Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Saying what you mean when you really mean it

A tip of the hat to novelist, critic, and filmmaker John Berger whose vast body of work is being celebrated in the UK this month. Most famous for his seminal art treatise Ways of Seeing, he's also written numerous other fine books, parts of which have been handily compiled in a single volume by Geoff Dyer. All of his writing demonstrates that it's possible to be socially enaged and politically radical without sacrificing a nuanced view of the world, appreciation for the ambiguities and paradoxes of art, or a keen sense of humor. This interview and profile from the Guardian serves as a good introduction to Berger's fierce and humane work. Where many writers seem content to sling snarky observations or academic jargon at the latest musical/art/literary fad-of-the-moment, Berger always digs deeper into his subjects. He never loses sight of the larger world around him and the social and political context that many feel safer ignoring.

Here's a Berger chestnut on the subversive powers of art. It's an idea so old-fashioned that it's practically hokey. And yet it still holds currency, even in Bush's America:

"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."


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