John Berger's influence on music criticism

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Reading: Berger's book on Picasso. This is the first time I've cracked one of his books, and while I more or less knew what to expect, and while all of my suspicions have more or less been confirmed, I find myself nodding more often than slapping my palm against my forehead in annoyance. Which is to say, it's actually quite good.

I'm still reading/processing, but I have some questions for the more critically literate:

1) What has been the influence of his writing on music criticism/journalism? I feel like this attitude is more or less present in most of what "we" often deride as the overly "rockist" approach to crit., but I'm having trouble thinking of specific writers or pieces that explicitly take on Berger's classist approach... Carducci, maybe?

2) Where did this come from, exactly? I mean, there are the rather obvious touchstones (Marx, of course... the Frankfurt school, for sure, but there is something quite different here than what Adorno was attempting), and the dominance of this way of thinking in the 70's through much of the 90's is unquestionable, but it must have seemed to be rather out of the blue in 1965. Who else was doing this?

3) As annoyed as I am by much of his conclusions, and by the direction that has been taken by those who draw from the same critical well, I can't help but think that there is much about Berger's take on the production and consumption of art that is right. How, then, can we take lessons from Berger without turning into a reactionary anti-pop consortium? (erm, sorry about that)

Maybe these questions are too much my own and I should drop the whole "we" pretense...

flightsatdusk (flightsatdusk), Tuesday, 26 August 2003 19:54 (nineteen years ago) link

his version of walter benjamin is (overtly) all over "ways of seeing" — so not frankfurt school strictly speaking (adorno and benjamin were friends in dispute)

i honestly doubt there's been much DIRECT take-up: i've never read him cited by a music writer eg (haha not even carducci)

(i think you shd probably outline what you're saying berger's approach is, that might or might not be/have been adopted,)

mark s (mark s), Tuesday, 26 August 2003 21:04 (nineteen years ago) link

"ways of seeing" = 1970 (?)
benjamin's illuminations trans.into english 1968 (?)

mark s (mark s), Tuesday, 26 August 2003 21:06 (nineteen years ago) link

i have "ways of seeing" and "about looking" but haven't read them yet....i did read the first chapter of ways of seeing a while ago,the debt to benjamin was expicitly acknowledged,although not having read any benjamin either i can't really comment

robin (robin), Wednesday, 27 August 2003 01:25 (nineteen years ago) link

is this the most pretentious question on ILM? is it even a question?

jed_e_3 (jed_e_3), Wednesday, 27 August 2003 10:07 (nineteen years ago) link

why's it pretentious? i think it's interesting

mark s (mark s), Wednesday, 27 August 2003 10:08 (nineteen years ago) link

yeah, I wanna see where this goes, too (nut have nothing to add myself.)

Daniel_Rf (Daniel_Rf), Wednesday, 27 August 2003 10:22 (nineteen years ago) link

Ways of Seeing is a surprisingly easy book to read. That bit where he shows children the Last Supper painting and they pick up on what most adults miss (that Jesus looks like a gurl) has clearly influenced this music criticism project.

N. (nickdastoor), Wednesday, 27 August 2003 10:47 (nineteen years ago) link

Mark's mate Ben wrote a book called 'Ways of Hearing' which alluded to Berger but didn't follow through on the allusion. I wonder if there is much of Berger in Geoff Dyer's book about jazz... but I suspect not.

Jerry the Nipper (Jerrynipper), Wednesday, 27 August 2003 10:47 (nineteen years ago) link

Ways of Seeing was a popular and admired TV series before it was a book (and deliberately devised as such, by Berger and documentary-maker Mike Dibb in close collaboration).

BenT had not actually ever read "Ways of Seeing" when he wrote "Ways of Hearing"!!

I'm not sure if G.Dyer had become a Berger disciple that early, JtN. I think his jazz book is awful, the critical stuff in it the worst part by some way. I kind of hold it against Berger that he allows Dyer to fawn on him the way he does. I hate Dyer. haha in the Wire I compared that book unfavourably to a Cure song when it came out: SO HE HATES ME TOO!!

mark s (mark s), Wednesday, 27 August 2003 10:58 (nineteen years ago) link

it's pretentious for the way you flag the whole thing as being for "the more critically literate" - Bergers "Ways of seeing" and "Another way of looking" are extremely accesible books - i think just about anyone could understand them. However you don't even seem to know what your asking.

jed_e_3 (jed_e_3), Wednesday, 27 August 2003 11:01 (nineteen years ago) link

Ha - I didn't notice the 'for the more critically literate' thing.

N. (nickdastoor), Wednesday, 27 August 2003 11:04 (nineteen years ago) link

I think this q is just trying to explore the crossover that might exist between different types of criticism so there is somehting going for it.

Julio Desouza (jdesouza), Wednesday, 27 August 2003 11:04 (nineteen years ago) link

sorry i got muddled about who had started the thread - the last line shoud read

However whoever started this thread (oops) doesn't even seem to know what they asking.

jed_e_3 (jed_e_3), Wednesday, 27 August 2003 11:05 (nineteen years ago) link

"more critically literate" = "more critically literate than me who's asking the question"? that's how i read it. maybe wrongly, i didn't ask the question

i don't like the word "influence" ever, but i think the idea of applying bergerish theory to thinking about music is interesting, and i think your defensive attempt to shut it down before it even started is lame

mark s (mark s), Wednesday, 27 August 2003 11:13 (nineteen years ago) link

"more critically literate" = "more critically literate than me who's asking the question"? that's how i read it. maybe wrongly, i didn't ask the question

i apologise if that's the case - i took it to mean "the more critically literate among us" that's the line that got my back up and actually i DO think he means that.

jed_e_3 (jed_e_3), Wednesday, 27 August 2003 11:29 (nineteen years ago) link

jed - Yeah, mark s. has it right. I have only just started reading Berger, so I was asking those who have had more time than me to chew on it what they think. Try to give people the benefit of the doubt every once in a while, it makes life easier when you don't go around assuming everyone is a pretentious asshole.

You do have one thing right, though: Not sure what I'm asking. I'll try to mull this over a biut more and try again later.

flightsatdusk (flightsatdusk), Wednesday, 27 August 2003 13:57 (nineteen years ago) link

my apologies.

jed_e_3 (jed_e_3), Wednesday, 27 August 2003 16:05 (nineteen years ago) link

even that sounded kind of flippant - im genuinely sorry.

jed_e_3 (jed_e_3), Wednesday, 27 August 2003 16:06 (nineteen years ago) link

[jed - np. if you knew me you'd know how silly your accusation was. kinda weird being accused of being an elitist snob when i'm the furthest thing from it... tho that sentence was ambiguously phrased, so I understand where yer misinterpretation came from]

Anyways, on to Berger. I haven't read Ways of Seeing, and maybe I should just shut up until I have. Because it's hard for me to generalize what I think he's doing without making it sound very fucking obvious and even a bit trite (locating the intersection of history/politics and the production/consumption of art is surely what all criticism does). As for precedents (is that better than "influences"?)... Clearly he's from the "we love Freud and Marx" school of thought (who isn't, really?), but while I can see how the Picasso book shares affinities with Benjamin, I don't know that he had actually read him at that point (he certainly doesn't make reference to him, and keep in mind this is 1965, predating when mark says Illuminations was published, but maybe Berger reads German). But maybe that question is beside the point - Berger's argument doesn't need to be innovative in order to be interesting...

The part that particularly stood out to me was a passage toward the very beginning of the Picasso book that had to do with the interplay between the idea that art can be a commodity and the idea that art has some intangible essence that cannot be bought or sold. Berger talks about how the Romantics' obsession with the author/creator, or more precisely the "spirit" of the author/creator, was a reaction against the entrenchment of bourgious culture in the 19th c. Which is to say "you can buy my art... I'll happily sell it to you because god knows I gotta eat... But you can't buy the thing that makes it art, the thing that actually matters. You can't buy ME." [as an aside, this is the most sympathetic potrayal of the absolute and vulgar egoism of 19th c. art I've read, which is to say that, being from the "I love Marx and Freud" school of thought myself, I had always associated the Romantic idea of will/authorship as a compliment of capitalist culture, something that buttressed it rather than worked against it... ironic, and rather creepy, that a reaction against the bourgeois aesthetic ultimately served to further entrench it -- birth of the author = birth of the copyright, surely -- but damn am I digressing]

What was for me the real "ah-hah!" moment in Berger's analysis was how he claims this relationship between the real/essential and the commodity has changed. On the one hand, he says, Picasso fully embraced the Romantic ideal of the author mattering as much as and perhaps more than his work (and here "Picasso" means two things - both the real actions and intentions of the person calling himself Picasso AND the way the image/name of Picasso figures in mass culture -- Berger makes the [unfortunately empirically unqualified, but probably mostly true] point that while everyone [c. 1965] knows the name Picasso, and everyone has an opinion about him, "genius," "madman," "commie," "charlatan," etc., few people would be able to identify a painting as his).

But what I think Berger is identifying as the innovation that occurred in our conception of art/the artist with Picasso was this: with Picasso, not only the work of art, but the man himself was for sale. When Picasso insisted that it was the creative spirit, rather than its product, that mattered, he was implying "this, too, can be yours for a price." And we all bought it -- this conflation of art/artist/spirit/commodity has been the norm ever since. When we purchase a work of art, we are investing not only in the work itself but in the idea of the person or people who created it.

Now the trick to making this idea relevant to music (or, to a lesser extent, to any work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction) is to remove it somewhat from the idea of capital without removing it from the idea of capitalism. Berger is telling the story of the artist's relationship to the capital-owning class, and how the transformation of art into not only a commodity, but capital has transformed the way we percieve art and artists. But as music (especially now with the advent of mp3, p2p, etc) cannot be capital in the literal sense that a painting or sculpture can be, it is never truly a financial investment for its consumer (even in the case of collectible vinyl, we are talking about something quite removed from the buying/selling of a Pollack or a Van Gogh).

So maybe the story I would want to tell about a musician using Berger would be this: I fell in love with her music. We all fell in love. And we all bought it. And she got rich. But she also got scared. Because this was her art, and we were treating it frivolously. So she began to act in such a way as to distinguish herself from this product that we were buying and selling, because she didn't want to be bought and sold like her music. And as she began to distinguish herself by her reclusive lifestyle or by her bizarre antics or by just living a "normal life" that happened to be in the public eye, we fell in love with her. Not just her music. Her. Her person. Her spirit. Or this image of herself that she had created. We fell in love with her persona/Personality, and convinced ourselves that we had fallen in love with her Person, and maybe we were right, or as right as we could be anyways. And we bought the magazines with interviews of her and when we bought the music is was richer now because it wasn't just music, it was something that this person that we loved had made. It was a peice of her.

And this seems like a really obvious story to me. I imagine any biography of Bob Dylan would read exactly like this. Which is why I initially asked "isn't this already there in rock/pop criticism?"

What I don't like is the idea (implicit or explicit) that commodification ALWAYS equals polution (though perhaps sometimes it does). BUT, I think it's interesting to consider that the IDEA that commodification equals polution is, unintentionally, the very engine through which the artist transforms not only her art, but herself into a commodity.

Okay, this is too long, and I fear that in the process of trying to clarify my point, I've just made things muddier...

flightsatdusk (flightsatdusk), Thursday, 28 August 2003 14:45 (nineteen years ago) link

oops, I just realized that my "story" is not the whole story, because it doesn't include the part where the artist realizes that her very self has become a commodity. At this point, there seem to be a number of directions the story could go, but they can all probably be reduced to two: the artist either rejects or embraces the notion of herself as commodity. Both of these yield equally interesting results, though as a consumer I have to admit (rather guiltily) to prefering artists who go the latter route, and I have a tendency to suspect those who take the former of disengenuousness. But I'm cynical like that.

flightsatdusk (flightsatdusk), Thursday, 28 August 2003 15:16 (nineteen years ago) link

i think a discussion of berger w.r.t. music crit should take into account "shape of a pocket" and/or his commitment to humanist values in high art. at least that's what i take from john berger, anyway.

vahid (vahid), Thursday, 28 August 2003 16:41 (nineteen years ago) link

Could you elaborate? I'm not familiar with the term "shape of a pocket"...

flightsatdusk (flightsatdusk), Thursday, 28 August 2003 19:55 (nineteen years ago) link

nineteen years pass...

extremely insane thing that I just learned: when Rockstar was producing Grand Theft Auto: London 1969, they needed another voice actor to play a mob boss and legendary British art critic John Berger happened to be at the same recording studio so he did it.

— K. Thor Jensen 🐀 (@kthorjensen) March 13, 2023

Piedie Gimbel, Wednesday, 15 March 2023 08:17 (two weeks ago) link

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