On Perception, Presence, And The Creative Process: John Berger’s “Bento’s Sketchbook”

by Thomas Brett


“I’m taking my time, as if I had all the time in the world. I do have all the time in the world.” – John Berger

John Berger’s Bento’s Sketchbook (2011) is a meditation on the connections between seeing, feeling, and drawing, and how these connections shape how we perceive and make sense of the world. The book takes its inspiration from the writings of the 17th-century philosopher Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677). Spinoza worked as an optical lens grinder by day, and in his free time wrote monumental philosophical tracts on rationality that helped pave the way for the Enlightenment. (Is there is a better argument for having a humble day job so you’re set up to do serious work in your spare hours?) Among Spinoza’s assertions: that God and Nature are one and the same, that body and mind are unified, and that there are three kinds of knowledge–opinion, reason, and intuition (only the intuitive type is “eternal”). Spinoza is widely considered to have made significant (and early) contributions to our understanding of how the mind works.

Spinoza–“Bento” to his friends–apparently kept a sketchbook, but it was lost to history and no one seems to know what was in it. Berger (1926-), an eminent English art critic (author of the classic Ways Of Seeing, among many other works of criticism and fiction) and a painter himself, was inspired to use Spinoza as his muse when a friend gave him a beautiful leather-bound sketchbook. This sketchbook got him wondering: What did Spinoza’s sketchbook look like? Bento’s Sketchbook dovetails around excerpts from Spinoza’s writings, and Berger’s own included sketches–of plants, people, paintings in galleries–are a kind of reply to Spinoza’s missing ones. These drawings are the starting point for Berger’s engagement with Spinoza’s thought through the reflections, inquiries and stories that comprise this brief book.

There are many amazing little ethnographic vignettes in Bento’s Sketchbook that demonstrate Berger’s wizardly powers of observation and writing. But my favorite sections are those that zoom in on the creative process–and I don’t use that phrase as a cliché either. Berger can really unpack things as only a practitioner (who can write) can. For example, near the beginning of the book he describes, and shows sketches of, a small flower in front of him that he’s in the process of drawing–a series of lines that question what is observed, accumulating “the answers” (8). And here is the fulcrum of the process: “At a certain moment…the accumulation becomes an image–that’s to say stops being a heap of signs and becomes a presence…This is when your looking changes. You start questioning the presence as much as the model” (ibid.). Then the refining begins. “You stare at the drawing…at what is radiating from [it], at [its] energy” (ibid.). You take in, in other words, its presence. The accumulative process continues as you add and subtract bits until the work feels finished and right.

No matter what artistic field you work in, there are a lot of sound observations in Bento’s Sketchbook to mull over. The challenge, as any artist/composer/writer/Maker of Things knows, is getting to that point where the thing’s presence starts to assert its energy back at you. You know when this is happening (“this is where the looking changes”): the music starts to play in your head when you’re somewhere else, or the ideas from the page keep repeating themselves silently. That’s presence asserting itself.

Berger also articulates some of the more ineffable aspects of artistic craft. In this passage he describes the intuitive naturalness (for lack of a better phrase) of his craft: “When I’m drawing…I have the impression at certain moments of participating in something like a visceral function…a function that is independent of the conscious will…in something prototypical and anterior to logical reasoning” (149).

And even though this is primarily a book about seeing and drawing, in synesthesia moments Berger uses tactile and sonic metaphors when describing the search for the right color: “You search touch by touch for a timbre…and then you discover whether or not when applied…the color matches the ‘voice’ you were searching for” (22; italics added).

In sum, there’s a quiet magic to Berger’s writing–the way he says the right thing with the least amount of fuss and filigree, leaving clear prose that rings in your mind like a bell long after it’s struck. By noticing the things that count–and making things count by noticing them–Bento’s Sketchbook invests simple gestures, everyday transactions, and common moments with massive grace and resonance.

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