Halfway to Democracy
Momus has uncovered on YouTube a few short clips from John Berger's BBC masterpiece of intellectual montage, Ways of Seeing, the precursor to the book. A while ago I saw a compilation of his documentaries at the NFT, and it was intriguing how alien their approach to art and culture seems today. The earliest, Drawn from Life was particularly interesting as an exemplar of the alleged paternalism of the 50s/60s BBC being vastly more complicated than it appears today. Three 'members of the public' were asked their opinion on selected paintings, whether 18th century oils, constructivist canvases or impressionism: and the responses of his uneducated interlocutors were respected, taken seriously, demystifying the mandarin practice of art criticism. But then Berger would argue with them, add something they hadn't thought of, formal or historical knowledge that they would not have had. This dialectical approach is unimaginable now, not just for Berger's position as expert, but for the assumption that a plumber could grasp cubism. Instead we have the Simon Schama model of the Oxbridge idiot-expert.
Ways of Seeing is in many ways less odd to the present viewer. Lines could be drawn from here to Chris Marker and Adam Curtis, not least in the gorgeous electronic soundtrack by Delia Derbyshire that ripples through the later sections, and the dense, allusive montage. Unlike Curtis' Reithian-nostalgic tendencies however, for Berger the postwar settlement was merely 'a society halfway to democracy' - a compromise, and one in which the class struggle that Curtis obsfucates was still raging just beneath the surface. This is what makes Berger more akin (despite his tankie tendencies) to the SI rather than to his BBC contemporaries. They shared a love for the Facteur Chaval's Palais Ideal (subject of another Berger doc) yet never in the manner of 'Outsider Art' discourse, in which such a project would be patronised as some eccentric efflorescence of peasant creativity. There's a world of difference between this and the fetishisation of 'innocence' around, say, Daniel Johnston. This sort of act, this construction was taken seriously, as a model for an art not based on privilege and possession: and as against Platonist fantasies of the 'few' being the creators and holders of art, in a truly democratic society it will be made by all.