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Digital Subscriptions > Prospect Magazine > November 2016 > The mind’s eye

The mind’s eye

How John Berger’s long life in art taught us how to see

He has asked, as Bob Hope did, for no celebrations of a birthday where “the candles cost more than the cake.” There can, however be no doubt that glasses will be raised across the world on 5th November for his 90th birthday by those who have worked with John Berger. There are certainly hundreds, maybe even thousands of them because Berger has always managed to live several lifetimes at once. Some of his collaborators are well known: Arundhati Roy in Delhi, Geoff Dyer in Los Angeles, Mike Dibb in London, Sebastião Salgado in Paris, Jean Mohr in Geneva, Tilda Swinton in Nairn. But there are many others who are less famous, who have known the joy and equality of collaborating with him.

Berger was always committed to both criticism and creation: to the production of painting and fiction. His television programmes made modernist art completely contemporary. And nearly half a century on, the culmination of the on-screen aspect of his career is still revered.

Ways of Seeing consisted of just four 30-minute episodes, first shown in 1972. Looking back, the ambition was extraordinary. With little more screen time than a typical Hollywood film, the series did not merely canter through the evolution of western art, but located that history in its ideological and economic settings.

Only three years before, Kenneth Clark’s 14-hour BBC blockbuster, Civilisation, had told the story of the artistic canon as if creativity had no connection to material history. Berger refused that account. And remarkably, his disruptive documentaries would ultimately have more effect than the cultural juggernaut that was Civilisation. The film and the spin-off book which followed have been crucial primers to many generations of students struggling to conjugate art and politics, and even today are enjoyed on YouTube.

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In Prospect’s November issue: Sam Tanenhaus argues Donald Trump is a consequence of the American government ignoring the people—and they’ll have to deal with his impact whether he wins or loses the presidential election. Diane Roberts explores the rage eating America by looking at the people that government has failed. Switching the focus to the UK, David Marquand and a quartet of commentators assess Labour’s position—with varying conclusions. Also in this issue: Matthew Qvortrup looks at the relationship between Angela Merkel and Vladimir Putin, two of Europe’s most important politicians whose lives have long been intertwined. Andy Burnham, Labour’s candidate for the mayor of Manchester, lays down the reasons why the northern powerhouse is so important and Prospect’s Arts and Books Editor Sameer Rahim reviews Zadie Smith’s latest novel.