What do gender, painting and politics have in common? Many years ago, I discovered some startling answers to this question in John Berger’s novel G. and his essay Ways of Seeing (both 1972), which are marking their 40th anniversary this year. By the time I encountered these works in the late 1980s, they had become paperback classics among university students: not the classics that you had to read but the ones that you wanted to.
Both books came without footnotes and with images that were part of the text rather than being mere illustrations of it. Consider the depictions of women across the centuries in Ways of Seeing, which shows the sexism shared by a nude in a painting at a public museum, in an advert for tights and in a girlie magazine (as Berger noted, painters depicted women gazing in a mirror to blame their own voyeurism on shameful female narcissism – an early take on blaming the victim). G. – which follows the life of the eponymous and eternally amorous hero around the turn of the last century – includes a simple drawing of a penis with breasts, hovering above the caption-like line: ‘This can never stop, she whispers, slowly and calmly, my love, my love.’ How could the other university classics – from Plato to Hegel to Marx – compete with transgendered, talking body parts?
Berger brought a consciousness of sexuality and visuality to Marxism and, vice versa, a Marxist critique of economic exploitation and inequality to the realms of art history, feminism and the mass media, including design and advertising. It’s no surprise that Ways of Seeing was first aired as a BBC television series, which can now be readily viewed on YouTube, with Berger as a most intense host. His funky shirt and unruly locks, as well as the computer-like typeface of the Ways of Seeing logo and the guitar strum used for the opening jingle, all scream 1972. Yet it’s hard to believe that the show passed the censors back then in light of the nudity and the host’s biting critique of sexism and class war through so-called civilized culture. In the first episode, Berger updated Walter Benjamin’s 1936 essay ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ for his own era of mass-media reproduction, from print to television (the book version – richly illustrated – anticipates the contemporary digital blogger’s easy mixture of text and image). Berger combined Marshall McLuhan’s media savvy, Roland Barthes’s semiotic and sensuous approach and Guy Debord’s concept of spectacular capital while anticipating the feminist film critique of Laura Mulvey. Far from a pure theory, Berger’s Marxism was part of a vita activa. When G. won the 1972 Booker Prize, the author caused an uproar by giving a speech about how the prize’s then-sponsor, the industrial sugar manufacturer Booker McConnell, had produced modern-day Caribbean poverty through past investments in the region; he donated half of his £5,000 prize money to the British Black Panther movement. A few years later, he decided to farm with French peasants and moved to the Upper Savoy village of Quincy where he still lives, writes and draws – a rural Renaissance man.
The fictional G. and the non-fictional Ways of Seeing are like twins: born in the same year but with different desires. The books often echo each other, confounding the division between novelistic realism and political reality. The character G. woos women through a failed revolution in Milan in 1898 and a failed flight over the Alps in 1910; suddenly, Berger himself shows up with a diaristic ‘I’, thinking about how sexist visual culture gives every woman a split personality, although his thoughts seem to have wandered from – or to – Ways of Seeing. ‘A woman was always accompanied – except when quite alone – by her own image of herself. […] From earliest childhood she had been taught and persuaded to survey herself continually. And so she came to consider the surveyor and the surveyed within her as the two constituent yet always distinct elements of her identity as a woman.’ That still rings a bell.
Perhaps G. and Ways of Seeing are two constituent yet distinct elements of Berger’s identity as a feminist man, of his identity as a Marxist trying to combine a traditional armed revolution with a modern sexual one or as an artist producing work from imagination and as a critic reacting to an unjust reality. The character G. becomes the imaginary solution to women’s real woes which the author Berger details. Female duplicity may arise from male dominance, but, in G., the women can feel whole again by falling in love with a man like the novel’s seductive protagonist – or like Berger? Alas, the poison is difficult to distinguish from the antidote.
First published in Issue 150