It is one of those interesting quirks of postwar cultural history that John Berger, who has died at the age of 90, could have presented Civilisation. Millions of viewers who saw that unsurpassed – unsurpassable – series when its 13 programmes were screened in 1969, or who have seen it in the years since, associate Civilisation with Kenneth Clark – Lord Clark of Civilisation, as he came to be known. But Berger might easily have got the nod.
It was Clark himself who suggested to Michael Gill, Civilisation‘s producer, that he might find a more congenial ally in Berger, who, of course, three years later presented Ways of Seeing as a counter-argument to Clark’s magisterial televisual essays. Who knows? Had Berger presented Civilisation perhaps Clark would then have responded with a Ways of Seeing of his own. It’s quite a thought.
Clark, every inch the patrician, has been chided, mocked even, by ‘progressive’ critics for his great-man interpretation of civilisation. There was a touch of that condescension when Will Gompertz, the BBC’s excitable arts correspondent, praised Berger for teaching people ‘to look at things not as individuals, but together’. The problem is, people do look at paintings and buildings as individuals: there is no other way to look at them.
Berger was an interesting writer on art but, like others on the hard left, he was indulged. Throughout his life he clung to a kind of Marxism that was discredited long ago. He even gave his 1972 Booker Prize winnings to the Black Panthers. Berger’s apologists have been swift to defend their chap. One obituary claimed that the intellectual climate of England was ‘too unserious for him’; an odd phrase. A critic who knew him well thought that ‘art for him was never something apart from the business of being alive’, as if only left-wingers were capable of making connections between the quotidian and the world of the imagination.