14 August 2007

Miners - Tragedy, Hope, Resistance & Solidarity

Some time ago I posted asking for help in identifying the source of what is a fairly common quotation from John Berger. A reader pointed me in the right direction (Thanks!). And I eventually tracked down this succinct piece in Keeping A Rendezvous (Vintage, 1991). It is essentially an elegy, a searing lament for the striking British miners who, at the time it was written, had just been defeated by Margaret Thatcher. It is not included in Berger’s Selected Essays (Vintage, 2003) for what seem to me to be obvious reasons. In it Berger writes approvingly of the urge to violent revenge that the defeated and downtrodden surely feel. It also is interesting that, as I searched for the passage on art and justice (in italics below) that initially caught my attention, nowhere did I find reference to the first paragraph of the essay. It seems as though readers might be discomfited by the un-sanitized views that Berger not only describes but embraces.
"When the just cause is defeated, when the courageous are humiliated, when men proven at pit-bottom and pit-head are treated like trash, when nobility is shat upon, and the judges in court believe lies, and slanderers are paid to slander with salaries which might keep alive the families of a dozen miners on strike, when the Goliath police with their bloody truncheons find themselves not in the dock but on the Honour’s List, when our past is dishonoured and its promises and sacrifices shrugged off with ignorant and evil smiles, when whole families come to suspect that those who wield power are deaf to reason and every plea, and that there is no appeal anywhere, when gradually you realize that, whatever words there may be in the dictionary, whatever the Queen says or parliamentary correspondents report, whatever the system calls itself to mask its shamelessness and egoism, when gradually you realize that They are out to break you, out to break your inheritance, your skills, your communities, your poetry, your clubs, your home and, whenever possible, your bones too, when finally people realize this, they may also hear, striking in their head, the hour of assassinations, of justified vengeance. On sleepless nights during the last few years in Scotland and South Wales, Derbyshire and Kent, Yorkshire, Northumberland and Lancashire, many, as they lay reflecting on their beds, heard, I am sure, this hour striking. And nothing could be more human, more tender than such a proposed vision of the pitiless being summarily executed by the pitiful. It is the word ‘tender’ which we cherish and which They can never understand, for they do not know what it refers to. This vision is occurring all over the world. The avenging heroes are now being dreamt up and awaited. They are already feared by the pitiless and blessed by me and maybe by you.

I would shield any such hero to my fullest capacity. Yet, if, during the time I was sheltering him, he told me he liked drawing, or, supposing it was a woman, she told me she’d always wanted to paint, and had never had the chance or the time to do so, if this happened, then I think I’d day: Look, if you want to, it’s possible you may achieve what you are setting out to do in another way, a way less likely to fall out on your comrades and less open to confusion. I can't tell you what art does and how it does it, but I know that art has often judged the judges, pleaded revenge to the innocent and shown to the future what the past has suffered, so that it has never been forgotten. I know too that the powerful fear art, whatever its form, when it does this, and that amongst the people such art sometimes runs like a rumour and a legend because it makes sense of what life's brutalities cannot, a sense that unites us, for it is inseparable from a justice at last. Art, when it functions like this, becomes a meeting-place of the invisible, the irreducible, the enduring, guts and honour."

It seems clear that dreams of violent retribution leave Berger uneasy. For even as he blesses those dreams and pledges to protect the "avenging heroes" that they conjure, he also worries that the aims such heroes pursue could be misconstrued or, worse, provoke reactions that might well "fall out on" others. It is those worries that provide the context for Berger's oft-quoted remarks on art as an instrument of justice that regularly are taken out of context. In that way, though, the connection he identifies remains abstract, sanitized.

Une Tragedie Dans Le Nord. L'Hiver, La Pluie, Les Larmes
(A Tragedy in the North. Winter, Rain and Tears)
[Bas Relief, 1975-1977] © Raymond Mason

Berger clearly continues to identify with the dispossessed and the disappearing, and espsecially with the resistance they present to the forces that mark them for destruction. One can see that easily in his essay on the Zapatistas from which The Shape of a Pocket (Vintage, 2001) draws its title. But to my mind it is another essay in that collection that most clearly expresses his continuing thenody for industrial workers. The essay addresses the work of British-born sculptor Raymond Mason who is roughly Berger's age and who, like him, has long lived in France. Berger's judgement is frank - Mason's "work has never been fashionable and now never will be." But he nonetheless insists that several of Mason's sculpture's are "masterpieces." Berger explains:
"Mason's masterpieces are awkward monuments made during the last quarter of this century to a class that was slowly disappearing, with many of its members forced into terminal unemployment. A class which today scarcely exists but which left the world its own word: solidarity."
Among the works that most impress Berger is the one shown here which, he tells us, was "inspired by a mining disaster in Liévin" in the north of France. I have been wondering for some days of how to express solidarity with the miners who've been trapped below ground for the past week in Huntington, Utah - and with their families. So this post is a start. You will see others - each day until we learn the fate of those miners.
* This essay originally was published in 1989 in an exhibition catalogue - The Paintings and Drawings of Knud and Slowei Stampe.

Labels: , ,


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nice post. I'm sorry to say, though, that I don't think it's any longer possible to believe that the rich fear art. Like everything else, they just buy it instead.

15 August, 2007 11:38  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

All this drama is based on a post Marxist notion that the working class are some kind of oppressed, abused group with unrecognised nobility.

Its romanticism, essentially.

Theres plenty to dislike about people like that, as much as any others. Trade Unions used to hold the entire country to ransom, regardless of their actual worth and what their alleged grievances were.

Their power was broken - that was a great advance. What we need is less class hostilities not more, and not this pernicious romance about people like the miners.

15 August, 2007 13:47  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...

Tragedy is a bunch of miners trapped underground and very likely dead, while the mine operator insists - despite all evidence to the contrary - that the collapse was caused by an earthquake rather than the high risk mining practices he imposed.

Trade unions, despite their shortcomings, go a long way toward protecting regular working people from bosses like the fellow in Utah and others even less savory than he. They also have real political benefits like increasing particpation - but we wouldn't want that would we?

And good old Maggie who should, on your account, be the hero, turns out to have sold the British a bill of libertarian goods that has left the infrastructure of the country a mess (try taking a train from Gatwick to London!) and send an outmimgration of intellectuals from the Universities that surely did damage to the economy and the educational sysytem. (Let's leave aside her chummy relationship with murderers like Pinochet.)

So, thanks for the comment. But I guess we don't really see eye to eye on much.

15 August, 2007 22:12  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

No, "tragedy" is an Aristotelian, Shakespearean, generally literary term that gets overused for dramatic effect by politicians and others. We can all use hyperbole that this, that, and something else is "tragedy", but on the whole none of it is and that is mere emotive, propagandist, rhetoric.

It appears that is mostly all you want to do: establish just such a propagandist rhetoric, in multifarious ways sometimes but not always related to photography.

There is as much selfishness, potential for exploitation etc etc in miners as anyone else. I am no supporter of Maggie, as you like to swaggeringly imply I am and then denounce it with tangential irrelevant points. She did however, once and for all break the stranglehold power of UK trade unions, which was a worthy achievement. It was one factor that helped change UK society from its class war bullshit antagonisms, into its more open and meritocratic society exemplified by the Blair government which did not favour the old bullshit trade union complicities. UK politics is now a battle for the middle ground - which is an advance, contrary to your post-Marxist romanticising.

The outcome of your ideas manifested in Communist Russia. The corruption and failure of the latter is a moral and political lesson, it seems, you have yet to learn and comprehend.

16 August, 2007 12:51  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...

I supose if you cannot see tragedy in the predicament of the miners in Utah there is not much anyone might say to you.

But here is the relevant definition from Merriam-Webster (much easier than reading Aristotle!): "2a: a disastrous event: CALAMITY b: MISFORTUNE." It is difficult to see the mine collapse that has motivated my posts as anything other than a calamity for the men trapped underground and their families.

16 August, 2007 15:40  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...

George - Sorry to be distracted by subsequent comments! I agree that the powerful may no longerfear art, preferring to buy it. But maybe they just don't get it? And maybe the powerful will be taken by surprise.

16 August, 2007 19:48  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

So if this is your stance Jim, what are you doing with a comfortable well paid university job with money and leisure to visit the Louvre and record shops?

Your rhetoric is at the very least predictable, being on a formulaic Left. And on a personal level, you do not even embody the ideology you espouse: you just, presumably, indoctrinate students into thinking like you do.

This is not political theory - its just formualaic repetition.

22 August, 2007 14:59  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...

So, visiting a record shop is somehow politically incorrect? Perhaps I should be manning the barricades? Perhaps I ought to be donating my salary to charity? (As if that does not imply a judgement that tragedies like our current mine disaster or the large sacle one Thatcher instigated is a matter of individual charity.) What is it that you find troublesome here?

I teach students to think for themselves. Most of my best students are hardly on the left - formulaic or otherwise. That may surprise you. But as Larry Bird was fond of saying - "Fact, no brag!"

That said, What is wrong with assessing the world and offering one's judgments? What is wrong with saying that the world is not as I might like it to be? I suppose that you prefer lockstep agreement with whatever the local or national consensus might be on any issue?

I say what I think. I sign my name. I do not hide behind anonymity. I do that at work and here at home. Once you can say the same, come back and explain what troubles you so.

25 August, 2007 19:59  

Post a Comment

<< Home