Art critic John Berger is dead, at the age of 90. When I was a young leftist Berger was one of my heroes. Looking back now I can see that Berger was not only wrong about everything, he was dangerously wrong. Unfortunately Berger was immensely influential and his books are still used as university textbooks.
Berger was best-known for his 1972 BBC TV series (and its accompanying book) Ways of Seeing. A few years earlier Lord Kenneth Clark had presented a magisterial overview of western culture from the 12th century to the modern age in his muh-lauded Civilisation TV series. Ways of Seeing was intended as a counter to Clark’s program, undermining Clark’s positive view of our culture. Where Clark celebrated western culture Berger was determined to deconstruct and destroy that same culture.
Modernist art is of course nothing more than a sustained attack on western civilisation. The problem for modernists is that anyone who isn’t blind or stupid (or sufficiently indoctrinated) can see that modernist art, when compared to the great works of the western tradition, is infantile rubbish. The only way to get modernist art accepted was to discredit the western artistic tradition. This was Berger’s project.
Berger was a marxist and his approach to art was marxist. Of course trying to apply marxist class analysis to the study of anything pre-19th century is futile. Classes, as understood in marxism, simply did not exist in a pre-industrial world. Berger wasn’t going to let that stop him.
It wasn’t enough to make people dislike the great works of western art. They had to be taught to see them as evil and patriarchal and oppressive. Berger saw all art as expressing a political ideology, because that was the only way he could understand art. Needless to say the western artistic tradition turns out to have been evil capitalist propaganda. Berger was also influenced by feminism so of course the great works of western art turned out to have been evil patriarchal propaganda. Berger had a considerable influence on feminist art criticism, one of the great blights of the modern age.
As is the case with so many art critics in the modern world I never got any sense that Berger actually liked art. He liked politics and he liked political art but he liked political art because it was political, not because it was art. Art as such was irrelevant. It was the political message that mattered.
Berger’s knowledge of art history was unimpressive but he knew how to cherry-pick works of art that he could use to advance his misguided theories.
The trouble is that we can’t just dismiss Berger as a wrong-headed misguided leftist loon (although that’s an accurate description of him) – Berger is solidly in the mainstream of modern art criticism. Our universities and art schools are infested with such people. The work of destruction, to which Berger was an enthusiastic contributor, goes on.