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.

This Olympian view was welcome to some art historians on the left, but to others Clark was not a proper leftist because he accepted the canon of great artists instead of looking into the surrounding “visual culture.” The canon was under attack by feminists and social historians who saw it as the preserve of male and bourgeois dominance; it suppressed the broad range of art and artifacts, the “visual culture” that for them more fully reveals history. In the fashion of Clement Greenberg, Clark even shrank the canon to a few painters in hierarchical order.

In his new book Clark continues to write about major artists and to concentrate his arguments on a handful of pictures. These are not typical paintings but what he calls “limit cases,” in which a painting reveals a crisis in representation by pushing former means and conventions to the breaking point while making new departures. In each case—in each generation, that is—the older forms give way to greater flatness. Clark accepts as a given the idea most famously expressed by Clement Greenberg that modernism means the progressive renunciation of the illusions of depth and three-dimensionality in favor of the flat surface. This becomes a mantra that Clark does not defend directly but his new book is intended to exemplify it grandly by its devotion to the “episodes” that he chooses to write about. We can protest that he fails to explain Dada, de Chirico, Surrealism, the work of Picasso after World War I, or Frida Kahlo, among many others, but Clark’s response to such an objection would be that they are simply less significant than the chosen “episodes.”

Clark makes it clear that he hates any kind of history that stresses the way a picture looks forward to other pictures and events. Instead he insists on “contingency” (which now replaces “ambiguity,” the word he favored earlier), a term he isolates as a special one. He uses it to oppose the idea that the history of modernism can be a narrative with fixed and causal sequences. He wants the word to evoke the uncertainty and unpredictability of art in order to force himself and his readers to look into a painting at its own moment. Such moments are full of contingencies, and only misguided hindsight gives them a single definite historical origin and role. “Episodes from a History of Modernism” is a well-chosen subtitle, because Clark gives us isolated moments instead of an overarching history, which he thinks impossible.

Clark’s first “limit case” is Jacques-Louis David’s painting Death of Marat (Musées royaux, Brussels; see illustration on next page), painted in 1793 at the height of the Jacobin revolution. He makes a detailed study of the feverish uncertainties of the summer and fall of 1793, and of the historical roles played by the living and then the dead Marat. In the painting the martyr’s face and body are manipulated into the frontal plane—a foretelling of the “flatness” that was central to Clement Greenberg’s ideas—so that the spiraling volumes and depths of Baroque painting are denied. This new frontality, the sharp detailing of the forms, and the dramatic light and shade are embodiments, Clark argues, of unresolved revolutionary tensions. The body of Marat, ill with a skin disease and fatally stabbed, is said to be a sign of the revolution’s sickness: the Jacobins’ use of violence in the name of the people. The striking light that illuminates the body is a sign of revolutionary virtue, and the deep shadows above and behind are a visual metaphor of antirevolutionary opposition and vice. These unsettling pictorial tensions exemplify the volatile moment in 1793 when the structure of revolutionary politics was indeed uncertain: the “contingencies” which characterize Marat’s role both in real life and in David’s painting.

Clark then moves forward a century to Camille Pissarro’s Two Young Peasant Women (1892; Metropolitan Museum of Art), not mentioning his earlier work on mid-century and Impressionist painting.5 Clark wonders how the picture consorts with the painter’s anarchist convictions at a moment when he was facing a crisis in his own art and in Parisian artistic culture. Pissarro was leaving behind the certainties of Seurat’s neoimpressionist technique, which he had adopted in 1886, and exploring the decorative qualities of painting at a time when such qualities were more closely associated with his political opposites, Maurice Denis and the neo-Catholic group centered around Gauguin. His Two Young Peasant Women is caught between the older current of peasant realism, with its appeal to naturalistic rendering, and the newer one in which the decorative takes precedence.

Clark locates the tension in the relationship of the two women at rest in the translucent foreground shade to the sunstruck depths of the landscape. “Rest seeks shadow, work usually cannot…. It is shade…that is the sign of pastoral in Pissarro. Leisure (otium) is a time of day and a partial removal from sunlight.”

Surface flatness, the picture’s most modernist element, counteracts pastoral sentiment in the subject; we cannot accept peasant naturalism à la Millet in a picture that denies both traditional three-dimensionality and a clear sense of what is happening. These oppositions in the painting are faithful to Pissarro’s and Kropotkin’s anarchism, with its belief in the compatibility of freedom and order, a compatibility that, alas!, was broken asunder by capitalism. Clark thinks Pissarro’s utopian wish to reestablish the unity of order and freedom is doomed to failure by modern capitalism, but Pissarro’s attempt was admirable in the very act of disclosing the impossibility of such unity.

These ideas, which cannot be accurately reduced to a few sentences, are infinitely richer in Clark’s chapter than I can suggest, partly because they are based upon extremely close scrutiny carried along on a highly personal and beautiful way of writing, and are convincing for that reason.

The squatting woman at left folds out laterally across the picture plane, claiming more and more flat room. The green of the field is spread along the edges of the two women’s faces, brightened slightly and smeared flat with the brush—in the case of the squatting woman quite arbitrarily, and clearly late in the day. She wears it as a halo, or a puff of green thought. Then the vineyard becomes the kneeling woman’s wing, the flounces of her skirt are pinned close to the picture corner, and treetrunks and branches brace the corner opposite. The handle of the spade is a stretcher bar. The picture is an Annunciation…. The Virgin ponders, the archangel waits. The soil is as fiery and infinite as gold leaf.

The chapter on Pissarro is followed by two chapters that I found the least convincing, one on Cézanne’s late Bathers and the other on Picasso’s Cubism of 1911-1912. In Clark’s view, Cézanne’s strange, often monstrous bathers are said to embody the painter’s fear of castration and his construction of a compensating fantasy. Their depiction, Clark thinks, must be somehow related to Freud’s early writings, but he relies too much on mere coincidence in time and excludes other writers’ ideas of the painter’s sexuality.6 His discussion of Picasso argues forcefully with the ahistorical formalism of critics enamored of semiotics, but he depends upon such close analysis of Picasso’s renunciation of solid forms in 1911 that he will leave most readers behind, especially because he does not deal at all with Picasso’s collages, the glued-together works that indeed spawned a new kind of representation.7 Furthermore, neither of these chapters puts forward the analyses of contemporaneous political and cultural beliefs that enrich his other chapters.

A study of the work of El Lissitzky and Kasimir Malevich between 1916 and 1921 follows the discussions of Cubism. By now the reader is used to Clark’s restriction to the paintings he calls “limit cases,” but it still is a surprise to see that he writes only about those two artists and makes no mention whatever of Liubov Popova, Vladimir Tatlin, and Alexander Rodchenko. The omissions are intended to keep the reader’s mind focused solely on Clark’s own analysis, uncontaminated by the discussions of art in relation to the revolution that are found in recent histories of Soviet art. This does not mean that he avoids the politics of art but instead that he builds his discussion upon the forms themselves, moving from them to the underlying nature of the imperfect revolution they signify. More than any other writer on vanguard Russian art, he stresses the great distance between the horrors of the early years of Bolshevik rule and the radical geometric abstraction of the art being produced then by Lissitzky and Malevich.

As the emblem of his analysis Clark uses the famous photograph of Lissitzky’s lost billboard of 1920 that urged workers in Vitebsk to fulfill their tasks with the slogan “The workbenches await you.” (See illustration on opposite page.) He sets its dynamic geometric forms against the actual chaos of “War Communism”: civil war, Jewish pogroms, suppression of opponents, disastrous decline of the economy. No new system had replaced a bankrupt capitalism except rhetoric, so, like other “limit cases” of modernism, Lissitzky’s art was intended to show the collapse of the old while proposing a new mode of representation. He and Malevich regarded their “Suprematism” as superior to Bolshevism.

If the attempt to map Bolshevik categories and prescriptions onto the world was more and more transparently impossible, then put the blame on the mapping. Do not map the world, transfigure it. That is what El Lissitzky’s propaganda board promises to do. Take the mood of euphoria and desperation, and finally synthesize the two terms…. Make a revolution of the sign.

In other words, since the practical necessities of daily life (even a usable currency) were desperately lacking during the period of War Communism, it was false, in art as in politics, to pretend that the revolutionary government was providing them. “Many people,” Malevich wrote, “especially socialists, think that art exists for the purpose of painting comprehensible buns….”8

For Clark, Lissitzky’s orderly and three-dimensional abstraction responded all too well to the illusionistic new order that Lenin promised. Clark prefers Malevich’s nihilism and his absolute flatness of surface. Malevich is heroic because he destroyed prior forms of representation while revealing the revolution’s “empty desolation” and the futility of its hopes for “totalization,” that is, for an integral view of the world that the actual conflicts of modern life have rendered impossible.9 Malevich’s flat forms have none of Lissitzky’s illusions of mass and space.

Flatness…is essential to Malevich because it stands for the fundamental non-being of all the elements on show. Malevich never doubts that if he robs the world of dimension, he is on the way to robbing it of other false appearances.

Clark’s despairing judgment is, as usual, built upon analyses of the actual look of Malevich’s paintings, for example, on color. With a clever evocation of the artist’s own metaphors which foretell the revolution’s precarious hopes (hence the applicability of his art to the new society), Clark writes that

Malevich’s great metaphor from 1915 to 1918 is of elevation and escape. But even then it is never a matter of color volatilizing back into ether or spreading like wildfire to all four corners of the room. Color is a weight that something else has elevated. Colors are planets in a planetary system. Composition is an energy that keeps the colored shapes in the air, but only for the time being. We are meant to share the juggler’s anxiety as well as his or her rapt concentration.

Clark’s last “limit case” is Jackson Pollock’s paintings of the late 1940s, about which he disagrees, as he has throughout, with other social histories of art. He discards “Leftist claptrap,” particularly the idea that Pollock’s quasi-official adoption by the US arts establishment can help to explain his painting. For him, the search for meaning has to be grounded in the materials of the art, its pigments, textures, forms, and colors, its flatness or lack of it. He acknowledges that he learned to look at the flatness from Clement Greenberg and Michael Fried, but he throws bouquets of disagreement at them. It is not sufficient, he argues, to say that the meaning is in Pollock’s forms themselves, cut off from everything else. What are we supposed to do, he asks, with the evidence in Pollock’s pictures

of discontinuity and aimlessness, of cantankerousness and risk, of abrupt reversals of direction, inconsistencies, scrawling, episodes of rhetorical excess—crushed glass, chicken wire, whorls of paint squeezed convulsively from tubes, twine, sand, pebbles, cloth, spatter and clotting, glaring industrial metal-grays and enamel- blacks, transfixing (melo- dramatic) handprints—all those elements in the work that leave behind the signs of discomposure in its making, and insist that these pictures obey no rules, or none we shall know, and have no horizon lines—no top and bottom, no sense of the whole preceding its insubordinate parts?

Pollock’s skeins of paint add up to “figures of dissonance” (here Clark draws upon Adorno) which be-lie any sense of whole-ness and are opposed to any kind of illusionism: “figures of obstruction, undergrowth, uncertainty, randomness, of a kind of peremptory violence done …with the sticks and dried brushes….” These meanings, and not narrowly conceived “political” ones, are part of a complex dialogue with public life, for Pollock’s forms and techniques were not their own self-enclosed world, as formalists have it, but were, and here Clark draws on the work of Mikhail Bakhtin, “shot through with shared thoughts, points of view, alien value judgements and accents.”10 That is, before viewers ever saw Pollock’s work they associated swirling tangles with undergrowth and randomness; these were social conventions to which he gave form on canvas, disruptingly new, but eventually understood, form.

Clark’s chapter “In Defense of Abstract Expressionism” is no longer a “limit case” but a broader discussion that places his analysis of Pollock in the context of the creative “vulgarity” of Hans Hofmann, de Kooning, Rothko, and Adolph Gottlieb (making me regret that he did not carry out a parallel expansion of his interpretation of Lissitzky and Malevich). He gives “vulgarity” his own meaning and doubtless hopes that it will shock most readers out of their conception of Rothko and the others as artists of refinement. “Vulgarity” for Clark is a positive value that is distinctly American rather than European. It embraces the overwrought, the loud, the energetic, the brashly individualistic, and the petty bourgeois ideals that offended devotees of “high art” including those who liked Abstract Expressionism (obviously for the wrong reasons).

Clark’s notion of “vulgarity” points to the art itself, “to some abjectness or absurdity in its very make-up (some tell-tale blemish, some atrociously visual quality which the object will never stop betraying however hard it tries).” It took Pollock to reveal these brash American qualities, and that is his greatness. Asger Jorn, Clark tells us, was the greatest European painter of the 1950s, but his garish forms are only superficially like the Americans because his have the refinements of irony and self-awareness.

“Vulgarity” also points to the artist’s social world, whose “tastes and styles of individuality” were already invested, albeit unknowingly, in those inelegant qualities. Socially shared elements precede and follow the production of art, which nonetheless remains unique. This dialogue of the individual’s artistic material and form with his society is the pith of social art history as Clark conceives it. Personifying the dialogue as a kind of visual speech, Clark writes that “anyone who cannot hear the shouting and arguing still going on in a Pollock or Picasso has, to my way of thinking, a tin ear for agony.”

Clark’s brief “Conclusion” is really an epilogue on his boyhood love of Italian neorealist film and literature. He ends by evoking Pier Paolo Pasolini as he faced postwar misery with a despairing loss of faith in social action. This autobiographical note is in keeping with Clark’s romantic individualism. Distrusting received opinion of every sort as mere above-ground fodder, he must root out everything for himself because in his view, “an account of Pollock would hardly matter, or be worth doing, if the opinions were not mine.” This will seem arrogant, and indeed like his mentor Greenberg, he makes many peremptory judgments without defending them. Marcel Duchamp is dismissed in a few passing remarks, Dada and Surrealism are not worth writing about, and Meyer Schapiro, with whom he appreciatively began his Manet book, is now condemned as a Stalinist.11

Yet, except for such objectionable judgments, Clark’s propensity to use the personal pronoun is also the opposite of dogmatism. He habitually states a proposition as his own, then consults the reader, in a manner of speaking, by frequently interjecting, “Well, so?” He argues with the proposition, showing its shortcomings and how one would reason about it, then finally says what is worth retaining from it. By taking responsibility for his ideas—he uses “I” more than any other writer on modern art—and without insisting upon their general application, he treats them as contingent, as full of questions which the reader is urged to take up for herself or himself.

This spring the Yale University Press called Clark’s new work its “lead book for the [fall] season,” a hopeful homage to the writer’s undeniable brilliance. This may not translate into vast sales, but the book is certain to be taken up by art historians and critics concerned with the art of the past two centuries. I foresee its use in graduate seminars, where each chapter could initiate the syllabus for a semester’s work (merely to pursue the rich footnotes would be an education), not only in art history but also in cultural studies. It must be said that Clark’s familiarity with the discourse of modern intellectual thought is sometimes daunting. He keeps company with Theodor Adorno, Manfredo Tafuri, Norbert Elias, Matthew Arnold, Lewis Mumford, Max Weber, Emile Durkheim, and John Ruskin, writers who preached the bleakness of modern life. He assumes we know them as well.

Within Clark’s home field of art history, his book challenges—he hopes it refutes—nearly every feature of the prevailing histories of modernist art. If other art historians attempt to stick to their guns, they will soon see that Clark has spiked many of their weapons. Hunters of the elusive definitions and histories of modernism will have to face the bristling opposition of Clark’s “episodes.” For if he does not provide us with a history of vanguard art of the past two centuries, he so thoroughly uproots conventional methods and assumptions about that history that we other art historians will have to rewrite our texts. Few of us will agree with Clark’s severe reduction of the range of evidence that social historians can use, and many of us will retain our conviction in the efficacy of social action. But we will all benefit from his memorable demonstrations that the forms of paintings are visible signs of social meanings.

This Issue

November 4, 1999