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Other Book Reviews:

Media Unlimited
- Todd Gitlin

Carter Beats the Devil
- Glen David Gold

Somebody's Gotta Tell It!
-
Jack Newfield
Violence, Nudity, Adult Content
- Vince Passaro

Perpetual War For Perpetual Peace
- Gore Vidal
The War Against Cliche
- Martin Amis
Look at Me
- Jennifer Egan

Them: Adventures With Extremists
- Jon Ronson

Tishomingo Blues
- Elmore Leonard

Letters to a Young Contrarian - Christopher Hitchens
With Love and Squalor -
Kip Kotzen and Thomas Beller
Shanghai Baby -
Wei Hui
Shop Talk -
Philip Roth

Halls of Fame -
John D'Agata
This is Not a Novel -
David Markson
My Name is Red -
Orhan Pamuk
The Corrections -
Jonathan Franzen
Nickel and Dimed On (Not) Getting By in America -
Barbara Ehrenreich
Spreading Misandry
P. Nathanson and K. Young

THE SHAPE OF A POCKET
by John Berger
A Non-review by J Stefan Cole

John 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 hope."

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 painter.
I am as I am. I'm waiting, replies the mountain or the mouse or the child.
What for?
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



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