John Berger’s archive is on show at Somerset House, a tonic draft of pungent tendentiousness in an ever-more toothless critical landscape
In this exhibition of John Berger’s archive there is a large painting of Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm. Visiting in the week that Hobsbawm died was poignant not only because of his death but because it marked the passing of a particular form of consciously politicised cultural criticism. Berger and Hobsbawm both attended the meetings of left wing intellectuals in the ’50s known as the Geneva Club. While Hobsbawm presented a Marxist interpretation of history to readers outside academia; Berger has tackled commodification in art and culture head on through his 60-year career, in which he has moved from painter to critic to TV presenter and Booker Prize-winning novelist. Even the exhibition’s title Art and Property Now − taken from an essay Berger wrote in the early ’70s − points to his preoccupation with the economics that shape art practice.
Berger is so aware of his own place in the market for culture that he donated his archive to the British Library in 2009 to avoid it entering a commercial market when he dies. Increasingly, cultural criticism is retreating to the idea that culture and politics are separate. That’s why the exhibition of John Berger’s archive is so exciting, because it reminds us of Berger’s argument that many cultural practices aimed at ‘informing a cultural elite, which for consumer market reasons needs constantly to be enlarged’.
Rooms one and two of the exhibition are the most effective. They integrate notebooks and letters with television footage and audio recordings from the archive, emphasising the diversity of Berger’s career and the consistency of his political convictions. In the second room, Berger’s speech from the 1972 Booker Prize is transcribed on the wall. His decision to give half of his prize money to the Black Panther movement has become the stuff of literary legend, but what is less well remembered are his provocative reflections on the practice of prize giving in literary culture. Berger warned that prizes could encourage ‘conformity’ in ‘the market and the consensus of average opinion’ instead of stimulating ‘imaginative independ-ence’ of both reader and writer.
The fifth room is for public discussions of Berger’s work. This is done in the spirit of his critique of elitism in London’s cultural scene. The room is meant to be an ‘informal learning space where art and activism meet’. In the current climate it is more important than ever to redress the dominance of the cultural elite, which Berger referred to as the ‘small sophisticated section of the public queuing up … for their own personal salvation via culture’.
John Berger: Art and Property Now
Venue: King’s Cultural Institute, Somerset House
Dates: until 10 November