Book Notes: Landscapes: John Berger on Art 

Landscapes: John Berger on Art

by John Berger


Finished 10/8/2019


I only knew John Berger by reputation. His book Ways of Seeing (and the accompanying BBC series) were the onramp of many of my friends and colleagues to Marxism and critical theory.

This book collects some of Berger's essays on art, though that catch-all is rather loosely interpreted, given the broad tonal and thematic content herein. There are memoir-like reminiscences of his youth, essays on marxism in a post-soviet world, travelogues in palestine and Israel, and thoughts on Walter Benjamin and Rosa Luxembourg. These subjects seem perhaps unrelated to what we generally think of as "art" but it comes through in Berger's insistence that we not lose sight of the aesthetic and emotional qualities of political struggle, and the ways in which we apprehend (and therefore understand) our political and social situation is conditioned by our relationship to art and aesthetics. Likewise, his fierce ethical compass shines through, especially his belief that art, as a social category, must be disentangled from property.

The essays I enjoyed the most included a deep dive into the revolutionary nature of cubism, and his thoughtful analysis of drawings as a medium and as a way of imperfectly capturing intangible experiences like memories. I also found myself nodding along reading his essay on the history of Museums, and thinking about whether they are redeemable, given their origins in propping up power. But I also liked several of political essays, including his thoughts on the fall of Berlin Wall, with its deeply humanistic though cautious championing of the collapse of Soviet-style communism. Likewise, his essay "Ten Dispatches about Place" in which he addresses the question of whether one can be a Marxist absent a living model of a socialist society. 

His writing is always clear and impassioned, complex and rich but not dense. This book was a great introduction to Berger, and I'm looking forward to reading more of this brilliant, ethical, and thoughtful scholar.                     


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Quentin's Weeknotes 8/17/19-8/23/19

This Week:

  • I went back to work at the Yager Museum after three weeks away. So much to do, including
    • getting ready for Hartwick College's Matriculation (which happened this Wednesday),
    • setting up a new exhibit entitled "Art / Politics: Power, Persuasion, and Propaganda" which I curated
    • preparing to teach MUST250: Collectors and Collecting in a week.
    • getting the fall Museum events schedule up and running, including our welcome back reception, The Horror in the Museum, and much more.
  • I finished reading Dave Neiwart's "Alt-America: The Rise of the Radical Right in the Age of Trump". It was good, and quite thorough in its charting of the intertwining trajectories of the patriot and neo-confederate movements. But it held little beyond description, and Neiwart's prescriptions in the afterward struck me as short-sighted.
  • I read this wonderful historical article about W.E.B. Du Bois debating a White Supremacist author in 1912. It's a riveting read, as Du Bois made a literal laughing-stock of this guy, but also for what it says about contemporary "debates" with White supremacists and other sundry ethno-nationalists. As someone (who I can't find right now) on twitter noted, commenting on this article, Du Bois shut these arguments down 100 years ago so we shouldn't have to listen to them today!