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.”
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. 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 …