Thursday, 5 January 2017
Ways of Seeing
It seems John Berger, the contrarian's contrarian, evaded the curse of 2016 only to kick off the obituary round of 2017, aged 90. Or perhaps we should regard these early days of 2017 as part of a "long 2016"? No, please, I think we'll draw a firm, unbroken line under 2016.
Like so many British people of a certain age, Berger helped form my young mind in the way only the best teachers can. Actually, I may well have been one of the very first to be Bergerized. When Ways of Seeing was broadcast in 1972, I was perfectly placed both to see it and to have my mind blown by it. By rights, I should have been at university that year, and nobody was watching TV at university in 1972. But – due to the requirement in those days, following acceptable A-level results, to sit a further entrance exam and undergo a round of interviews for Oxbridge entrance – I was still living at home in Stevenage New Town, and working as an art technician at St. Michael's, a local Catholic boys' grammar school. Late one night, sitting alone in the living room of our flat after my parents had gone to bed, I caught the first episode, and underwent the aesthetic equivalent of satori. Other thinkers and artists would make an even greater impression on me – I immediately think of Walter Benjamin, Roland Barthes, Werner Herzog, Andrei Tarkovsky, and Josef Koudelka – but the ground was prepared by John Berger and Ways of Seeing.
Late night TV was worth watching in those days. Programmes of an intellectual and cultural reach that would be unthinkable now were shown to tiny audiences, simply because it was seen as part of the mission of broadcasting. Shows like Late Night Line-Up or even The Old Grey Whistle Test made no concessions to attention span or popularity: TV programmes were expected to educate and inform as well as entertain and, by Reith, they were going to do it. The ne plus ultra of such broadcasting was probably Voices on Channel 4, in which earnestly suave Canadian academic, writer and politician Michael Ignatieff sat in a chair discussing heavy issues with heavyweight guests. It might as well have been radio. I think I may have been a significant proportion of the entire audience some weeks, but I found it made perfect post-pub viewing in the early 1980s.
Of course, what made Ways of Seeing so special was that it could never have been radio. In those days Berger looked like Mick Jagger's serious-minded but only slightly less flamboyant uncle, and he and director Michael Dibb made creative use of the visual medium for maximum impact, beginning with Berger apparently razoring an old master painting out of its frame. It was serious, hip, political, full of exciting new ideas, and completely overwhelming to an arty, would-be intellectual 18-year-old with a ticket to university safely in his back pocket, but no real idea of what the point of going there might be, beyond escaping the confines of a two-bedroom council flat, and the small-town life that went with it. Suddenly, it seemed that ideas and study might be fun, dangerous even, and not just another dreary rite of passage made up of homework, exams, and dull teaching.
It turned out I was wrong – university was just another dreary rite of passage made up of homework, exams, and dull teaching – but I will always be grateful to John Berger for showing me another way of seeing art and the life of the mind, at precisely the time when I needed it most.