John Berger died today, January 2nd, at the age of 90. A novelist and Marxist critic, he is most famous for “Ways of Seeing,” an essay on art criticism known for its nontraditional style and accompanying BBC documentary.
According to an interview with the Telegraph, Berger’s father was Jewish but entered a seminary to become an Anglo-Catholic priest, only to leave to serve in World War I. Berger himself became a Marxist, though he was deeply influenced by Jewish friends and thinkers throughout his life. Those influences include Walter Benjamin, the Jewish Marxist who committed suicide while attempting to flee the Nazis and whose “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” was introduced to a generation via “Ways of Seeing.”
Berger’s 1972 novel G. won the Booker Prize, the most important literary award in the United Kingdom. Afterward, he pointedly donated half of his award to the British Black Panther Party, reserving the other half to fund his work studying European migratory workers.
Berger’s radical championing of those he considered oppressed led him eventually to the Boycott, Divest, Sanction [BDS] movement. He himself was surprised by this development, as he claimed to have been a sympathetic Zionist when the State of Israel was first founded.
“I look back on the young man I was in Paris in 1948, with Jewish friends who were thinking of going to Israel,” Berger said in 2010. “They all wore strident blue shirts, and they gave me one, and I wore it with pride. We had an idea of what a kibbutz was to be – an ideal of a co-operative, with a healthy link to the land, a collectivity, a questioning of individuality, all of which appealed to me.”
Nevertheless, Berger signed one of the first BDS manifestos in 2006, when the campaign was just one year old. He remained active in the movement for the remainder of his life, for instance protesting Ian McEwan’s acceptance of the Jerusalem Prize in 2011 and signing another letter boycotting Israel for the “Palestinian catastrophe” in 2015.
Berger’s 2006 letter inspired a response co-written by Simon Schama, the Jewish historian and BBC host who now likely inherits Berger’s title of “world’s most famous art critic.” Schama’s essay was simply titled “John Berger is wrong.”