Disagreeing with John Berger

I had an interesting conversation the other day, about art, education, etc. and, after declaring my (tongue in cheek or not) desire to become a full-time portrait painter, I was handed a book of essays by John Berger (John Berger Selected Essays, ed. Geoff Dyer), bookmark on p. 98, at a short article from 1967 about why portrait painting is defunct. The opening line being:

‘It seems to me unlikely that any important portraits will ever be painted again.’

This, of course, stuck in my head. Maybe it could be dismissed as outdated and irrelevant (1967 after all was before Lucian Freud became a grand old man of figurative painting and a time when Berger could write entirely in terms of ‘men’ without a raised eyebrow). But it stuck, as it raises the question of whether the thing that I have always been most drawn to in terms of sculpture and painting is at best anachronistic and at worst, as his argument develops, politically incorrect.

Berger talks about portraiture as an institution in a particular social context, with a function we don’t (or shouldn’t) want/need any more. He defines portraiture as the creation of images/likenesses of people (particularly men it would seem) to ‘underwrite and idealize a chosen social role of the sitter’ (p. 100) and argues that it has become redundant now that we have photographs to get likenesses and social roles do not function in the same way in our individualistic society. Today there is no point in painting portraits, he claims, and he sees ‘no reason to lament’ their passing.

This sounds very bad for anyone who wants to paint individual people, as individuals, and who cares at least partly about ‘getting a likeness’. But I don’t think it’s as bad as it sounds. Berger is talking about ‘portraiture as a genre’ and he says, in considering this genre, ‘it is no good thinking of a few extraordinary pictures but rather of the endless portraits of the local nobility…’ etc. The great painters, Rembrandt, David, Goya, he says, painted portraits that are not to be included in the genre of professional portrait painting, because they are ‘in fact works of self-discovery’. So his attack on portraiture seems to slide from a sweeping claim that ‘no important’ portraits will ever be painted again, to a narrower rejection of a genre practised by hack painters ‘who never went beyond the stereotype’ or a few ‘good professionals’ whose paintings still accepted and confirmed social status. It seems that it is this embeddedness in a social hierarchy that he most objects to and sees as outdated. And the most ‘important’ portrait paintings actually would escape his critique because they escape the bounds of the genre as he defines it.

So his argument applies to a historically defined role for portraiture, not to the treatment of individual persons as a subject matter for art. His critique suggests that any good paintings of people from the past (Rembrandt, etc.) don’t count as ‘portraiture’ in his sense – and portraits from the past that do count are generally pretty bad anyway. No wonder he does not lament them.

But does that mean that today there is no point in painting pictures of people?

Berger recommends that people who can paint portraits should use their talent ‘to serve a more urgent, modern function’ than portrait painting. This raises another point of disagreement, namely, with the ideas that art has a ‘function’ (or artists a kind of social duty) and, perhaps even more curious, that this function can be ‘modern’, and that it constrains the allowable subjects of art.

In another essay in the same volume, Berger talks about drawing. Its opening paragraph speaks powerfully about the process of drawing as discovery, but he distinguishes drawing from ‘painting a “finished” canvas or carving a statue’. ‘A drawing is essentially a private work, related only to the artist’s own needs’, while the finished work is public, related to ‘the demands of communication’. Again, Berger seems to see the ‘finished’ art as primarily functional.

I can only speak for myself, but this distinction seems wrong. For me at any rate, whether drawing, painting or modelling the same motive of discovery prevails, discovery of the subject of observation, discovery of the capacity of the medium and of my own handling of it. The public, communicative aspect only arises afterwards, if at all. The activity of looking and reacting to what one observes, in charcoal or paint or ink or clay, is the fundamental thing. The work produced is in a sense a side effect of an addiction to the practice.

If an artwork must have a function, why should it not be careful attention to an individual human being?

To return to Berger’s discussion of portraiture, he concludes, ‘it seems that the demands of a modern vision are incompatible with the singularity of viewpoint which is the prerequisite for a static-painted “likeness”. … Individuality can no longer be contained within the terms of manifest personality traits. In a world of transition and revolution individuality has become a problem of historical and social relations, such as cannot be revealed by the characterizations of an already established social stereotype.’

This seems to contain so many questionable assumptions it’s hard to know where to start. First, that there is a ‘static viewpoint’ in any portrait painting – the painter is not like a single lensed camera fixed on a tripod taking in a simultaneous image of the whole subject. The act of painting takes time and involves movement and communication between the artist and the sitter – the painting will always be an amalgam of multiple impressions and discoveries. Second, that the aim of the portrait is to ‘contain individuality’. This suggests a kind of conclusiveness, the idea that a portrait somehow aims for a complete and final representation of the subject, but that is obviously impossible. It surely has to be rather an expression of this particular interaction between subject and artist. To that extent Berger is right – individuality is a relational and changeable thing.

The genre of portraiture as status-driven and in the service of a fixed social structure is clearly worthy of critique, but surely it always was. Was the revelation of individuality ever just a matter of characterizing a stereotype?

So it seems to me that by Berger’s own definition of portraiture there will never be any more important portraits, but there probably never have been. But that says nothing about whether or not one should attempt to paint people.

‘let the task be master: which is only not to choose to do anything but what has chosen me to be done.’ John Crowley, Engine Summer

Indian ink, drawing what is at hand
Indian ink, drawing what is at hand

(Here’s an irrelevant image – I suspect drawings of animals would be even more dubious than portraiture in Berger’s view.)

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2 thoughts on “Disagreeing with John Berger

  1. As someone whose favorite paintings seem to invariably be portraits (in more and less precise definitions of the term, I suppose), this question really resonates for me: “If an artwork must have a function, why should it not be careful attention to an individual human being?”

    Glad you found (and followed) my blog — as it gave me the chance to find your work as well!
    Best, alice

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