Selected Essays

ISBN: 0375713182
ISBN 13: 9780375713187
By: John Berger Geoff Dyer

Check Price Now


Art Art History Book Currently Reading Essays Favorites Non Fiction Philosophy Political Economy To Read

About this book

The writing career of John Berger–poet, storyteller, playwright, and essayist–has yielded some of the most original and compelling examinations of art and life of the past half century. In this essential volume, Geoff Dyer has brought together a rich selection of many of Berger’s seminal essays. Berger’s insights make it impossible to look at a painting, watch a film, or even visit a zoo in quite the same way again. The vast range of subjects he addresses, the lean beauty of his prose, and the keenness of his anger against injustice move us to view the world with a new lens of awareness. Whether he is discussing the singleminded intensity of Picasso’s Guernica, the parallel violence and alienation in the art of Francis Bacon and Walt Disney, or the enigmatic silence of his own mother, what binds these pieces throughout is the depth and fury of Berger’s passion, challenging us to participate, to protest, and above all, to see.

Reader's Thoughts


Berger is a model essayist. He writes with perfect clarity. Though he situates his art criticism in a Marxist framework, he never loses sight of the mysterious moment of looking at paintings, a moment that resists theory. This is best exemplified in his essay 'The Work of Art' which is an argument against a fellow Marxist, Nicos Hadjinicolaou who sets out to construct a scientific Marxist art theory and fails, because, as Berger argues, "no painting of value is about appearances: it is about the totality of which the visible is no more than a code. And in the face of such paintings the theory of visual ideology is helpless."Geoff Dyer selected the essays, and, as readers of this sort go, it is compendious.

M. Sarki

I liked this book enough that I do recommend the reading of it by others, especially those interested and obsessed with painting and painters. Seems that is what Berger is most interested in. But I would have liked the selection better had the essays been more personal. I explain why in my more extensive review found here:


This was one of the 2003 RUSA Notable Books winners. For the complete list, go to


JB selectively recaps an artist's biography or process in two to three pages then writes a single surprising and mind-quieting insight you've never heard before. And you're glad.

Cynthia Davidson

A deep thinker, who turned me on to Caravaggio, whose paintings I had never seen till now.He's a loner, yet he's loyal. He's a resister, yet he's engaged with life at a deeper level than the 'hit & run' types of today. Living so long in France, he's also gained more insight into his own British culture...Hope to get into his novels.


Art and politics -- what a wonderful combo. And nobody writes about it better than John Berger.

Sara Willis

Buy this book now. Or steal it. Or borrow it. Don't just read it, eat it and let it grow inside you.


There's a lot here -- some of it more to my taste than others. But the best parts are utterly fantastic, and the progression of the book over decades, from politically-infused art criticism to pastoral thoughts on mortality, amasses its own kind of weight.


This man is wonderful. He changed my life.

Jee Koh

It is astonishing to me how consistent John Berger was in over 30 years of art criticism. His judgment of an artist could become more developed and refined, more elaborated, but the underlying sense of the artist's purpose and value remained the same. This consistency of seeing came from a coherent philosophy of art criticism. As Berger puts it in his "Introduction" to Permanent Red, which is also aptly the introductory essay of this Selected Essays edited by Geoff Dyer, the art critic must first answer the question: What can art serve here and now? For Berger, the answer that drove his looking was another question: Does this work help or encourage men to know and claim their social rights?Berger was not looking for Socialist propaganda, but saw his answer/question as the logic of his historical situation. In the second half of the twentieth century, the most important historical movements were the fights for national independence, civil rights, gender equality, and peace. And so the questions that were posed to artworks were those of the times. To the extent that an artwork reminded the viewer of his potentialities, it encouraged him to claim the social rights in his life. Those who claimed a different purpose for art were simply out of step with their times, or as Berger writes, "The hysteria with which many people today deny the present, inevitable social emphasis of art is simply due to the fact that they are denying their time. They would like to live in a period when they'd be right."How ironic then that the times have changed, and Berger seems now to be the one out of step. The old confidence about social rights is gone, not just about the viability of securing them, but even the desirability of attaining them. We are more ambivalent, I think, about the value of the new nationalisms, for instance, and of the triumph of secularism. The early Berger essays refer to the uneven development of the world, with the confidence that the new and less-developed nations will climb on board the train of Western Enlightenment and espouse its ideals. A number of later essays, born of visits to Turkey, are less sure of this linear, stageist view of history.The times have changed. We are more concerned with the rights of representation than with the social rights as defined by the West. So the imperative in contemporary art to be inclusive or to admit to its exclusivity, to its necessary subjectivity. It's a dilemma. How can one claim to represent anything except oneself? The problem is most acute in painting, of all the arts, because it is, finally, a single static framed object. It is little wonder that so many artists have migrated to film and installations, to motion and environment, in other words, since the problems of painting seem intractable.Berger's later essays pay attention to the global power of capital. Everything everywhere is up for buying and selling. The point here, as I see it, is that all the movements for social rights played into the hands of capital. The newly independent nations are now free to buy and sell. Women are now potentially equal to men in purchasing power. The poor wants to be rich. Peace is good for business. The essential fight, it seems to me, is against capital, not on behalf of labor, but on behalf of humanity. We need to resist the commodification of everything. To do so, we have to find intellectual resources from anywhere we can find them, even in such unlikely places as John Berger's socialism.


Worth it just for the article on shoveling shit out of his compost toilet. I've even argued that this essay encapsulates Berger's entire aesthetic.


THE. BEST. WORDS ABOUT ART. ever. a revelation to someone who had been looking at art all her life and didn't know why she loved Modigliani but really not quite ever Renoir. accessible, elegant and warm. demanding, critical, political. this is the friend who makes going to the museum an encounter with the history of desire and power, whose love for what art is not only informs you but changes who you are when you are with art.

Share your thoughts

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *