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THE SHAPE OF A POCKET by John Berger

THE SHAPE OF A POCKET

By John Berger

Pub Date: Dec. 28th, 2001
ISBN: 0-375-42147-5
Publisher: Pantheon

One-time Booker Prize–winner Berger (King, 1999, etc.) here pursues his other love: art and art criticism.

The idiosyncratic title refers to a “pocket” of resistance that art can establish between the artist and what he or she represents on canvas; or between the lover of art and a painting; or indeed between the reader and Berger's essays. What's being resisted? It's clear that Berger’s politics lean far-left, and that he disapproves of what has become an almost universally capitalist world. The technology of this new economic order bombards us with images that have no reality behind them, he argues; they are instead a substitute for reality. A steady diet of such images results in a culture devoted to spectacle and unable to distinguish necessity: how food is raised, for example, and how a good crop or a bad one determines how hard a winter will be. Berger may have something here, but his essays are so personal and at the same time so abstract that it's hard to be sure. Some pieces shine nonetheless. In “The Fayum Portraits,” he describes the earliest surviving portraits, first-century Egyptian beeswax impressions on wood depicting the dead, and likens them to Picasso in an extraordinary way. Other insights pop out of his elusive text: the idea that an artist is simply a great receiver, for instance, who collaborates with the subject rather than “capturing” it. In his essays on great artists, Berger always offers up something like an epiphany. Degas, we learn, was fascinated with the human body above all; his art was almost a by-product. Similarly, Berger sees the religious symbolism of Hieronymous Bosch as prophetic, turning his use of space and line into another of the author’s own commentaries on globalism.

Both insightful and obscure.