How John Berger helped us understand our world

As the world mourns over the news of the artist, writer and intellectual’s passing, we reflect on the quotes that helped to demystify, question and critique the world around us

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John Berger by Jean Mohr
John Berger passed away on 2 January 2017 in his adopted city of ParisPhotography Jean Mohr

John Berger once penned, “A man's death makes everything certain about him”. It’s a sentence that feels incredibly bittersweet as news that the London-born artist, intellectual, wordsmith and art critic, passed away yesterday at age 90 in his adopted city of Paris. What’s quickly become certain about Berger is that, through his criticisms and musings, he not only helped but asked us to see the world through a different lens – often filtered through the medium of art.

While entrenched in the art and literary worlds, he was unafraid to criticise it. When he won the Booker Prize in 1972 for his novel, G, he condemned its history in Caribbean slave labour and donated half of his award money to the Black Panther Party. The other half, he used to help fund his study of migrant workers, which resulted in the 1975 book, A Seventh Man.

His 1972 BBC four-part BAFTA Award winning television series, Ways of Seeing, is known as one of the most influential art programmes of all time, with its scripts turned into a book of the same name. Notorious for his criticism of Western art aesthetics, he demystified the way they are constructed, how and why we view them, and, in turn, how mass media influences that. He was also a staunch Marxist, speaking openly about the dangers of capitalism and consumerism. In later years, he wrote about Aids and homelessness.

Now Berger’s legacy lives on through the various screen plays, books, poems, artworks and uncategorised writings that he produced over his lifetime. Just last year, he published a collection of essays, titled Confabulations, and Tilda Swinton produced and released a documentary on his life, The Seasons in Quincy: Four Portraits of John Berger.

Below, we select some of his quotes that helped us see the world a little differently. Rip John.

“The opposite of love is not to hate but to separate. If love and hate have something in common it is because, in both cases, their energy is that of bringing and holding together.” – from And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos

“The strange power of art is sometimes it can show that what people have in common is more urgent than what differentiates them. It seems to me it's something that theatre can do, but it's rare; it's very rare.”

“The human imagination ... has great difficulty in living strictly within the confines of a materialistic practice or philosophy. It dreams, like a dog in its basket, of hares in the open.” – from Keeping a Rendezvous

“You painted a naked woman because you enjoyed looking at her, put a mirror in her hand and you called the painting “Vanity,” thus morally condemning the woman whose nakedness you had depicted for you own pleasure.” – from Ways of Seeing

“In the modern world, in which thousands of people are dying every hour as a consequence of politics, no writing anywhere can begin to be credible unless it is informed by political awareness and principles.”

“The existence of pleasure is the first mystery. The existence of pain has prompted far more philosophical speculation. Pleasure and pain need to be considered together; they are inseparable. Yet the space filled by each is perhaps different. Pleasure, defined as a sense of gratification, is essential for nature.” from And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos

“The camera relieves us of the burden of memory. It surveys us like God, and it surveys for us. Yet no other god has been so cynical, for the camera records in order to forget.”

“The relation between what we see and what we know is never settled. Each evening we see the sun set. We know that the earth is turning away from it. Yet the knowledge, the explanation, never quite fits the sight.”

“To remain innocent may also be. to remain ignorant.” – from Ways of Seeing

“Capitalism survives by forcing the majority, whom it exploits, to define their own interests as narrowly as possible. This was once achieved by extensive deprivation. Today in the developed countries it is being achieved by imposing a false standard of what is and what is not desirable.”

“A woman must continually watch herself. She is almost continually accompanied by her own image of herself. Whilst she is walking across a room or whilst she is weeping at the death of her father, she can scarcely avoid envisaging herself walking or weeping. From earliest childhood she has been taught and persuaded to survey herself continually. And so she comes to consider the surveyor and the surveyed within her as the two constituent yet always distinct elements of her identity as a woman. She has to survey everything she is and everything she does because how she appears to men, is of crucial importance for what is normally thought of as the success of her life. Her own sense of being in herself is supplanted by a sense of being appreciated as herself by another....

One might simplify this by saying: men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves. The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed female. Thus she turns herself into an object -- and most particularly an object of vision: a sight.” – from Ways of Seeing

“What reconciles me to my own death more than anything else is the image of a place: a place where your bones and mine are buried, thrown, uncovered, together. They are strewn there pell-mell. One of your ribs leans against my skull. A metacarpal of my left hand lies inside your pelvis. (Against my broken ribs your breast like a flower.) The hundred bones of our feet are scattered like gravel. It is strange that this image of our proximity, concerning as it does mere phosphate of calcium, should bestow a sense of peace. Yet it does. With you I can imagine a place where to be phosphate of calcium is enough.”

“I was scared of one thing after another. I still am.

Naturally. How could it be otherwise? You can either be fearless or you can be free, you can’t be both.” – from Here Is Where We Meet: A Story of Crossing Paths

“The happiness of being envied is glamour.

Being envied is a solitary form of reassurance. It depends precisely upon not sharing your experience with those who envy you. You are observed with interest but you do not observe with interest - if you do, you will become less enviable. In this respect the envied are like bureaucrats; the more impersonal they are, the greater the illusion (for themselves and for others) of their power. The power of the glamorous resides in their supposed happiness: the power of the bureaucrat in his supposed authority.” – from Ways of Seeing

“If you have to cry, he said, and sometimes you can’t help it, if you have to cry, cry afterwards, never during! Remember this. Unless you’re with those who love you, only those who love you, and in that case you’re already lucky, for there are never many who love you – if you’re with them, you can cry during. Otherwise you cry afterwards” – from Here Is Where We Meet: A Story of Crossing Paths

“Compassion has no place in the natural order of the world which operates on the basis of necessity. Compassion opposes this order and is therefore best thought of as being in some way supernatural.” – the Guardian, 1991

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