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18berger200hero

Making a Work of Art

John Berger

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It is not shameful to cease to be an artist – such an idea only comes from the melancholy of romanticism. When the English painter Hogarth said that he would rather rid London of cruelty than paint the Sistine Chapel, he was making a more than reasonable choice.

Yet those who do remain artists working under their own volition – how do we fight for what we believe? In what way are we militant? The very question would sound absurd to most of my fellow painters in London. We are not militant, they would say: and if they were honest they would add that they paint to make money or to discover something about themselves. Or – most likely of all – just because they enjoy it. Who could object? But let there be no deception. This is not why Delacroix, Géricault, Courbet, Cézanne, Pissarro, van Gogh, Gauguin worked; nor is it why any other major artist of the last two centuries worked. All of these men were militant: militant to the point of being prepared to die for what they believed in. Delacroix believed in what he called “the beautiful”; Cézanne in his petite sensation; van Gogh in his “Humanity, humanity, and again humanity.” They fought for their various visions and most of their militant energy was concerned with fighting the difficulties of realizing their vision, of finding the visual forms that would turn their hunches into facts. Each of their different visions, however, sprang from the same kind of conviction; they each knew that life could be better, richer, juster, truer than it was. Every modern attempt to create a work of art is based on the desire (usually undeclared) to increase the value of the experience that gave rise to the work.

If we think of ourselves as special creators, we are wrong. Everyone creates in the same way we do. They invent, imagine, hope, dream, frighten themselves, remember, observe – and from all this they make for themselves certain ideas and images, some expressible, some inexpressible. Where we’re different from most people is the way we try to destroy these ideas and images. We hit at them, strike them, do our utmost to kill them. We often succeed – the image falls away, lifeless, at last recognizable as a lie or cliché. Just occasionally there is one that withstands our beating. It won’t die. The more we beat it, the stronger and harder it becomes. It becomes indestructible. We have made a work of art.


This reading is taken from the novel A Painter of Our Times (Vintage, 1989).

18bergerListing Vincent van Gogh, Wheat Field with Cypresses (detail)
Image from Wikimedia Commons (public domain)
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John Berger (1926–2017) was an English art critic, novelist, painter, and poet.

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