- Birthday, Books, Quotes, Reading, Writing

John Berger on Art, History, Politics, and More

 

Happy birthday, John Berger! Here are some quotes from the writer:

 

“The past grows gradually around one, like a placenta for dying.”

 

“The promise is that, again and again, from the garbage, the scattered feathers, the ashes, and broken bodies something new and beautiful may be born.”

 

“Hope is not a form of guarantee; it’s a form of energy, and very frequently that energy is strongest in circumstances that are very dark.”

 

“Ignore the jailers’ talk. There are of course bad jailers and less bad. In certain conditions, it’s useful to note the difference. But what they say—including the less evil ones—is bullshit. Their hymns, their shibboleths, their incanted words (‘security,’ ‘democracy,’ ‘identity,’ ‘civilization,’ ‘flexibility,’ ‘productivity,’ ‘human rights,’ ‘integration,’ ‘terrorism,’ ‘freedom’) are repeated and repeated in order to confuse, divide, distract, and sedate all fellow prisoners. On this side of the walls, words spoken by the jailers are meaningless and are no longer useful for thought. They cut through nothing. Reject them even when thinking silently to oneself.”

 

“I was, in a way, alone in the world. I don’t say that very pathetically. I just took it as a fact of life. But being like that means you listen to others, because you are seeking landmarks to orient yourself in relation to—and, unlike what most people think, storytelling does not begin with inventing, it begins with listening.”

 

“Yet why should an artist’s way of looking at the world have any meaning for us? Why does it give us pleasure? Because, I believe, it increases our awareness of our own potentiality. Not of course our awareness of our potentiality as artists ourselves. But a way of looking at the world implies a certain relationship with the world, and every relationship implies action. The kind of actions implied vary a great deal…A work of art can, to some extent, increase an awareness of different potentialities in different people. The important point is that a valid work of art promises in some way or another the possibility of an increase, an improvement. Nor need the word be optimistic to achieve this; indeed, its subject may be tragic. For it is not the subject that makes the promise, it is the artist’s way of viewing his subject. Goya’s way of looking at a massacre amounts to the contention that we ought to be able to do without massacres.”

 

“Every authentic poem contributes to the labor of poetry. And the task of this unceasing labor is to bring together what life has separated or violence has torn apart. Physical pain can usually be lessened or stopped only by action. All other human pain, however, is caused by one form or another of separation. And here the act of assuagement is less direct. Poetry can repair no loss, but it defies the space which separates. And it does this by its continual labor of reassembling what has been scattered.”

 

“I can’t tell you what art does and how it does it, but I know that art has often judged the judges, pleaded revenge to the innocent, and shown to the future what the past has suffered, so that it has never been forgotten.”

 

“I know too that the powerful fear art, whatever its form, when it does this, and that amongst the people such art sometimes runs like a rumour and a legend because it makes sense of what life’s brutalities cannot, a sense that unites us, for it is inseparable from a justice at last. Art, when it functions like this, becomes a meeting-place of the invisible, the irreducible, the enduring, guts and honour.”

 

“In the imaginative movement which prompts the impulse to draw repeats implicitly the same pattern…there is a symbiotic desire to get closer and closer, to enter the self of what is being drawn, and, simultaneously, there is the foreknowledge of immanent distance. Such drawings aspire to be both a secret rendezvous and a au-revoir! Alternately and at infinitum.”

 

“[T]he more imaginative the work, the more profoundly it allows us to share the artist’s experience of the visible.”

 

“Is boredom anything less than the sense of one’s faculties slowly dying?”

 

“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.”

 

“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.”

 

“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 precondition for thinking politically on a global scale is to see the unity of the unnecessary suffering taking place.”

 

“The poverty of our century is unlike that of any other. It is not, as poverty was before, the result of natural scarcity, but of a set of priorities imposed upon the rest of the world by the rich. Consequently, the modern poor are not pitied…but written off as trash. The twentieth-century consumer economy has produced the first culture for which a beggar is a reminder of nothing.”

 

“The present condition of the world, if accepted as it is, if approached with anything short of determined impatience to change it utterly, renders every value meaningless. Two-thirds of the people of the world are being robbed, exploited, deceived, constantly humiliated, condemned to the most abject and artificial poverty and denied as human beings. Furthermore, if this condition is accepted—or even more or less accepted with the qualification that there should be a few reforms, a little restraint and a little more foreign aid—it is quite clear from the evidence to date that the condition will become even more extreme. Imperialism is insatiable. It can modify its methods but never its appetite.”

 

“History always constitutes the relation between a present and its past. Consequently fear of the present leads to mystification of the past.”

 

“The past is the one thing we are not prisoners of. We can do with the past exactly what we wish. What we can’t do is to change its consequences.”

 

“The past is never there waiting to be discovered, to be recognized for exactly what it is. History always constitutes the relation between a present and its past. The past is not for living in; it is a well of conclusions from which we draw in order to act.”

 

“If we can see the present clearly enough, we shall ask the right questions of the past.”

 

“I have never thought of writing as a profession. It is a solitary independent activity in which practice can never bestow seniority.”

 

“Autobiography begins with a sense of being alone. It is an orphan form.”

 

“When in love, the sight of the beloved has a completeness which no words and no embrace can match: a completeness which only the act of making love can temporarily accommodate.”

 

“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.”

 

“We tend to associate intimacy with closeness and closeness with a certain sum of shared experiences. Yet in reality total strangers, who will never say a single word to each other, can share an intimacy—an intimacy contained in the exchange of a glance, a nod of the head, a smile, a shrug of a shoulder. A closeness that lasts for minutes or for the duration of a song that is being listened to together. An agreement about life. An agreement without clauses. A conclusion spontaneously shared between the untold stories gathered around the song.”

 

“To try to understand the experience of another it is necessary to dismantle the world as seen from one’s own place within it, and to reassemble it as seen from his. For example, to understand a given choice another makes, one must face in imagination the lack of choices which may confront and deny him. The well-fed are incapable of understanding the choices of the under-fed. The world has to be dismantled and re-assembled in order to be able to grasp, however clumsily, the experience of another. To talk of entering the other’s subjectivity is misleading. The subjectivity of another does not simply constitute a different interior attitude to the same exterior facts. The constellation of facts, of which he is the centre, is different.”

 

“Emigration does not only involve leaving behind, crossing water, living amongst strangers, but, also, undoing the very meaning of the world and—at its most extreme—abandoning oneself to the unreal which is the absurd. […] To emigrate is always to dismantle the center of the world, and so to move into a lost, disoriented one of fragments.”

 

“If the word revolution is used seriously and not merely as an epithet for this season’s novelties, it implies a process. No revolution is simply the result of personal originality. The maximum that such originality can achieve is madness: madness is revolutionary freedom confined to the self.”

 

“Glamour cannot exist without personal social envy being a common and widespread emotion.”

 

“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. It is this which explains the absent, unfocused look of so many glamour images. The look out over the looks of envy which sustain them.”

 

“To be desired is perhaps the closest anybody in this life can reach to feeling immortal.”

 

“We can only see what we look at. To look is an act of choice.”

 

“Clouds gather visibility, and then disperse into invisibility. All appearances are of the nature of clouds.”

 

“Seeing comes before words. The child looks and recognizes before it can speak. But there is also another sense in which seeing comes before words. It is seeing which establishes our place in the surrounding world; we explain that world with words, but words can never undo the fact that we are surrounded by it. The relation between what we see and what we know is never settled.”

 

“We never look at just one thing; we are always looking at the relation between things and ourselves.”

 

“Images were first made to conjure up the appearances of something that was absent. Gradually it became evident that an image could outlast what it represented; it then showed how something or somebody had once looked – and thus by implication how the subject had once been seen by other people. Later still the specific vision of the image-maker was also recognized as part of the record. An image became a record of how X had seen Y.”

 

“For the first time ever, images of art have become ephemeral, ubiquitous, insubstantial, available, valueless, free. They surround us in the same way as a language surrounds us.
They have entered the mainstream of life over which they no longer, in themselves, have power.”

 

“The real question is: to whom does the meaning of the art of the past properly belong? To those who can app|y it to their own lives, or to a cultural hierarchy of relic specialists.”

 

“The uniqueness of every painting was once part of the uniqueness of the place where it resided.”

 

“What any true painting touches is an absence—an absence of which, without the painting, we might be unaware. And that would be our loss.”

 

“That we find a crystal or a poppy beautiful means that we are less alone, that we are more deeply inserted into existence than the course of a single life would lead us to believe.”

 

“Never again shall a single story be told as though it were the only one.”

 

“Those who read or listen to our stories see everything as through a lens. This lens is the secret of narration, and it is ground anew in every story, ground between the temporal and the timeless. If we storytellers are Death’s Secretaries, we are so because, in our brief mortal lives, we are grinders of these lenses.”

 

“The inability to remember is itself perhaps a memory.”

 

“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.”

 

“What makes photography a strange invention—with unforeseeable consequences—is that its primary raw materials are light and time.”

 

“One can say of language that it is potentially the only human home, the only dwelling place that cannot be hostile to man.”

 

“A spoken language is a body, a living creature, whose physiognomy is verbal and whose visceral functions are linguistic. And this creature’s home is the inarticulate as well as the articulate.”

 

“Every tradition forbids the asking of certain questions about what has really happened to you.”

 

“One’s death is already one’s own. It belongs to nobody else: not even to a killer. This means that it is already part of one’s life.”

 

“A man’s death makes everything certain about him. Of course, secrets may die with him. And of course, a hundred years later somebody looking through some papers may discover a fact which throws a totally different light on his life and of which all the people who attended his funeral were ignorant. Death changes the facts qualitatively but not quantitatively. One does not know more facts about a man because he is dead. But what one already knows hardens and becomes definite. We cannot hope for ambiguities to be clarified, we cannot hope for further change, we cannot hope for more. We are now the protagonists and we have to make up our minds.”

 

“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 your 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.”

 

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John Madera's fiction may be found in Conjunctions, Opium Magazine, The &Now Awards 2: The Best Innovative Writing, and many other journals. His criticism may be found in American Book Review, Bookforum, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Rain Taxi: Review of Books, The Believer, The Brooklyn Rail, and many other venues. Recipient of an M.F.A. in Literary Arts from Brown University, John Madera lives in New York City, where he runs Rhizomatic and manages and edits Big Other.

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