THE SHAPE OF A POCKET
by John Berger
A Non-review by J Stefan Cole
Berger describes his latest book of essays, The Shape
of a Pocket, Pantheon Books; December, 2001, ominously,
"I've never written a book with a greater sense of
urgency." The pocket in question is one of resistance,
and the urgency is globalization, its destructive lies,
according to the author, and what it is doing to the world.
He has been warning us similarly for decades.
Berger is in love with the visual, while, though mellowed,
still an ironically sincere Marxist-Socialist. He is proof
that the sensualist and a social conscience can inhabit
one mind. Noted mostly for his art criticism (Ways Of
Seeing, The Success And Failure Of Picasso to
name two) and fiction, (the trilogy, Into Their Labours:
Pig Earth, Once Upon Europa and Lilac and Flag),
Berger is a breed of Renaissance man and earth child. Born
in England, he eventually put his life where his philosophy
was and moved to France to live among peasants in a small
village in the mountainous Jura region near Switzerland.
He has been among the cows and fields and locals for over
twenty years, yet remains an international figure.
The Shape of a Pocket is equally at home discussing photography,
Michelangelo, Brancusi, Frida Kahlo, Subcomandante Marcos
of the Zapatista Liberation Army, driving cows home in a
golden evening or bashing Capitalism. Its quarrel is that
seen experience is being replaced by reproduced experience,
by glimpses of visual information as technology separates
appearance from existence. Rapid refractions of transmitted
imagery replace the actual experience of seeing for oneself.
This, Berger argues, creates an appetite for spectacle,
people as spectators with ever increasing hunger for information
in a "projected" life. A special concern of the
visual artist, perhaps, but not only the artist. A peasant,
for example, living the slower, "smaller" life
of repetition within a particular landscape has a greater
actual experience for all its smallness than the urbanite
with the latest high tech gear who never leaves his ergonomically
correct chair while seeing, second hand, what Afghanistan
or an iceberg looks like.
Berger, driving his neighbor's small herd home through
the mud, notices things, "Cows are very delicate on
their feet: they place them like models turning on high-heeled
shoes at the end of their to and fro." The question
could be asked, does the technologically connected care
about a cow's delicate step?
Berger is the quintessential believer in the visual. If
God created light, John Berger is the disciple of all it
illuminates. "Whatever the painter is looking for,
he's looking for its face...for its return gaze and he's
looking for its expression--a slight sign of its inner life.
And this is true whether he's painting a cherry, a bicycle
wheel, a blue rectangle, a carcass, a river, a bush or his
own reflection in a mirror."
He goes on to say that the artist is incorrectly seen as
a creator when really he is a receiver in the, "act
of giving form to what he has received". A collaborator.
Joseph Beuys is cited as the great collaborator of the twentieth
century because Beuys believed everybody was a potential
artist, and he expected the viewer to collaborate in his
arrangements. A fresh experience with each painter, whether
figurative or non-figurative. Berger argues that as visual
experience is replaced by virtual experience a kind of isolating
blindness results. Throw in consumerism and you have the
urgency of his book: "If the pursuit of profit is considered
as the only means of salvation for mankind, turnover becomes
the absolute priority, and, consequently, the existent has
to be disregarded or ignored or suppressed. Today, to try
to paint the existent is an act of resistance instigating
Let's call that the material socialist side of John Berger.
The sensualist, believer in the actual, regards painting
as an act of affirmation. From the first chalky cave
painting of a horse to the present, every act of painting
is a statement of what has been seen: "More directly
than any other art, painting is an affirmation...of the
physical world into which mankind has been thrown."
The argument of virtual vs. actual could cut different
ways. A couch potato or a person working in front of a computer
screen all day, coming home to their DVD or non-stop TV
news, might not think they are missing anything, might think
their lives are more inclusive. Might not ever want to live
life as a painter or concern themselves with the world they
drive through on the way to the supermarket. Berger admits
it's not easy to be an artist, a receiver, a collaborator:
"How did you become what you visibly are? asks the
I am as I am. I'm waiting, replies the mountain or the mouse
or the child.
For you, if you abandon everything else.
For how long?
For as long as it takes.
There are other things in life.
Find them and be more normal."
Maybe it's better not to see the way John Berger wants
us to see, each of us a potential artist?
And then there are capitalism and consumerism. "The
history of painting is often presented as a history of succeeding
styles. In our time art dealers and promoters have used
this battle of styles to make brand-names for the market.
Many collectors--and museums--buy names rather than works."
True, but an artist has to eat, and museums cost money.
Artists need time as much as they need food. Rembrandt fell
from favor when his paintings became darker and less accessible,
when he freed up to what Berger might allow as his greater
relationship to what he received--or that he found his voice
more fully than he could have in painting the likeness of
rich burghers. Michelangelo and Raphael painted what the
Pope or Bishop commissioned them to paint. Market places
eventually replaced the patrons and royal courts that supported
the likes of Velazquez and Goya and Rubens. Were those patrons
so different from today's gallery owners or museum curators?
John Berger doesn't ask the question. And he may live like
a worldly peasant, but his book, sitting next to my computer
as I type, lists for a whopping $24.
Yet, that does not give the lie to his points. John Berger
is as culturally liberated, as intoxicated with art as I
think anyone can be, and at the same time is utterly concerned
with the social and political well-being of humanity. He
converses through letters with Subcomandante Insurgent Marcos
because the peasants whose lives in Mexico that Marcos is
trying to protect--whose way of life, rather--are an inconvenience
to a consumer world. Global trade, mega agri-farms, factories,
coffee-bean plantations are the point; not little farmers
with a few acres to grow corn who want to be left alone
in their relation to the earth among their ancient Gods
and rhythms. But to exist in society requires purchasing
power, and passing through the paper wall to own property.
Increasingly, Berger might say, to consume is to be; I shop
therefore I am.
Above all, to give up crazy ideas of making paintings that
take so long. In 1975 Berger collaborated with Alain Tanner
on a film, JONAH WHO WILL BE 25 IN THE YEAR 2000. Berger
wrote the story, Tanner the script that he also directed.
I saw it years ago and liked it: smart, charming, idealistic
yet grounded, harsh. I wondered if it would hold up, so
I watched it again the other day. It's still good, and it's
Berger all over. Socialism wasn't entirely out of the question
then, farmers were just beginning to be threatened by urban
sprawl, there was no NAFTA, no internet, no PC's except
in the hands of those developing them, yet the basic message
is still relevant. There is a scene where a farm owner is
being harangued by a banker who wants her to sell out to
developers. She imagines, as he talks on and on, her husband
and lover coming into the office and placing a big squealing
pig in the banker's chair. Her life on the farm is not easy,
but it is her life and it doesn't interest her to give it
up. She would rather grow her chemical free vegetables on
her own struggling farm.
The book isn't always a smooth read. In fact it's complex,
and there is eccentricity to John Berger's mind, little
leaps he occasionally takes. An example is the piece on
Michelangelo, the Sistine Chapel. He notes that the depicted
females resemble guys in drag--nothing new there--but Berger
goes further to say that the male nudes (ignudi) have labored
to give birth to the visible, to the world of the mural.
The suggestion being that Michelangelo had a "fantasy
of men giving birth". It's a stretch, a big one.
The last section is the transcript of a radio performance
Berger gave at Das Tat Theater in Frankfurt in 1996, titled,
"Will It Be A Likeness?". In it he talks of silence
and transmitting a likeness over radio, which he thinks
is a better way to view paintings than on TV. The piece
includes an imaginary dialogue. Here likeness, by which
is meant presence, is "discussed":
"You can't set out to trap a likeness. It comes
on its own or it doesn't, a likeness. It moves in sideways.
Are you saying a likeness can't be bought or sold?
No, it can't
Bad news. Maybe you are lying again?
This time there's no need to lie.
...What you can't, in principle, buy or sell, doesn't exist!...What
you're talking about is your personal phantasm--to which
of course you have every right. Without phantasms there
would be no consumers, and we'd be back with the apes."
There is a playfulness to the urgency of John Berger's
pocket of resistance. I wonder how deep the pocket goes?
©May 2002 J Stefan-Cole