Public intellectuals are a thing of the past and in some sense reached their heyday in the ‘60s. The days when intellectuals such as Gore Vidal and Norman Mailer reached massive audiences through television is no more, and the thought that of all people, an art critic could be a public intellectual is definitely gone. And yet, the first day of 2017 marked the loss of John Berger, one of the most heralded art critics and theorists of his time, one whose ideas of art and economy molded an entire generation’s view of art.
One might ask: Why might an art critic become such a crucial public intellectual? For Berger, art criticism was rooted in the everyday, and affected the way we see and interact with the world around us. Living in a primarily visual culture, it was crucial to understand the ways in which our approach to the visual was mediated by the history of art.
Most famous for his book — and television lecture of the same name — “Ways of Seeing,” Berger took an alternate view of Western Art History, one more radical than any art critic of his time. For example, Berger traced the relationship between the Renaissance tradition of oil painting to modern advertising, and the insidious way advertising works in a late 20th century context by the very conventions established by the tradition of oil painting.
The lasting effect of his work would revolutionize how critics conceived art history, moving the subject from its academic ivory tower, into a larger public light. In fact, when the the television show, “Ways of Seeing” debuted on BBC it immediately became a national sensation. The overt public reach of Berger’s writing and analysis, as well as the relationship his ideas had with audiences immediately struck a chord. He became a crucial touchstone for later art critics and artists who would comment on the political nature of art, and even now his ideas ring across the blogosphere — one can see hints of Berger’s ideas across Twitter and Facebook, with hashtags such as “#oscarssowhite,” which comments on the lack of PoC represented in Hollywood.
Perhaps what made him such an iconic and relevant art critic was not necessarily his focus on art and its political element, but on how art works presented a “way of seeing,” which had a tangible effect on the world around us. He continually explored how Western art would conceptualize and enact certain ideas through representation. Art, by capturing a certain way of seeing, painted a picture of patterns of thought. For example, the genre of oil nudes that dominate art in the Renaissance would embody and mimic how a masculine culture conceived of women and female sexuality as a type of property, to be owned and traded, related to ideas of power.
In an era of social media, which emphasizes our relationships to people and things through visuals (i.e. Snapchat, Instagram, etc) this message is incredibly relevant. Therefore, Berger’s relevance to the millennial generation is crucial to understand because his work extended itself outside of the arcane work of art criticism and into the world of the everyday.
Even for students who are uninterested in the idea of art history, Berger’s work is filled with fascinating and important tidbits which can affect one’s everyday relationship with the visual world.