Thursday 5 January 2017

John Berger has left The Party

Over Christmas we were reflecting on the year just gone and counted up the people who counted for us who had died in 2016. The list was long and we hoped that would be the end of it - the death of people who had put their heads above the parapet, who had exposed themselves to fire to make life more interesting for us, sitting safe. Seemingly not so, because John Berger, author, critic, artist and Marxist passed on, in his turn, on 2nd January 2017. I wrote a trib to him in November to celebrate his 90th birthday.

I stand by every word, but there's more; because 90 years at The Edge generates more Ways of Seeing than can be tied up with a neat pink bow in 700 words. What we see is framed by what we know; and what we know is informed by what we read. And I've read a lot since Christmas - we had an internet hiatus that prevented me from watching trutt on youtube for seven days - including Caitlin Moran's [multiprev] Moranifesto. Moran is the poster girl for talent, back-bone and home-education being enough to pull yourself out of a council house on the edge of nowhere to the very centre of the media circus. I'm tuned to read this anthology of her radical columns from The Times because I've got two sassy home-educated grown-up daughters who will allow me to trot out the lazy platitudes of the patriarchy (they're polite) and then pull me up short if/when I say something really dopey and poorly thought out. Indeed, the copy I read was in the box Dau.II asked me to repatriate with some crates last week. Moran, like Berger, has positions [positions are better buttressed and have solider foundations than mere opinions] on many aspects of the world we live in and because she is a different sex, generation and class - but the same colour, and colour of passport, so not completely alien - her positions frequently force a re-think of mine.

One of her essays is about awards, of which she's nabbed a few for her earlier books. She makes two substantive points. First, the women at awards ceremonies are hungry and in pain because, before appearing to Their Public, they have been on a 6 week crash diet to look trim; and they've spent 6 hours primping their poor face and hair and squeezing their wretched chinese feet into a pair of heels that make walking difficult and running impossible. The men otoh just need to shrug on the tux and a pair of comfortable black interview shoes and jog down to the nearest tube station. The flip side of this is that the women are described by how they look - demure, chubby, splendid in blue - but the men by what they have done - ground-breaking, bold. The women have been objectified.

A few years before Moran was born, John Berger had his annus mirabilis when: his BBC film series Ways of Seeing was launched; he won a string of awards for his novel G; and his book A Fortunate Man laid bare the life and works of a rural doctor. In the second episode of Ways of Seeing, Berger has a go a Kenneth Clark - whose earlier, lavish, gorgeous, BBC series Civilisation had spawned a coffee-table book and introduced high art to the TV-watching classes. “In his book on the nude, Kenneth Clark says that being naked is simply being without clothes. The nude, according to him, is a form of art. I would put it differently: to be naked is to be oneself; to be nude is to be seen naked by others and yet not recognised for oneself. A nude has to be seen as an object in order to be a nude.

So whether she knows it or not, Caitlin Moran owes a small debt to one man who helped (not a one man effort, for sure) clear the decks of poorly thought through, effectively invisible, patriarchal objects so that she and another generation of women could begin the process of building another view of how the world works. Berger's art criticism was informed by his politics and his politics were a necessary goad to make comfortable, middle-class, white blokes like me reconsider some of our certainties. I don't want to live in a Marxist paradise, but I need to hear what Marxists have to say.

Suzanne Moore, the angry journalist, has a personal tribute which cleverly starts off by objectifying John Berger for his piercing blue eyes. She points out that, in the episode of Ways of Seeing about the objectification of women, he finally shuts up and gives the screen over to a group of women to to discuss the issue. Those women at least are given a voice as well as a body. Others criticise Berger and  Ways of Seeing for being superficial, which is true only because he set out his stall with such generosity that others could trade the stuff on his table.

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