I cannot overstate how immensely John Berger contributed to awakening a critical understanding of Western cultural aesthetics and ethics in me. I feel deeply indebted. Here’s a wonderful recent interview with the man.
On this, his 90th birthday, I thought it fitting to look back on this BAFTA award-winning TV series from 1972, which rapidly became regarded as one of the most influential art programmes ever made. Ways of Seeing is a four-part BBC series of 30-minute films, created chiefly by writer John Berger and producer Mike Dibb. Berger’s scripts were adapted into a book of the same name.
The series and book critique traditional Western cultural aesthetics by raising questions about hidden ideologies in visual images. The series is partially a response to Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation series, which represents a more traditionalist view of the Western artistic and cultural canon.
In the first programme, Berger examines the impact of photography on our appreciation of art from the past.
The second programme deals with the portrayal of the female nude, an important part of the tradition of European art. Berger examines these paintings and asks whether they celebrate women as they really are or only as men would like them to be.
With the invention of oil paint around 1400, painters were able to portray people and objects with an unprecedented degree of realism, and painting became the ideal way to celebrate private possessions. In this programme, John Berger questions the value we place on that tradition.
In this programme, Berger analyses the images of advertising and publicity and shows how they relate to the tradition of oil painting – in moods, relationships and poses.
More John Berger on Fleurmach:
Algebra and money are essentially levellers, the ﬁrst intellectually, the second eﬀectively.
About ﬁfty years ago the life of the Provençal peasants ceased to be like that of the Greek peasants described by Hesiod. The destruction of science as conceived by the Greeks took place at about the same period. Money and algebra triumphed simultaneously.
The relation of the sign to the thing signiﬁed is being destroyed, the game of exchanges between signs is being multiplied of itself and for itself. And the increasing complication demands that there should be signs for signs… [Note that this comment comes decades before Baudrillard writes about simulacra in 1981.]
Among the characteristics of the modern world we must not forget the impossibility of thinking in concrete terms of the relationship between eﬀort and the result of eﬀort. There are too many intermediaries. As in the other cases, this relationship which does not lie in any thought, lies in a thing: money.
As collective thought cannot exist as thought, it passes into things (signs, machines…). Hence the paradox: it is the thing which thinks and the man who is reduced to the state of a thing.
There is no collective thought. On the other hand our science is collective like our technics. Specialization. We inherit not only results but methods which we do not understand. For the matter of that the two are inseparable, for the results of algebra provide methods for the other sciences.
To make an inventory or criticism of our civilization—what does that mean? To try to expose in precise terms the trap which has made man the slave of his own inventions. How has unconsciousness inﬁltrated itself into methodical thought and action?
To escape by a return to the primitive state is a lazy solution. We have to rediscover the original pact between the spirit and the world in this very civilization of which we form a part. But it is a task which is beyond our power on account of the shortness of life and the impossibility of collaboration and of succession. That is no reason for not undertaking it. The situation of all of us is comparable to that of Socrates when he was awaiting death in his prison and began to learn to play the lyre… At any rate we shall have lived…
The spirit, overcome by the weight of quantity, has no longer any other criterion than eﬃciency.
Modern life is given over to immoderation. Immoderation invades everything: actions and thought, public and private life.
The decadence of art is due to it. There is no more balance anywhere. The Catholic movement is to some extent in reaction against this; the Catholic ceremonies, at least, have remained intact. But then they are unrelated to the rest of existence.
Capitalism has brought about the emancipation of collective humanity with respect to nature. But this collective humanity has itself taken on with respect to the individual the oppressive function formerly exercised by nature.
This is true even with material things: ﬁre, water etc. The community has taken possession of all these natural forces.
Question: can this emancipation, won by society, be transferred to the individual?
Excerpted from Simone Weil‘s Gravity and Grace. First French edition 1947. Translated by Emma Crawford. English language edition 1963. Routledge and Kegan Paul, London.
The Lamp of the Body
22“The lamp of the body is the eye. If therefore your eye is sound, your whole body will be full of light. 23But if your eye is evil, your whole body will be full of darkness. If therefore the light that is in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!
24“No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other; or else he will be devoted to one and despise the other. You can’t serve both God and Mammon.
Do Not Worry
25Therefore, I tell you, don’t be anxious for your life: what you will eat, or what you will drink; nor yet for your body, what you will wear. Isn’t life more than food, and the body more than clothing? 26See the birds of the sky, that they don’t sow, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns. Your heavenly Father feeds them. Aren’t you of much more value than they?27“Which of you, by being anxious, can add one moment to his lifespan? 28Why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow. They don’t toil, neither do they spin, 29yet I tell you that even Solomon in all his glory was not dressed like one of these. 30But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today exists, and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, won’t he much more clothe you, you of little faith? 31“Therefore don’t be anxious, saying, ‘What will we eat?’, ‘What will we drink?’ or, ‘With what will we be clothed?’ 32For the Gentiles seek after all these things; for your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. 33But seek first God’s Kingdom, and his righteousness; and all these things will be given to you as well.
34Therefore don’t be anxious for tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Each day’s own evil is sufficient.”
This letter to her 16-year-old self gives insight into Thuli Madonsela‘s life before she became South Africa’s formidable Public Protector – one of the few current SA government office bearers who retain any integrity. Read her report on the misuse of public funds at the private residence of President Jacob Zuma at Nkandla. You can tell between the lines of this letter that she had to learn early in life to be comfortable with making unpopular choices to be able to do the things she believed in.
The following is an extract from From Me to Me: Letters to my 16-and-a-half-year old self (Jacana Media, 2012), a collection of letters written by South Africans to their teenage selves.
26 April 2012
It is April 2012, 5 months before our big 5-0 birthday. I am your future. At the moment, you are 16-and-a half years old, doing grade 11, known as form four then, at Evelyn Baring High School in Swaziland, the year being 1979. You are wondering what you will be, caught between thoughts of pursuing medicine and law. Your pastor’s disapproving views on the latter are not in any way helpful. I know you are socially awkward, plagued by a nagging feeling of being unloved and ugly.
Perhaps this comes from being teased about your big head and, more recently, two of your academically inferior classmates have started taunting you, too. Having two sisters whose beauty is always noticed and praised has not helped either. Secure in your academic prowess – for which you are always praised at home and at school – you are regarded as helpful and relied on by your family, friends, teachers and your church. This makes you feel significant. You will excel, academically, throughout your life and this will bring you to where you are right now. I’m writing to tell you to relax because you are a perfect expression of God’s magnificence.
You are the mother of two wonderful children, a beautiful daughter Wenzile Una and a handsome son Mbusowabantu “Wantu” Fidel. Your fears of being unlovable were unfounded. You have been loved and supported beyond measure throughout your life. Today, you are the nation’s Public Protector – a very responsible position that helps curb excesses in the exercise of public power while enabling the people to exact justice for state wrongs. You had the privilege of playing some role in bringing about change in this country, including the drafting of the new constitution that saw Nelson Mandela become the first black President. Mama was right, education is the great leveler. I’m glad I listened to her.
You have experienced tough times and great times, been met with nurturers and detractors, but all these life lessons have been necessary to help you bloom. You have come to realize that you are perfect for your life’s purpose. You’ve always been a dreamer, an eternal optimist. Keep dreaming, for dreams have wings. But live consciously and take time to smell the roses otherwise life will pass you by, including the opportunity to appreciate the finite precious moments you will enjoy with your late partner, younger sisters and parents.
Above all, remember that love is everything and don’t forget to forgive yourself and others.
Love you unconditionally,
Thuli Nomkhosi Madonsela (Your older Self)
swells and pounds me
I know nothing (now that I know you)
My face goes blank
My eyes go open gates
and the world can go (in them)
it can make us wealthy
and take away
I hold nothing (now that I hold you)
There’s no place to use our money where we live
The generous world suggests we live generously
so we lay
under low wide branches
of the oldest tree on the dune
or in the hay
where we will stay for so long without moving
that the careful birds finally relax
and make black nests in your black hair
and find ants walking around my unmoving feet
and we will only notice this play of the world
(that long moss is growing on us)
(that that wind has rewritten us)
(the give and take not stopping ever)
for only a moment
and then, having briefly noticed,
let the world roll on
through open gates
In a generous way
I give long walks to the dogs
I put commas and periods in song
I give closed eye to the day
I give peace to the long decay
(we do not need to fear dying)
— Written by Phil Elvrum, from the 2005 Mount Eerie album, “No Flashlight”: Songs of the Fulfilled Night