Something John Berger simply won't shut up about is some generalized notion of sincerity, of honesty, of genuineness. Art, as near as I can tell, he evaluates almost entirely on whether or not it can persuade him that it is sincere, in some hard-to-grasp way. He sounds like an inversion of Holden Caulfield: instead of railing against the phonies, Berger praises only the non-phonies.
This is certainly something I find as I muck around, struggling to do art-like things that have gravitas and meaning.
On the one hand, the point isn't actually to be sincere, but to persuade the viewer that one is sincere. On the other
hand, it seems as if actually doing the thing might be the simplest way to persuade viewers that one is doing it. Also,
of course, I am the first and most engaged member of my own audience, and I am rather more difficult to fool about
my own intentions. I wish to be sincere, to be genuine, to be honest, whatever squishy weird thing that might mean.
This is something that showed up in my time at Antidote last fall. I think it's possible that every single
person said something about it, possibly prompted by me. I arrived, after all, with the goal of wrestling with this exact,
specific, thing, however nebulous it is. It's not that I need to be humorless, or to discard cynicism, or whatever,
but I don't want to be superficial about it.
Whatever sincerity is, I am pretty sure it includes caring what people think about your art-like work. It should hurt
if they don't like it, I think. Is it because whatever this nebulous "sincerity" thing is includes a commitment to
getting through to people, so when that fails, it feels personal? Not sure. This doesn't seem to be quite what Berger is
on about, although it might be a consequence. It all kind of comes down to "Millet was awesome at peasants because Millet was a peasant."
This shows up in anything we might consider conceptual art, and I think there it boils down to little more than a
belief in your concept. If you don't believe in whatever it is you're trying to communicate, believe it truly, deeply,
madly, than your work is going to struggle to be good. There was a lot of anti-Trump art made which struck me as
in a sense insincere — not because I think the artist secretly loved Trump, but rather because the point was
to say the "right things" rather than to say what they actually believed, even though these were often pretty much the same.
This, I suppose, is why contrarian art is in some sense easier. It's obvious that you're not numbly following a trend,
you must believe something, surely? Also, there is a sense that, in defying the common trends, you open yourself
to criticism and suffering, so, surely you must be truly committed to whatever the idea is? Of course, by the same
tokens, contrarianism can become another cheap road to false gravitas.
Anyway. You gotta believe. You gotta be honest and true, and it's got to show.