English art critic John Berger has passed away at the age of 90. In addition to winning the Booker Prize for his novel G., Berger famously created the monumental work, Ways of Seeing, which was both a BBC documentary and a companion text. It is mainly a riff on Walter Benjamin’s The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, though Berger’s feminist critique on the female nude in the second episode was ahead of its time. But the debt we owe to Berger for this work is much more than that.
Like the work of art itself, art criticism had a meaning completely different before the age of the camera. One could read Ruskin or Wilde for a conversation on the meaning of “art for art’s sake”, but ironically the art never truly entered the picture. Even with Benjamin’s text, one could understand how reproductions of an image can call into question the authenticity of the original. Berger changed all of that with Ways of Seeing. Early on in the first episode, Berger stands in front of a Leonardo, The Virgin of the Rocks and says:
Take this original painting in the National Gallery. Only what you are seeing is still not the original. I’m in front of it. I can see it. This painting by Leonardo is unlike any other in the world. The National Gallery has the real one. It isn’t a fake, it’s authentic. If I go to the National Gallery and look at this painting, somehow I should be able to feel this authenticity. The Virgin Of The Rocks by Leonardo da Vinci. It is beautiful for that alone. Nearly everything that we learn or read about art encourages an attitude and expectation rather like that.
Berger imbued such lessons gracefully. The paintings of legend like the Leonardo are indeed beautiful, their quality and age utterly remarkable. And yet, most people will not stand in the National Gallery in front of the authentic painting but will see it via reproduction, perhaps as a postcard or in a book. Berger’s great skill was to be able to communicate this distinction to those very same people. Paintings may have extraordinary monetary value because of their age and rarity, but in order for the imagery within to meaningful to a wider audience both the distribution of the image itself and the criticism of it must be accessible to all. Ways of Seeing will remain a monumental work for years to come because of John Berger’s masterful approach to art criticism for all.
@chrisjohngilson is not dead. He writes about music for Pancakes & Whiskey, and his work has appeared in the New York Times, Paste, Splitsider, and elsewhere.