A good way to come at John Berger (1926-2017) is to do it by mistake or serendipity, to discover him in the wrong box. At least that was my story, as a music critic who never studied art. Individual, unmanaged, unmediated discovery, an outsider’s discovery, probably suits him best. Not the kind that happens in a curriculum. He didn’t like school!
He has a reputation for appealing to the young, though I’m glad I came to him late. Subsequently I have taught Berger’s work to young critics. It hasn’t always gone well. It takes time to get it right. No single essay or book defines him. Some see him as digressive or humorless—the sort of guy who in the Fifties would lead a review of a show by Henry Moore, his former teacher, in this way: “The development of Henry Moore’s sculpture is a tragic example of how the half-truths on which so much Modern Art has been based eventually lead to sterility and—in terms of appreciation—mass self-deception.” Or, in the Seventies, the sort of guy who would address the tacit power-politics of the zoo (in “Why Look at Animals?”), but not without dilating first on Rousseau, Homer, and Descartes.
But at other times, especially during the Eighties and after, he could write about art in the form of intimate speech but with total clonking certainty, as if to suggest that collaborative thoughts about a painting, or any human achievement really—not with another critic or some kind of licensed expert but with your spouse or child or friend—were the most significant thoughts you could have. This is the casual-oracular sound of his voice in books like And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos; Keeping a Rendezvous; The Shape of a Pocket. This writing breathes with many mouths: the books fuse letters, poems, polemics, anecdotes, and description.
Read more at the New York Review of Books.