I was reminded last month, by a flurry of activity on Twitter around the time of his birthday, that I hadn’t read anything by John Berger for a little while. He’s featured regularly on the Ramblings but he was a very prolific author and I still have a number of books unread on the TBR (let alone all of those I *don’t* have!). I was impelled, after a bit of rummaging, to pick up a collection of his essays, and they turned out to be a wonderful and very stimulating read.

Unusually for me, I can remember where and when and why I picked up this book; it was in Leicester, in August 2019, during those happy pre-pandemic times when I could travel and had gone off on a visit to the Offspring. There’s a nice little bookshop in the centre of the city called Maynard and Bradley, which I always make a point of popping into when I’m over there. Their vintage Penguin and associated section is not always the cheapest, but I was tempted by the cover of a Berger book I hadn’t seen before, “Selected Essays and Articles: The Look of Things”. When I opened it and saw it contained a piece on another of my favourite authors, Victor Serge (whose Notebooks I was deeply into reading at the time), I was sold and it came home with me. So it’s taken a couple of years for its time to come but this was definitely it!

“Look” was published in 1972, and it brings together essays from the period 1959 to 1971. As I said above, Berger was a prolific author and as well as full length works obviously produced an impressive amount of essays and reviews in his lifetime. The ones in this collection are an intriguing mix; although Berger started out writing about art and artists, his net spread much further than that, and the pieces chosen here cover a wider range than you might expect. He discusses figures as diverse as Guevara and Benjamin, Serge and Le Corbusier; and also explores topics such as photography, mass demonstrations, and artistic techniques.

Was (the world) ever more tolerable? you may ask. Was there ever less suffering, less injustice, less exploitation? There can be no such audits. It is necessary to recognise that the intolerability of the world is, in a certain sense, an historical achievement.

You might wonder whether such a varied selection of topics would cohere into a collection, but it’s clear that these essays have been selected carefully to reflect the political stance behind Berger’s work. He was always a champion of the left, ready to stand up for those in need and challenge those in power, and that tendency is strongly on display here. A repeated theme is the dreadful state of world under late capitalism, and how the condition of the West impinges upon and affects less developed countries. Injustice and inequality are on display everywhere and, sadly, reading this in 2021 it doesn’t appear that much has changed.

Photographs bear witness to a human choice being exercised in a given situation. A photograph is the result of the photographer’s decision that it is worth recording that this particular event or this particular object has been seen. If everything that existed were continually being photographed, every photograph would become meaningless.

However, the essays are not simply exercises in political rhetoric. Berger brings his intellect to bear on a fascinating range of subjects, and his opinions about art and its future are fascinating. His discussion of Cubism and its effect on the world is trenchant, his empathy with people suffering is palpable and his humanity never in doubt. His discussions of photography are pertinent and prescient. And reading his writing about art is an illuminating experience, and certainly always alters my visual viewpoint…

“Look…” turned out to be the perfect read for me during November; I dipped into it, taking my time between essays so as to allow the contents to settle in my mind. Berger is a rigorous analyst and deserves the attention his writing demands; but if you want a fascinating and stimulating collection of writings which look at art and politics and the terrible state of the world then you need look no further than his essays. If this collection reflects the standard of all of his shorter writings, I shall definitely have to seek out more! 😀