinci, a Michelangelo or a Bellini.’ The cult of art and the artist was born.

Yet it was not until the eighteenth century that the distinction between ‘artisan’ and ‘artist’ became fixed. Even today people can be heard asking – of everything from the Lascaux cave paintings to some suburban topiary — ‘but is it Art?’ High art of course also produced its supposed antithesis - the artist in his garret (women artists were to a degree excluded from the equation), suffering, sometimes starving in the cause of art unless they are lucky enough to be ‘discovered’, often only after death. With capitalism, for the first time the artist became a ‘free’ artist, a ‘free’ personality, free to the point of absurdity, of icy loneliness. Art became an occupation that was half-romantic, half-commercial.

Dire Straits’ ‘In The Gallery’ is a song about the conversion of use-value (the worth the artist or her audience see in an art work or the pleasure they get from it) into exchange value. Harry is an ex-miner and a sculptor, ‘ignored by all the trendy boys in London’ until after he dies, when, suddenly, he is ‘discovered’ (too late for Harry, of course) – the vultures descend to make profit from his work.

In The Gallery

Don Mclean’s ‘Starry Starry Night’ carries a similar message. The principal difference (beyond the tempo of the songs) is that Harry is politically engaged, very much of this world whereas tormented Vincent (Van Gogh) was ‘out of it’ - unlike his post-impressionist erstwhile friend, Paul Gauguin, who asked his agent what ‘the stupid buying public’ would pay most for and then adjusted his output accordingly.

Vincent (Starry Starry Night)

Irrespective of their recognition or fame, art and artists are frequently presented as apart from, sometimes above, society. For Marxists it is clear that the arts and artists are an integral part of society. In terms of aesthetics and policy however, Marxists would suggest caution - the history of art within socialism is a mixed one. The early flowering of post-revolutionary Soviet avant-garde art is well known. Constructivism strived to put art at the service of the people. The subsequent rise of socialist realism as ‘official’ art was an attempt to make art more accessible (and it existed alongside a flourishing variety of unofficial art forms).

constructivist image

Left: Gustav Klutsis – Workers, Everyone must vote in the Election of Soviets! Right: Russian Propaganda Poster

In the United States modern art was promoted as a weapon in a cultural cold war with the Soviet Union and its ‘socialist realist’ art forms. In the 1950s and 1960s, through the Congress for Cultural Freedom, the Farfield Foundation, and other covers, the CIA secretly promoted the work of American abstract expressionist artists - including Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning and Mark Rothko - in order to demonstrate the supposed intellectual freedom and cultural creativity of the US against the ideological conformity of Soviet art.

jackson pollock autumn rhythm number 30

Jackson Pollock, Autumn Rhythm (Number 30)

Even when art is oppositional, capitalism has an uncanny knack of appropriating it. The Royal Academy’s 2017 exhibition of Russian revolutionary art was accompanied by vicious and ignorant curating – presumably to disabuse any who might otherwise have been inspired by the works on display. Banksy’s graffiti, a determinedly uncommercial form of art ‘for the people’ (maybe a modern equivalent of the Lascaux cave paintings?) is now ‘in the gallery’ – decidedly a collector’s item with a price tag to match. Another (dead) graffiti artist, Jean-Michel Basquiat’s 1981 depiction of a skull was auctioned in May this year for more than $100 million. Banksy’s own comment on this is conveyed on a wall of the Barbican where a posthumous exhibition of Basquiat’s work runs until January 2018 (admission £16). City of London officials are currently considering whether (and how) this fresh graffiti might be preserved.

banksy tribute jean michel basquiat

Within capitalism, as its crisis deepens, ‘high art’ (provided it is portable, saleable, in a word, alienable) is – next to land and other property – one of the best investments that there is. A recent example is Sir Edwin Landseer’s ‘Monarch of the Glen’, ‘saved’ for the nation in March 2017 at a cost of £4 million, through a fund raising exercise to pay its owner, Diageo. This multinational drinks conglomerate (profits last year £3 billion on net sales of £10.8bn, 15% up on the previous year; CEO Ivan Menezes’ salary £4.4m) graciously agreed to accept just half of the paintings ‘estimated value’ of £8 million. More than half of this money came from the National Lottery - itself sometimes described as a ‘hidden tax on the poor’. 

The Monarch of the Glen Edwin Landseer 1851

Edwin Landseer,The Monarch of the Glen

Gaugin’s Nafea Faa Ipoipo? (‘When Will You Marry’?), painted in 1882 and, like his others, presenting a romanticised view of Tahiti, sold for $300 million in 2015 — just topped by de Kooning’s Interchange the following year. A 24ct gold bracelet, designed by Ai Weiwei, the Chinese ‘dissident’ and ‘champion of democracy’, inspired by the 2008 Sichuan earthquake (the deadliest earthquake ever, 90,000 dead, between 5 and 11 million homeless) sells for a modest £45,500 from Elisabetta Cipriani, (ElisabettaCipriani). The majority of artists and their artworks of course, never reach such dizzy heights.

The role of the artist in society remains a controversial subject. In the meantime it is clear that art and artists can and do play a vital role and that artistic freedom and license are crucial. Perhaps a good model is that followed in the former Yugoslavia and other socialist countries (as today in Cuba). Artists were not paid or employed as such by the state, although the arts in general were and are given generous state support. As in capitalist countries artists had to make their living through commissions, though these would be more likely to come from community associations, trades unions, local councils and the like, rather than from wealthy patrons or investors. Many would have to supplement their incomes by teaching, or by doing other jobs. But their social position was recognised and their social security contributions were paid so that on ill-health or retirement they would not suffer.

In both the appreciation, understanding and, indeed, production of art, and whether you love or loathe his own designs, one assertion that all socialists would surely agree with is that of the communist William Morris, who declared ‘I do not want art for a few; any more than education for a few; or freedom for a few...’, (Hopes and fears for art). What is certain is that art - of all types - can enrich our lives. It can also be galvanising, a force for social progress. But it is also clear that art that is subject to capitalist market forces involves a chronic distortion of the artistic product and process in which art works are valued for their price tag rather than their intrinsic quality. A Marxist approach can deepen our understanding of art provided that we avoid dogmatism and accept that this is an area of debate - one to which we can all contribute.

An abbreviated version of this article was first published in the Morning Star on 14 August 2017.


Maple Leaf
Thursday, 18 July 2024 23:53

A Coverlet of Green: In Memoriam John Berger

Published in Poetry


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?

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, 18 July 2024 23:53

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, 18 July 2024 23:53

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,

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?