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Goodbye to All That

We would look in vain in the museum world, where most of us are exposed to art history, for the presence of T.J. Clark, one of the most distinctive and influential writers about the art of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Although a very independent scholar who has argued with Marxism as often as he has drawn upon it, Clark was tarred with the brush of leftist determinism in the 1970s and 1980s and deliberately excluded from exhibitions and museum symposia devoted to the work of Courbet and Manet, artists for whom he was one of the most exciting new interpreters.

Clark was then a member of a loose group of leftist critics in Great Britain, lecturing and publishing articles on nineteenth- and twentieth-century art, as well as working as a scriptwriter and presenter of programs on modern art for the Open University in association with BBC-TV. He has also been a charismatic and influential teacher, first in England, then in the United States. He was a professor of art history at Harvard from 1980 to 1988 and is now Chancellor’s Professor of Modern Art at the University of California, Berkeley. Despite these credentials, many curators, critics, and historians who believe that great art is contaminated by sociopolitical considerations see his work as flawed by “ideological mirages.”1

Clark’s new book will not improve his standing among such professionals. Farewell to an Idea: Episodes from a History of Modernism is a wart hog of a book that will be greeted as an attack on many of the bastions of modernist painting and its history.2 Clark digs holes under the ramparts of conventional art history, undermining its views by exploiting its own cherished method: close analysis of brushwork, color, shapes, and composition. His writing is free of jargon (no words like “performativity,” no phrases like “inscribed across the site of…”), and he makes adroit use of the vernacular as he blends ideas of often startling originality with a beautiful control of empathetic description. He takes up only a few paintings, but by the end of each chapter the accepted histories of the painting have been dismantled and in their place we find a new set of concepts, rooted in the forms themselves, about the artist, the art, and their cultural origins.

These new concepts are deeply pessimistic, characterized, Clark tells us, by the phrase that Max Weber borrowed from Schiller, “the disenchantment of the world.” Clark’s pervasive disillusionment seems to stem from a kind of solipsism. For him, comprehensive histories cannot be written because he has no faith that the customary approaches of social history can teach us about art. An heir of the deconstructivists’ concentration on the text, he limits his faith to what he can see in front of him, and then, with self-confessed subjectivism, he extracts meaning from it without recourse to the elements of social history that others, like myself, regard as essential: institutions of art and government, ideologies of classes and parties, the multiple roles of patronage and the art market, and the social iconology of art’s subjects.

For Clark, capitalism and “modernity”—the two cannot be separated for him—have destroyed earlier culture. He defines “modernity” in an admittedly loose fashion. “It points to a social order which has turned from the worship of ancestors and past authorities to the pursuit of a projected future—of goods, pleasures, freedoms, forms of control over nature, or infinities of information. This process goes along with a great emptying and sanitizing of the imagination.” Socialism and modernist art both tried to imagine that modern society could be otherwise, but they were doomed to impotence. Modernist art only reveals that emptiness; it does not present a utopian new world. With the fall of the Berlin Wall, global capitalism is supreme, without any meaningful socialist opposition.

Further, Clark laments that modernist art, based like socialism upon resistance to the dominant bourgeoisie, is now behind us with nothing to take its place. Resistance in art did not mean utter opposition but a rejection of many earlier ways of painting and the ideas they embodied. The cohabitation of new elements of resistance with prior forms gave energy to modernist art, and in turn these innovations were recognized as valuable by the dominant culture. Then the process was repeated so, for example, rebellious Cubism became, in the following gener- ation, the norm that had to be resisted.

Resistance, like socialism, therefore became a way of moving capitalism and “modernity” forward (for socialism, despite its intentions, only succeeded in reforming capitalism). However, Clark writes, “It is hard to tell at present whether ideas of resistance and refusal have any sustaining force still left them, or have been hopelessly incorporated into a general spectacle.” Worse, Clark’s attenuated Marxism leaves little hope for any social action that could alleviate the underlying conflicts and miseries of the world of capitalism that he blames for the splintered dialogue between art and society: “If I cannot have the proletariat as my chosen people any longer, at least capitalism remains my Satan.” More than once he hints that his views are now closer to anarchism.

In 1973, when he was only thirty years old, Clark published a two-volume study of French art, Image of the People: Gustave Courbet and the 1848 Revolution and The Absolute Bourgeois: Artists and Politics in France 1848-1851.3 Among scholars open to new ideas, they presented such a penetrating and well-documented analysis that they immediately reoriented the history of mid-century and Barbizon art. Clark’s introductory chapter to Image of the People, “On the Social History of Art,” circulated in photocopies among students, historians, and critics in Great Britain and the United States, and became the touchstone for heady discussions of art’s relation to history and society. Social art history, he wrote, should treat art neither as the “reflection” of society nor as “background,” and should not depend upon intuited analogies between subject and form. It should instead concentrate on the modes and conventions of representation in specific pictures by specific artists. Only through these could one hope to “explain the connecting links between artistic form, the available systems of visual representation, the current theories of art, other ideologies, social classes, and more general historical structures and processes.”

Courbet, the most disruptive painter of the mid-century, dominates Clark’s study, and his account of the painter’s Burial at Ornans (Musée d’Orsay), exhibited in 1850, exemplifies his methods. The huge painting defied the Parisian bourgeoisie in ways that revealed the turmoil of the revolution of 1848 and its immediate aftermath, above all, class conflict. Instead of the spatial illusions of traditional art favored by the bourgeoisie, Courbet constructed a radical, friezelike flatness that was associated with unsophisticated popular broadsides and that placed him on the side of le peuple. Instead of the idealized heroes and gods that the middle class associated with great art, Courbet’s figures are provincial town dwellers and clergy whom he knew well, and whose ruddy faces and frock coats were defiant embodiments of rural society. And this was at a time when the supporters of order in Paris feared the reaction of the countryside (hence their support for a government that would keep the peasantry and the proletariat in their places). The prominent gravedigger kneeling proudly by a raw hole in the ground in the Burial could be identified with the new forces in society which threatened to bury the bourgeoisie along with their idealized gods.

Clark’s next book, published in 1984, was on Impressionism: The Painting of Modern Life: Paris in the Art of Manet and His Followers.4 This book had even greater impact than his work on the mid-century because Impressionism had a much wider currency. Although other writers had been challenging the dominance of John Rewald’s History of Impressionism (1946, and frequently republished), it was Clark’s book that provided for Impressionism the critical insights of those concerned with the social conditions of early modernism. He helped rescue Impressionism from the hagiography of the kind associated with Rewald and from the grasp of “formalists” who ignored the social ramifications of the representations they studied by limiting themselves to art’s forms. Particularly galling to established writers on Manet was his insistence that prostitution and money in Second Empire Paris should be taken as key elements in the interpretation of the artist’s pictures, although this was precisely why younger scholars found Clark so exciting.

Clark’s leftism was certainly nuanced. He took issue with the economic determinism of earlier Marxists. Displaying a formidable grasp of semiotics and modern art criticism (especially that of Clement Greenberg), he wrote that modern society is ordered by

representations or systems of signs, and it does not seem to me to trivialize the concept of “social formation”…to describe it as a hierarchy of representations. That way one avoids the worst pitfalls of vulgar Marxism, in particular the difficulties involved in claiming that the base of any social formation is some brute facticity made of sterner and solider stuff than signs—for instance, the stuff of economic life. It is one thing (and still necessary) to insist on the determinate weight in society of those arrangements we call economic; it is another to believe that in doing so we have poked through the texture of signs and conventions to the bedrock of matter and action upon it. Economic life…is in itself a realm of representations.

Clark brought the semioticians’ “systems of signs” into lay language by analyzing both the forms and the subjects of such paintings by Manet as Olympia (Musée d’Orsay) and Bar at the Folies Bergère (Courtauld Collection). He showed that images of a naked prostitute and a barmaid exposed the hierarchies of class and economic power. Olympia’s nakedness—not the same as conventional nudity—and her self-possession, her confrontational gaze toward the male viewer, removed the veil of hypocrisy with which Parisian society disguised the economic transaction of prostitution. “The painting insists on its own materiality, but does so in and through a prostitute’s stare, a professional and standardized attentiveness, with the self reserved from the purchaser’s looking; though the possible grimness of that reflection on the painter’s task was hardly understood in 1865, let alone approved of.” The fragmented perspective of the other painting placed the male viewer in front of a barmaid, whose blank stare seemed to contradict her presumed availability as a sex worker. Disrupting the established unities of space and psychology, Ma-net’s technique and forms, in Clark’s interpretation, were the signs of the baleful fracturing of society by modernity (that is, by capitalism). And prostitution was Clark’s metaphor for the aggressive capitalism of Paris in the 1860s and 1870s.

Clark’s assault on conventional art history was nowhere more evident than in his dismissal of Monet and Renoir, the darlings of the exhibition circuit. Whereas I and other historians have studied how and why their paintings entered the social history of art, for example, by assessing their perceptions of Haussmannian Paris, suburban leisure, and seacoast tourism, Clark treated them as panderers to the bourgeoisie, lacking the critical distance from modern society that gave Manet and Degas their elevated qualities, and consequently they are given the back of the hand by their virtual omission from The Painting of Modern Life.

  1. 1

    That phrase was applied to Clark in the catalog of the Manet retrospective of 1983 at the Grand Palais, Paris, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art (Abrams/Metropolitan Museum of Art), p. 478.

  2. 2

    Modernist” and “modernism” are terms that refer to avant-garde art, whereas “modern art” refers to all the art produced in modern times.

  3. 3

    Reissued in paper by University of California Press, 1999.

  4. 4

    Reissued in paper by Princeton University Press, 1986.

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