John Berger: Ways of Seeing, Cataract and the 1972 Booker Prize

‘If I’m a storyteller, it’s because I listen.’ John Berger

Born in Stoke Newington in November 1926, the critic, novelist, poet, dramatist, artist, commentator – and above all, storyteller – John Berger is probably known best for his four-part 1972 television series Ways of Seeing, a response to Kenneth’s Clarke’s uber traditional 1969 series Civilisation. Made on the cheap, Berger’s programme revolutionised the way we look at, and think about, Western cultural aesthetics and it has had a profound influence on the popular understanding of art and the visual image.

‘Berger had no time for ivory towers,’ writes the critic Kate Kellaway. ‘His way of seeing was radical… He was a charismatic presence, looking into the camera with piercing eyes and a frequent frown, as if constantly on the edge of disagreeing with himself. The look was fitting because what the series did was to make people rethink.’

A brilliant writer and thinker, Berger was also known for his kindness: his empathy towards others and his genuine hopefulness that things could be better. Two years before he died in 2017, the painter Yvonne Barlow, who had been his girlfriend when they were teenagers, was asked what Berger had been like at the age of seventeen. ‘He was exactly like he is now,’ she replied. ‘He was always so kind.’ All that interested him about his own life, he once wrote, were the things he had in common with other people.

G. and the Booker Prize

He was also, of course, a hugely successful novelist, who – when he won the 1972 Booker Prize in 1972 for G., his postmodern novel about a philanderer’s coming-of-age – gave away half the prize money to the Black Panthers. A lifelong Marxist, Berger disapproved of Booker McConnell’s historical association with colonial exploitation in the Caribbean. ‘One does not have to be a novelist seeking very subtle connections to trace the five thousand pounds of this prize back to the economic activities from which they came,’ he said at the ceremony. ‘This is why I intend to share the prize with those West Indians in and from the Caribbean who are fighting to put an end to their exploitation… I have to turn this prize against itself.’

Cataract, Smoke and What Time Is It?

One of Berger’s last projects was a collaboration with Turkish writer and artist Selçuk Demirel on a trilogy of illustrated books. First came 2012’s Cataract, in which Berger – not one to shy away from the stark facts of human deterioration – reflects on what happens when cataracts rob an art critic of his sight.

‘With the right eye alone, everything

looks worn, with the left eye, alone,

everything looks new.’

Next came Smoke, in 2016, a paean to the cigarette which ruminates on the cultural implications of smoking.

‘Just time for a smoke

and a story…’

Smoke, then, really is a gift, only not one that you merely purchase – John Berger always hated the idea of art as commodity. Instead, and against all cynicism, it’s something passed between Berger, Benjamin, Demirel, and the reader, who together form a smoking circle wherein a story might be told.’ Art in America

And finally in 2017, What Time Is It?, a playful meditation of the illusory nature of time, introduced by Berger’s friend Maria Nadotti.

‘We’ll know when the time comes.’

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