Fifth-rate art books

John Berger’s Landscapes is a companion piece to his recent Portraits – a smaller, jumbled accumulation of essays on art and society with a meandering timeline. Among detailed appreciations of the breach that was cubism, and non-painting related essays, such as one on Joyce, are some enjoyably scathing pieces about the priesthood of curators and the religion of modern art. He castigates curators for their laziness and supposed prestige, as custodians of the sacred objects we call art, while stripping the veils away and pronouncing that we are still living with the old bourgeois idea of paintings as valuable property that helps demarcate between the haves and have-nots. Blockbuster exhibitions are a form of charity, he argues – a condescension to the masses, allowing them access to these valuable objects, revered as well, he says, in ‘fifth-rate’ art books.

He also fires shots at much modern art that he labels as gimmick and rubbish – literally, he says, as exhibitors have a fondness for portraying decay and ‘muck’. Though some of this writing is decades-old, the themes are still relevant. It’s not all negative. He has a fondness for the craft of art, and the artist as craftsperson, and a very personal approach to art, which is why he feels passionate about, somewhat ironically, art’s denigration and commodification in outrageous prices and the genteel business of art museums.


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