Understanding the conflict and tension between the ‘instrumental’ and ‘intrinsic’ value of culture is dealt with elsewhere in this blog. John Berger had this extraordinary ability to combine learned insight with the instinctive understanding of an artist.
He had been an artist of course, giving up in the early ’50s, before taking up a career as a writer and critic. His early pieces for New Stateman see him grappling with the challenge of social connectivity – which he looked for in art, and which he attempted to convey in his own writing – and an understanding of the artistic value inherent in the gesture of the brushstroke.
Some of the essays, collected in ‘Permanent Red’, achieve that balance; many do not.
It was when he turned to novel-writing – or a kind of ‘novel’ and a kind of ‘writing’ – that his work began to mature.
His two greatest works in my view are ‘And our faces, my heart….‘, and ‘A Fortunate Man‘. The former is an extraordinary, poetic, evocation of human passion and the love of art. The second simply follows the life of a country doctor – through description, reflection, occasional didacticism, and photographs. Published in 1967, it is a clear precursor to the work for the Into Their Labours series and other books, for which he is better known, written 20 and more years later.
He is one of the greatest writers on culture, for his ability to engage with and articulate the political and emotional value of culture.