In praise of … John Berger

Even the Guardian  editors’ encomiums can’t escape the characteristic wishy-washiness. So they praise John Berger, in their usual weasly manner of course, and yet denigrate the politics which animates his fiction and gives it its distinctive edge.

John Berger
John Berger

John Berger’s most tangible influences were that tiny band of intellectuals who combined fine-art criticism with a social conscience: John Ruskin; Oscar Wilde; Walter Benjamin. Great writers all, and 82-year-old Berger is their equal. Indeed, that was true as early as 1972, when he published Ways of Seeing, the classic work of art criticism that became a founding text of cultural studies and still has a huge influence on art teachers and their students. What is most gratifying about the report we publish today is that Berger still holds to the humane, generous values set down in that book, rather than make that long, cliched voyage to being a reactionary with a dessicated heart. The archive of one of the greatest thinkers in postwar Britain – a Booker-winning novelist, an artist, a critic – would have fetched a usefully-high price from any number of American universities, but Berger has given it for free to the British Library. All he wants is for the BL’s representative to help him with some farmwork. That is a typically bit of puckishness from a man who, when he claimed the Booker for his novel G, delivered a tirade of an acceptance speech against the event’s corporate sponsors and promptly handed over half his prize money to the Black Panthers. Gestures like that distracted (how could they not?) attention from his aphorisms such as “Nobody had ever sworn in paint before Picasso”. A sharp, bold statement – but it is also generous, helping the reader see the work under discussion. Those same qualities are true of its author.

Author: Idrees Ahmad

I am a Lecturer in Digital Journalism at the University of Stirling and a former research fellow at the University of Denver’s Center for Middle East Studies. I am the author of The Road to Iraq: The Making of a Neoconservative War (Edinburgh University Press, 2014). I write for The Observer, The Nation, The Daily Beast, Los Angeles Review of Books, The Atlantic, The New Republic, Al Jazeera, Dissent, The National, VICE News, Huffington Post, In These Times, Le Monde Diplomatique, Die Tageszeitung (TAZ), Adbusters, Guernica, London Review of Books (Blog), The New Arab, Bella Caledonia, Asia Times, IPS News, Medium, Political Insight, The Drouth, Canadian Dimension, Tanqeed, Variant, etc. I have appeared as an on-air analyst on Al Jazeera, the BBC, TRT World, RAI TV, Radio Open Source with Christopher Lydon, Alternative Radio with David Barsamian and several Pacifica Radio channels.

2 thoughts on “In praise of … John Berger”

  1. It is interesting that the Guardian writer describes Berger’s request that the British Library’s representative help him with some farmwork as ‘puckishness’. To give his archive to the Library in exchange for some work outside is not puckish, it is beautiful.

    If nothing else, the BL’s representative will have a chance to live for a short while in a world where money doesn’t rule, where exchange is generous and meaningful. And, setting aside the Guardian’s take on the Berger, it gives us a glimpse of a better way of being ourselves.

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