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Why John Berger is the least theoretical Marxist on Earth

Andrew Marr on the work of the award-winning left-wing writer and artist at 90.

The story of John Berger is the survival and triumph of a shape-shifter. A painter who turned to writing, he became the single most influential commentator on art of our times. A novelist who rejected mainstream fictional forms, he won the Booker Prize in 1972 and used the award to fund Black Panther revolutionaries. A passionate Marxist, he has remained popular throughout the waning of Marxism. An upper-middle-class Englishman, soldier and Londoner, he turned his back on the fizzing metropolis to live in rural France, and so became an ­authentic internationalist.

This month he turned 90, but he is still possessed of the wolfish mental and phy­sical energy, the bodily charisma, he has ­always enjoyed. And, happily, a clutch of new books, by and about him, takes us closer to the mystery that is John Berger.

Reading them, a plain truth emerges: Berger’s success is, above all things, the ­success of great writing. He thinks long and intensely about complex matters and, by a kind of mental grinding and wrestling, which you can see reflected in the muscles of his face, eventually brings them into sharp focus. He describes art and culture with a lucidity that brings to mind only George Orwell, another New Statesman writer, whom he met.

For the young Orwell, the world as it was made no sense. His upbringing at Eton and work in the Imperial Burmese Police jarred so horribly with what he saw, and felt, that he spent the rest of his life in the gaps, trying to explain them. This led inexorably to a political philosophy. But, as an abnormally acute looker, he found he had to change his whole way of life to see what mattered and in order to write honestly about it.

Decades later, John Berger went through the same kind of transformation. A keen young painter, he came to wonder what the point of art was, in an age facing nuclear ­annihilation. Growing up in the crucible of modern British patriotism, his father a war hero, learning his craft during the London Blitz, gifted and lettered, he found he had to change his life, to live with other kinds of people – Haute-Savoie peasants above all – in order to make sense of the world.

The best measure of his success is, for me, not his best-known book, Ways of Seeing (1972), nor even his novels, but A Seventh Man. Produced with the Swiss photographer John Mohr in 1975, this is an angry ­account of the lives and working conditions of migrant labourers, wrenched from home by the demands of big money. More than four decades dusty, it nevertheless feels like a front-line despatch from 2016.

But another way of measuring that success is by picking up A Jar of Wild Flowers: Essays in Celebration of John Berger, an almost preposterously internationalist Festschrift. This is a man admired in Palestine, in Greece, across Africa and throughout Asia and the Americas. Though the essays include reflections on Picasso and Cro-Magnon art, more of them deal with political violence and oppression: communal killings in India, Isis terrorism, murder in Gaza. Berger has developed a form of thinking and writing which might start with art, but reaches out in almost every direction.

How has he done this? The biggest difference between Orwell and Berger isn’t generational or political, but a difference of practice. Berger is a lifelong, instinctive collaborator. His writing emerges from conversations. His thinking bounces off other people’s thinking and work – he is at his best struggling to understand a surprising piece of drawing, or reacting to photographs or poetry or sculpture, or letters or a conversational gambit. He is, as it were, a writer with his gates always open. This is particularly impressive because he is also such an intense and serious thinker. Intensity and wide-openness don’t often go easily together, nor do brooding reflection and conversational collaboration.

Among the new books for his 91st year, therefore, Berger lovers will especially enjoy Lapwing and Fox, a beautifully produced volume of conversations between Berger and his friend John Christie, the visual artist and film-maker. Christie types a letter, with handwritten additions, illustrations and so forth, which might cover his own boyhood, his recent thoughts about Modi­gliani and an anecdote about deer appearing at the sound of a flute. Berger then responds in handwriting. What are they interested in? Basically, being alive.

Here is Berger responding to a film that Christie made with the multimedia artist Ian Breakwell:

I remember that when I was a small kid – around four to six – I had a strong sense of Nature. I suspect most or all kids do. And then it’s dismantled and taken to pieces by reason, competitiveness and other priorities. Nature had the shape of an egg which surrounded you, everybody you knew and everything which happened to you . . . The egg of nature was immense and contained everything that existed. I thought of it as an egg because it was a container without corners. Outside it there was nothing. Nothing.

This leads me to Berger’s Marxism. He has not veered from his revolutionary views and passion for the dispossessed; yet the vast bulk of his writing has not been directly political; he seems to have little interest in the deep structures of power or in parties; and he is clearly the kind of Marxist who would be instantly dismissed from any Marxist organisation he joined.

Further, the bent of his imagination is towards granular sensitivity, the finest details, the lines and smallest shadows, of experience. In his criticism, he can command the bravura big sweep of synthesis and theory, covering the period from the late Renaissance to early modernism in a brisk paragraph. But, more than this, he is a fine writer on art because he has this ability to home in on a tiny detail and niggle away at it until it shows a truth we had never noticed before.

Berger has been loved around the planet because he is the least theoretical Marxist on Earth. He is a writer for whom the clagginess of soil, the folds in an old jacket, the sharp smell of sorrel soup, or a German drawing of a hedgehog, matter first – the crammed meat inside the egg of nature. His hatred of capitalism, I take it, signals not only an anger on behalf of the dispossessed but also a revulsion against the ugliness of the modern world and our divorce from ­nature: a much wider dispossession.

And this is where that original question which has haunted him all his life – what is the point of art? – returns. In his debut novel, A Painter of Our Time (1958), his protagonist, an exiled Hungarian artist, attacks the formalism of modern painting. This is a type of “art which gets over its problems without a glance at anything outside itself. The formalist work is self-sufficient. It is a commodity. The market for such commodities is made up of those who believe that they are also self-sufficient – members of the mincing cosmopolitan art world.”

It’s vigorous and he makes an important point. But I have been back to look at the argument between Berger and Patrick Heron in the 1950s (also in these pages) about the social obligations of the artist, and I don’t find myself coming down on Berger’s side. As a fellow painter, but one struggling to make images that still “worked” in the modern world, Heron had a more sensitive and nuanced understanding of the importance of fresh freshness – simply, how difficult it is to make a good picture – than did Berger at his most urgent and polemical.

Berger was right about paintings becoming mere handy tokens for the very wealthy to pass between one another and he was right to ask artists to think about this. ­However, artists also have to make art new, and to believe that the results will somehow matter. Heron pointed out that safe, easy and popular art in the capitalist countries and official socialist realist art-propaganda were equally awful.

Berger gave up painting as a mainstream activity in the late 1940s but he has always been a drawer. There is nobody else alive I know of who can bring together so effectively the sensitivity of an artist’s eye and a broad, muscular understanding of human history. That being so, the essential book in this crop is Verso’s innocuously titled Landscapes: John Berger on Art. It contains his essay on cubism, an argument everyone needs to read in order to understand that “moment”, as well as some interestingly ­ferocious writing on the intellectual paucity of American abstract expressionism, and the modern gallery culture.

Yet there is something else one must highlight that is essential to understanding Berger. This book includes an extraordinary and revelatory autobiographical essay, entitled “Kraków”, a kind of love letter to an early teacher, which only reveals its meaning slowly. I think it is as profound as anything he has done. It reminds us that all good writing comes only from good (that is, patient, attentive, loving) looking.

Another short essay, “The White Bird”, seems to me to unlock any apparent doors between Berger’s angry politics and his aesthetic tenderness. He writes that we live ­after the Fall:

. . . in a world of suffering in which evil is rampant, a world whose events do not confirm our Being, a world that has to be resisted. It is in this situation that the aesthetic moment offers hope. 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 . . . For an instant, the energy of one’s perception becomes inseparable from the energy of the creation.

That may seem a curiously transcendental thought from a Marxist, but it is the key, surely, to this lovable and much-loved man. Because of him, we also feel more deeply ­inserted into existence – less alone.

Andrew Marr’s books include “A Short Book About Drawing” (Quadrille)

“A Jar of Wild Flowers: Essays in Celebration of John Berger”, edited by Yasmin Gunaratnam and Amarjit Chandan, is published by Zed Books (416pp, £10.99)

“Lapwing and Fox: Conversations Between John Berger and John Christie” is published by Objectif Press (288pp, £28)
 
“Landscapes: John Berger on Art”, edited by Tom Overton, is published by Verso (272pp, £16.99)
 

Andrew Marr is a broadcaster and journalist. Formerly the BBC’s Political Editor, he presents the Andrew Marr Show on BBC1 on Sundays and Start the Week on Monday mornings on Radio 4.

This article first appeared in the 24 November 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Blair: out of exile

Photo: NRK
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Skam, interrupted: why is the phenomenally popular teen drama ending before its peak?

The show has been building towards high school graduation – but now it’s ending before its lead characters finish school.

“Have you heard they started their bus already?”
“No!”
“One month into high school – and they started their bus.”

This Skype conversation between Eva and Isak comes early in the first episode of Skam. The phenomenally internationally successful series follows teenagers at a high school in Oslo. The “bus” they're discussing is a key plot point and concern of the students' lives. That’s because, in Norway, graduating high school students participate in “russefeiring” – it’s a rite of passage into adulthood, a celebration of completing high school, and a farewell to friends departing for university or jobs around the country.

Students gather into groups, give their gang a name, wear matching coloured overalls, rent a big car or a van, and spend late April to mid May (17 May – Norwegian Constitution Day) continuously partying. They call it the “three week binge”. It’s a big fucking deal. 

Skam, with its focus on teens in high school, has therefore spent a lot of time thinking about “russ”. The show, which is set at the exact same time it airs, has followed its four main characters Eva, Noora, Isak and Sana (who each have a season of the show written from their perspective, a la Skins), as well as all their friends, from their first few weeks at school in September 2015. In other words, preparations take years, and we’ve heard a lot about the plans for their russ bus.

In season one, Eva has fallen out with her best friend, and is hurt when she hears she is moving on and has formed a new bus, with new friends, called Pepsi Max.

We meet one of the show’s most prominent characters, Vilde, when we see her trying to get a bus of girls together. The show’s five main girl characters, Eva, Noora, Vilde, Chris and Sana, become friends because of her efforts: they bond during their “bus meetings” and fundraising attempts. They flirt with a group of boys on a bus calling themselves “The Penetrators”.

The latest season follows Sana’s struggles to ensure the bus doesn’t fall apart, and an attempt to join buses with rivals Pepsi Max. The joyful climax of season four comes when they finally buy their own bus and stop social-climbing, naming themselves “Los Losers”. Bus drama is the glue that keeps the show together.

But now, in June 2017, a whole year before the characters graduate, Skam is ending. The architect of the girls’ bus, Vilde, has never had her own season, unlike most of her friends. Many assumed that Vilde would have had her own season during her final year at school. Fans insist the show’s creator Julie Andem planned nine seasons in total, yet Skam is ending after just four.

The news that Skam would stop after season four came during the announcement that Sana, a Muslim member of the “girl squad”, would be the next main character. The show’s intense fandom were delighted by the character choice, but devastated at the news that there would only be one more season. “I can’t accept that this is the last season,” one wrote on Reddit.

“I'm so shocked and sad. It’s honestly just...weird. It doesn’t make sense, and it’s not fair. It’s not fair that we’re not getting a Vilde season. Most importantly, it’s not fair that we’ll never get to see them on their russ, see them graduating, nothing. It seems like such an abrupt decision. It doesn’t serve the storyline at all.”

No one has given a concrete reason about why the show ended prematurely. Ina, who plays Chris, said in an interview that “we all need a break”.

Some fans went into denial, starting petitions to encourage Andem to continue with the show, while rumours abound suggesting it will return. 

Many speculated that the show simply became too popular to continue. “I think that the show would have had six seasons and a Vilde season if the show didn’t become popular outside of Scandinavia,” one wrote. “I think the pressure and the large amount of cringy fans (not saying that some Scandinavian fans aren’t cringy) has made making the show less enjoyable for the actors and creators.”

Andem has stayed mostly quiet on her reasons for ending the show, except for a statement made via her Instagram. She recalls how very early on, during a season one shoot, someone first asked her how long the show would last:

“We were standing in the schoolyard at Nissen High School, a small, low-budget production crew, one photographer, the sound engineer and me. ‘Who knows, but I think we should aim for world domination,’ I said. We all laughed, ‘cause I was obviously joking. None of us understood then how big Skam would turn out to be. This experience has been completely unreal, and a joy to be a part of.”

Skam has been a 24/7 job,” she continues. “We recently decided that we won’t be making a new season this fall. I know many of you out there will be upset and disappointed to hear this, but I’m confident this is the right decision.”

Many fans feel that season four has struggled under the burden of ending the show – and divisions and cracks have appeared in the fandom as a result.

Some feel that Sana’s season has been overshadowed by other characters and plotlines, something that is particularly frustrating for those who were keen to see greater Muslim representation in the show. Of a moment in season four involving Noora, the main character from season two, one fan account wrote, “I LOVE season tw- I mean four. That’s Noora’s season right? No wait, is it Willhell’s season??? What’s a Sana.”

Others feel that the subject of Islam hasn’t been tackled well in this season. Some viewers felt one scene, which sees Sana and her white, non-Muslim friend, Isak, discuss Islamophobia, was whitesplainy. 

One popular translation account, that provides a version of the show with English subtitles, wrote of the scene: “A lot of you guys have been disappointed by the latest clip and you’re not the only ones. We do want to finish this project for the fans but we are disappointed with how this season has gone.” They announced they would be translating less as a result.

The final week of the show has been light on Sana. Instead, each character who never received a full season has had a few minutes devoted to their perspective. These are the other girls from the girl squad, Vilde and Chris, and the boyfriends of each main character: Eva’s ex Jonas, Isak’s boyfriend Even, Eva’s current fling “Penetrator Chris” and Noora’s on-off boyfriend William.

It’s understandable to want to cover key perspectives in the show’s final week, but it can feel teasing – we get a short glimpse into characters' home lives, like Vilde struggling to care for her depressed mother, but the scene ends before we can really get into it. And, of course, it takes precious time away from Sana in the show’s final minutes.

Some were frustrated by the characters focused on. “Penetrator Chris” is a particularly minor character – one fan account wrote of his scene: “This is absolutely irrelevant. 1) It sidelines Sana 2) It asks more questions 3) It doesn’t answer shit. This isn’t even Sana’s season anymore and that’s absolutely disgusting. She didn’t even get closure or ten episodes or anything.

“Sana has been disrespected and disregarded and erased and sidelined and that is fucking gross. She deserved better. Yet here we are watching a Penetrator Chris clip. How ironic that it’s not even called just “Christopher” because that’s all he is. “Penetrator Chris”.

It’s been a dramatic close for a usually warm and tight-knit fan community. Of course, many fans are delighted with the final season: their only sadness is there won’t be more. One of the largest fan accounts tried to keep things positive. “I know people have mixed feelings about Skam and who deserves what in terms of screentime this season (etc),” they wrote, “which I totally understand.

"However, everything has already been filmed, so there is nothing we can do about it. I think this last week of Skam will be much more enjoyable for everyone if we focus on the positives in the clips ahead. Skam isn’t perfect. People are allowed to disagree. But let’s go into this week being grateful for everything Skam has given us.”

Some fans choose to look to what the future holds for the show – an American remake. It will keep the same characters and plotlines as the original, and Andem may be involved.

Few think it will be a patch on the current show, but some are excited to have the chance to watch it teasingly as a group regardless. It seems unlikely that the US remake will compare in terms of quality – not least because the original was so heavily researched and tied to Norwegian culture. But for fans struggling to let go of Skam, it can’t come soon enough.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.

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