PERMANENT RED a collection of “essays in seeing” on painting and sculpture by John Berger. by Michael Armstrong

Permanent Red is a collection of essays and reviews on art which reveal John Berger in his characteristic strengths. It cannot be said too often: he is far and away the best art critic today. He combines a fully developed seriousness about art with a remarkable gift for recreating in words the visual effects of the works of art he is discussing. Moreover, his judgments are always made within a framework of social and aesthetic references which he is never afraid to make absolutely clear. He is perceptive, both about painters whom he likes and those whom he does not like: but the particular insights are always related to what can only be described as a coherent aesthetic. As with other great critics, both of art and literature, the very coherence of his point of view is both his strength and his limitation. This recent collection of his work discusses a wide variety of problems. I want to take up and discuss one of these in this article.

All painting and all sculpture, Berger believes, must, in order to have value, contain some “precise, hopeful reference to the objective world”. Abstract art contains no such references; therefore it is, finally, valueless, except as pure design. It is not, he argues, that subtlety and excitement of form can only come through close, painstaking observation of the objective world. Berger is prepared to admire the formal beauty and vigour of works which he believes have no reference point in reality. Form and content, in works of abstract art, are separable. A formally magnificent work may, in theory, be worthless as art, except as decoration.

The root of his rejection of abstract art is, ultimately, related to his humanism and his Marxism: it lies in his belief that, since the abstract work contains no precise reference to the objective world, no subject matter, and therefore no content (what the artist discovers and emphasises is his subject matter) it has no relation of any sort to the mainstream of human life, or to the struggle of men to achieve their social rights. (This is not a simple kind of social realism: Berger is not asking for photographic representation of reality. But he does see art as directed to that which is “potential” in men and in human society). Thus “it is the content that makes any work art dynamic. It is the content that the artist distils from life, and which, through its influence on the spectator as he comprehends it, flows back into life”. Abstract art provides “a refuge for the privileged”, “an entirely passive, contemplative world”. It is the result, historically, of a moral failure to confront the challenge of society, or of disillusionment with the human condition; escapist, passive, and ultimately meaningless.

Now much of what Berger has to say about the abstract works of the last generation is true. But, equally, much of what he writes is incompatible with a condemnation of all abstraction, in itself and of necessity. For instance, he sometimes writes as if the meaninglessness of abstract art implies that nothing can be said of it. This is true enough, if meaning in art is restricted to the direct reference to and exploration of a particular subject matter, external to the painting itself. But (as is clear from his comments on classical painters, Piero della Francesca, for example, or Poussin) meaning can also be understood formally: and it is certainly not true that, formally, nothing can be read into an abstract work. Indeed, Berger himself offers formal analyses cf abstract works: “(Jackscn Pollock’s paintings) have no focal centre for the eye to travel towards or away from. They are designed as continuous surface patterns which are perfectly unified without the use of any obvious repeating motif”. Or, of Gabo’s Rotterdam monument: “Light, transparent, apparently weightless, poised to flower or launch itself, it is obviously a structure which is the result of great engineering skill and the talents of a born designer—of a man who has an intuitive understanding of the potentiality of his materials, and who can visualise any structure from any point of the compass simultaneously”.

One might say that such formal significance is unimportant in itself. Yet it is often in the formal significance of the subject matter of his art that Berger sees the artist, including himself, as primarily concerned. Thus, in his account of a particular personal experience of drawing, he talks of “building and refining forms (in the drawing) until their tensions begin to be like those I could see in the model.” He looks for “linear proportions” and “the relationship of planes, of receding and advancing surfaces”. Similarly, he discusses a sculpture by Lipschitz in which the “distortions and simplifications have been very carefully derived from the objective structural stresses and movements of the subject”. Thus he is not at all insensitive to the interaction between form and content.