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T.J. Clark and the Marxist critique of modern painting
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The question is, finally: how could there be an effective political art? Is not the whole thing a chimaera, a dream, incompatible with the basic conditions of artistic production in the nineteenth century—easel painting, privacy, isolation, the art market, the ideology of individualism? Could there be any such thing as revolutionary art until the means existed— briefly, abortively—to change those basic conditions: till 1919, when El Lissitzky puts up his propaganda poster outside a factory in Vitebsk; or 1918, in Berlin, when Richard Huelsenbeck has the opportunity, at last, to “make poetry with a gun in his hand”?
“It turns out we are part of the superstructure,” M. said to me in 1922, after our return from Georgia. Not long before, M. had written about the separation of culture from the State, but the Civil War had ended, and the young builders of the new State had begun—for the time being in theory only—to put everything in its proper place. It was then that culture was assigned to the superstructure.
There are times when, owing to its larger ramifications, a single academic appointment at a leading university very quickly acquires the status of an historical event for those alert to its meaning. The appointment of T.J. Clark as professor of art history at Harvard University in 1980 was for some observers an event of this kind. For what it signified was a decisive shift in the way the study of art history—and most particularly, of course, the history of modern painting, which is Professor Clark’s academic specialty—would henceforth be pursued as an intellectual discipline at this venerable seat of learning.
In an earlier generation the Harvard art history department, together with its illustrious museum-training program at the Fogg Art Museum, had won a high reputation among the cognoscenti of the art world as a citadel of humanistic scholarship and aesthetic connoisseurship. There had indeed developed a distinctive Fogg tradition at Harvard. It was a tradition based, above all, on the close, comparative study of individual art objects, and one of its goals was to produce a certain kind of expert intelligence— aesthetic intelligence. In the perspective of this tradition, it was assumed that for the mastery of such intelligence the cultivation of sensibility—a sensibility for objects— was quite as essential as the acquisition of historical knowledge; that, in other words, aesthetic intelligence was virtually meaningless if separated from the disciplines of connoisseurship.
This, in any event, appears to have been the ideal that once governed the Fogg tradition at Harvard, and from the influence it exerted on the museums and the universities, on art colleaing and on art scholarship, there can be no question but that the art public in America had over the course of many years reaped some significant benefits. There are certainly more than a few masterpieces to be seen in our public collections today which owe their presence there—and thus their place in our experience—directly or indirectly to precisely the kind of connoisseurship that concentrates its principal interest on aesthetic quality. For this reason, the Fogg tradition may be accurately described, I think, as an example of cultural elitism that serves the public interest.
If there was also something to be said against the Fogg tradition—that it tended to be snobbish and clubby; that it was often condescending to outsiders, operating in the world of money, jobs, appointments, and preferments, as something of an old-boy network; and that it produced its full share of duffers who had all the appurtenances and pretensions of the connoisseur without any discernible trace of the sensibility or knowledge essential to the connoisseur’s task—well, that too may be taken as a measure of how far the ideal often fell short of being realized in an imperfect world. The ideal itself, however, was not only a noble one, but one that had the merit of addressing itself to something at once central and indispensable to our aesthetic experience.
By the time Professor Clark came to Harvard in 1980, this Fogg tradition was already on the wane. If its demise was not quite complete, its days were nonetheless clearly numbered. The cultural insurgency of the Sixties had done its work at Harvard, no less than elsewhere in the academic world, and a new administration at the university was obviously prepared to welcome not only radical change but a change in the direction of an avowedly left-wing radicalism. Art history was by no means the only field in which this new direction made itself felt at Harvard. Its successful penetration of the law-school faculty was sufficiently dramatic in its consequences to cause articles to be written about them in The New Yorker, The New York Times, and other publications. For those who understood what was happening to the study of art history at Harvard, the change represented by Professor Clark’s appointment was seen straightaway to be no less fateful.
What this change entailed, moreover, could never have been in doubt. Harvard certainly knew what it was getting. Professor Clark, a British scholar trained at Cambridge University and the Courtauld Institute, had in 1973 published two works—The Absolute Bourgeois: Artists and Politics in France 1848-1851 and Image of the People: Gustave Courbet and the 1848 Revolution—which spelled out his philosophy of art history in unmistakable terms. They had instantly established him as one of the most programmatic and plainspoken Marxist writers then concentrating on the field of nineteenth-century French art. The author of The Absolute Bourgeois and Image of the People was not one of your new-style, hermetic Marxists, given to employing an esoteric jargon and an impenetrable syntax. There was nothing arcane in Professor Clark’s vocabulary, and nothing obscure or ambiguous in his ideology. The opening chapter of Image of the People had been devoted to a disquisition “On the Social History of Art,” which made the flagrantly political character of the inquiry altogether explicit; and lest there remain any lingering doubts on this score, Professor Clark wrote a new preface for inclusion in both volumes when these were reissued in paperback editions by the Princeton University Press in 1982.
In this preface he underscored the fact that both Image of the People and The Absolute Bourgeois “were written for the most part in the winter of 1969-70, in what seemed then (and still seems) ignominious but unavoidable retreat from the political events of the previous six years. Those events haunt the books’ best and worst pages, and provide throughout the main frame of reference for the history of a distant revolution and its cultural dimension.” The main purpose of the preface was thus to provide a summary of what Professor Clark called “the books’ chief problem”—which is to say, their principal political objective.
So I owe it to the reader, confronting these relics of a slightly better time, [he wrote] to state again what I took to be the books’ chief problem. They wished to establish what happened to art when it became involved, however tangentially, in a process of revolution and counter-revolution: in other words, when it lost its normal place in the machinery of social control and was obliged for a while to seek out other spaces for representation—other publics, other subjects, other idioms, other means of production. As my Jamesian title [The Absolute Bourgeois] was meant to imply, one could hardly have expected the story, in an order already irredeemably capitalist, to be other than one of failure to find such space. Bourgeois society is efficient at making all art its own. The conditions for a rendezvous between artistic practice and the only class which henceforth could produce and sustain alternative meanings to those of capital did not exist in 1850, and have only existed in botched and fragmentary form in the century since—against the grain of the Bolshevik Revolution, around the edges of the Workers’ Councils in Berlin, Barcelona or Turin, and nowadays  perhaps in the struggle of the Polish working class to reimpose soviet rule.
There is much that could be said about the outlook that is revealed in these observations. One notes, for example, the easy, unargued assumption that the primary “meanings” to be gleaned in a work of art are those which derive from the economic and political situation in which it is produced. Then, too, there is the implacable hatred of capitalism and its corollary detestation of the institutions of bourgeois society (except, perhaps, where appointments to the Harvard University faculty are concerned). There is the inevitable—for a Marxist—glorification of revolution, and the cynical—indeed sickening—reference to “the struggle of the Polish working class to reimpose soviet rule.” From these and other attitudes so emphatically avowed in the preface to the new editions of Image of the People and The Absolute Bourgeois, as well as in the books themselves, it will be evident that Professor Clark not only approaches the study of art history from the perspective of a doctrinaire Marxist, with everything this implies about the primacy given to politics in his entire intellectual enterprise, but that he wishes to be clearly understood to be doing just that. Somewhat less evident, perhaps, at least to the uninitiated, is what follows from this: that in the perspective of this politicized history of art, art itself is definitively consigned to what in classic Marxist parlance is called the “superstructure”—a subject to which we shall return in due course.
Now Professor Clark has given us a new book, his first since joining the Harvard faculty. It is called The Painting of Modern Life, and it bears the subtitle, “Paris in the Art of Manet and His Followers.” Once again, the ostensible subject is nineteenth-century French painting. The names of Manet, Monet, Pissarro, Degas, Seurat, and other artists of the Impressionist era appear frequently, and reproductions of their works, both in color and in black and white, adorn its pages. Yet it will come as no surprise to any reader acquainted with Image of the People and The Absolute Bourgeois to discover that the real focus of The Painting of Modern Life is not on the history of art. What interests Professor Clark is something else.
In this new book it is mainly, but not exclusively, the issue of class. In its fundamental concerns, The Painting of Modern Life is yet another contribution to the propagation of that mythic phenomenon which lies at the heart of the Marxist conception of history: class conflict. This is Professor Clark’s real subject in this book. Everything else—certainly everything involving aesthetics—is placed in a subordinate relation to that subject. And while Professor Clark is shrewd enough not to insist on the fact that this is his principal subject in this book, he doesn’t deny that it is, either. He even offers us some ruminations on the concept of class at the outset of the discussion, but at the same time cautioning the reader that these may appear to be “very general, not to say banal, propositions on the nature of society as such.” He is anything but a fool. He knows exactly what he is doing. But he is also somewhat fearful—as he has every reason to be—of being seen to be an exponent of what he himself dismisses as “the worst pitfalls of vulgar Marxism.” Rather than dwell on the “vulgar” concept of class conflict, then, he avails himself of the more sanitized and eminently more fashionable nomenclature of semiotics. Thus the new revised standard version is: “Society is a battlefield of representations.” Behind this semiotic smokescreen, however, the same old Marxist scenarios remain firmly in place. Nothing has changed but the words.
The truth is, there are no instruments fine enough to measure the difference between the vulgar Marxism which Professor Clark professes to scorn and the particular variety of Marxist dialectics which governs every page of The Painting of Modern Life. In the one variety of Marxism, as in the other, neither the creation nor the experience of art is believed to enjoy the slightest degree of aesthetic independence from the iron laws of history. Everything in art is seen to be determined by the economic “base” and what are now called its “representations.” As a result, art is simply—and sometimes very simply indeed—treated as a kind of epiphenomenon of the historical process, of interest mainly as a reflection of the depredations of bourgeois society and the strategies which have been devised to conceal or compensate for their outrageous moral consequences.
In keeping with this view, Professor Clark writes of Seurat’s La Grande Jatte that “it attempts to find form for the appearance of class in capitalist society” and “that the forms it discovers are in some sense more truthful than most others produced at the time; and that it suggests ways in which class might still be painted.” (There is thus an assumption here that “ways in which class might still be painted” is, or ought to be, an important item on the agenda of contemporary art today.) And just as “the intermingling of classes” is said to be “Seurat’s subject,” and hence the basis of his appeal for us, the real interest of Manet’s Olympia is said to be “that class was the essence of Olympia’s modernity and lay behind the great scandal she provoked.” Of Manet’s La Musique aux Tuileries, moreover, Professor Clark writes that it is “hardly a picture of modernity at all, as it is sometimes supposed to be, but, rather, a description of ‘society’’s resilience in the face of empire.” Class is thus assumed to be the key to every aspect of painting by Manet and his followers, and Professor Clark is sometimes quite cross with those painters whose work fails to support him on this point.
Much of The Painting of Modern Life is devoted not so much to painting itself as it is to the work of Baron Haussmann in redesigning and reconstructing the city of Paris in the nineteenth century and to the ways in which painters depicted the life of the city as the result of this work. Professor Clark is very concerned about those artists who are deemed to have failed to grasp the real— which is to say, the class—meaning of this phenomenon. Monet and Renoir, for example, are among those who are given failing grades on this score.
It should go without saying that this situation—Haussmann’s work and its aftermath— [Professor Clark writes] presented painting with as many problems as opportunities. Naturally it offered occasions for a meretricious delight in the modern, or proposals in paint that the street henceforth would be a fine and dandy place. (I cannot see, for example, that Monet’s two pictures of Le Boulevard des Capucines in 1873 do more than provide that kind of touristic entertainment, fleshed out with some low-level demonstrations of painterliness. Where Monet went, Renoir inevitably followed; his image of the grands boulevards in 1875 is untroubled by its subject’s meanings, and not helped by this innocence.)
Now it needs to be pointed out, I think, that when Professor Clark writes the words I cannot see in this passage, he isn’t kidding. He sees only what he wants to see, and he clearly cannot find anything worth looking at in a painting if it fails to denote signs of class distinction, or other evidence of social conflict, with the requisite degree of documentary explicitness. To the extent that he can be said to have an “eye” for anything in painting, it is as an eye for “its subject’s meanings.” But these “meanings” are rarely, if ever, those determined by the painter. They are entirely predetermined by Professor Clark himself and his “method.” Which is to say that he has eyes only for the meanings he has gone in search of, and no other meanings—least of all those which are known to have been of primary interest to the painter in question—have any reality for him.
As for the matter of how painters see their subjects, Professor Clark turns out to be a curious (and sometimes comical) guide. Consider, for example, the famous question of flatness in Manet’s painting. Professor Clark does not deny, of course, that it is an issue in Manet, but he insists that it is not so much an aesthetic issue as an ideological and social one. Thus, the very term is rejected in the discussion of Olympia, for it is deemed insufficient to account for the “circuit of signs” that is held to be responsible for the radical nature of the painting’s subject. Yet in speaking of Manet’s Argenteuil, les canotiers, flatness is accepted because it is found to serve a documentary function in the painting. Taking note of “the unlikely construction of the black straw hat” in this picture, Professor Clark writes: “it has to be said . . . that Manet found flatness more than invented it; he saw it around him in the world he knew.”
On the other hand, what Monet’s eye— the most celebrated “eye” in Impressionist painting—found in the world he knew is judged to have little or nothing to do with visual observation and everything to do with the presuppositions of political ideology.
There is a rule to these paintings [by Monet], and it might be stated roughly as follows [Professor Clark writes]: Industry can be recognized and represented, but not labour; the factories have to be kept still, as if that were the guarantee in an art which pretended to relish the fugitive and ephemeral above all else. Industry must not mean work; as long as that fictitious distinction was in evidence, a painting could include as much of the nineteenth century as it liked. The railway, for instance, was an ideal subject because its artifacts could so easily be imagined as self-propelled or self-sufficient. The train went discreetly through the snow ….
And so on. Nor was Monet’s eye the only one to be governed primarily by social considerations of this sort. Why did Pissarro, at a crucial phase in his development as a painter, turn to the Neo-Impressionist methods of Seurat? Not, according to Professor Clark, for aesthetic reasons—which are never mentioned in this book. What prompted Pissarro’s interest in Seurat’s pictorial innovations was, it turns out, the burning issue of “leisure in class conflict.” (Here the “battlefield of representations” is abandoned in favor of the more familiar Marxist terminology.) Of Neo-Impressionism Professor Clark writes:
I do not believe that its vehemence (or its appeal to Pissarro) can be understood unless it is seen as deriving from an altered view of leisure, and of art as part of that leisure— which in turn derived from a new set of class allegiances.
I await with interest the monograph which either Professor Clark or one of his students must surely now be preparing for the purpose of tracing the relationship of every one of Pissarro’s changes of style to the artist’s shifting perception of “class allegiances” in the society of his day. Who knows? In the magical world of Marxist dialectics it might even be disclosed to us that it is in this issue of class that the key to Pissarro’s influence on Cézanne—and perhaps on Matisse, too—is finally to be found. No doubt all will be revealed to us in the fullness of time.
It would be unrewarding to dwell further on Professor Clark’s treatment of particular artists or particular works of art in The Painting of Modern Life. The field of inquiry which it is the purpose of this book to explore and enlarge upon contributes nothing to our understanding of painting as art, and is not meant to. On the contrary, its purpose is to destroy—or, as we say nowadays, deconstruct—the very idea that art is in any sense an autonomous enterprise or that its highest achievements often add up to a good deal more than the sum of the social and material circumstances of its creation. (Also deconstructed in the process—and thrown, as it were, onto the ash heap of history—is the concept of aesthetic intelligence that once governed the Fogg tradition at Harvard.) There is a striking irony in this, of course. For in denying to art the spiritual freedom that it has sought for itself and very often achieved in the modern era—most notably, of course, in precisely those bourgeois capitalist societies which Marxist criticism is most eager to condemn—writers of this persuasion inevitably exhibit a kinship with the kind of reactionary and philistine taste which led so many benighted critics to condemn modernist art in the first place.
I wonder if it isn’t, after all, a sense of this kinship which has prompted Professor Clark to devote so much of his intellectual energy, in this book as in his others, to disinterring a great many of the articles and reviews which attacked Manet and his contemporaries in their own day. Professor Clark’s devotion to this “lost” critical literature, which he has culled from the annals of nineteenth-century French journalism, amounts at times to an obsession. He can hardly set down three consecutive paragraphs of his own prose without inserting into them some lengthy passage from an obscure review of the exhibitions in which Manet, Seurat, and others showed their work. Excerpts from this vast reservoir of critical writing, usually given in English in the main body of Professor Clark’s text and in the original French in the voluminous notes, actually make up a sizable part of The Painting of Modern Life—by far the more valuable part, in my opinion. Professor Clark’s real gifts are those of a researcher, not a critic. Documents, not art objects, are his forte—which is yet another reason, I suppose, why he is inclined to deal with art objects as if they, too, were little more than social documents. Given his interest in nineteenth-century French art criticism, one rather regrets that Professor Clark hadn’t settled for producing an anthology of critical writing along the lines of the collections given us in recent years by Elizabeth Gilmore Holt. But of course it is not in the interest of his political scenario to do so. His quotations from French art criticism, like his “readings” of French paintings as sociological reports, are made to serve a purpose. Both are part of the indictment he has drawn up for the purpose of unmasking modernism itself as a failed revolutionary impulse. What is intolerable to a Marxist like Professor Clark is that modernist art, despite its many and famous conflicts with bourgeois society, has proved in the end to be an essential component of bourgeois culture, and accepted as such. For that reason alone modernism must now stand condemned as a coefficient of capitalism—than which, from a Marxist perspective, no worse crime in the realm of cultural life is conceivable. It must therefore now be discredited and deconstructed to make way for that future “rendezvous,” as Professor Clark has called it, between artistic practice and “the only class”—the proletariat, of course—capable of ushering in a new golden age.
It is no wonder, really, that Professor Clark is haunted by the specter of “vulgar” Marxism. Some forty-one years ago, in the aftermath of the radical movement of the Thirties, Arthur Koestler wrote an essay called “The Intelligentsia”—it was published in Partisan Review and then reprinted in The Yogi and the Commissar—in which he discussed the falsity of this Marxist mode of historical analysis. He spoke of “the fatal short cut [taken by Marx and Engels] from Economy to ‘Superstructure’: that is, culture, art, mass-psychology”—a shortcut that has been endlessly retraced by Marx’s intellectual heirs ever since. “Marxian society,” Koestler wrote, “has a basement—production, and an attic—intellectual production; the staircase and the lifts are missing.” Koestler went on to point out that “it is not as simple as that: the triumphant class creating its own philosophic superstructure to fit its mode of production like a tailored suit.” Now despite everything that has happened in the last four decades, and despite the new terminology that is invoked to give this famous “short cut” a new currency, this image of a basement and an attic with the staircase and the lifts missing is, as it happens, a very accurate description of the historical method employed by Professor Clark in the writing of The Painting of Modern Life. For much of this book, he rummages around in the basement of nineteenth-century French society, retracing and reinterpreting events in the economic life of the period. To make his ascent from this basement of “production” to the attic, where the form of “intellectual production” called painting is to be found, he is obliged to avail himself of that magic carpet he calls historical materialism. No wonder, then, that when he arrives at his destination he has some difficulty discovering—to use Koestler’s other image—a “tailored suit” which entirely pleases him. History is not, after all, a fertile field for the discovery of miracles.
The question to be asked about The Painting of Modem Life, and indeed about Professor Clark’s entire intellectual enterprise, is: Why? Why now? What accounts for its governing animus, which is a profound and unappeasable hostility to modernist art, and why has it won such a favorable response both inside the academy and out? In attempting to answer such questions, it is no longer sufficient to say that a phenomenon like Professor Clark is part of the price we continue to pay for the political upheavals of the Sixties. This is true as far as it goes—it is indeed the basic truth of the historical situation in which we find ourselves today—but it does not entirely account for the place which this Marxist critique of modern painting now occupies in contemporary cultural life or for its reception among people who believe themselves to be interested in art, people who believe art to be vitally important to their lives.
The answer, I think, lies in the sense of keen disappointment—a disappointment that amounts at times to a feeling of rage— among people of a generally liberal and leftist outlook over recent changes in our relation to the achievements of modern art. Brought up to believe that the essence of the modern movement was to be found in its révolté impulses, that in some sense modernism was revolutionary in its ultimate goals as well as in its technical and expressive innovations, these people feel betrayed by their discovery—which history has now made all but unavoidable—that they were mistaken, or at least misinformed, about the thing they loved so much and placed so high a value on. Modernism not only did not turn out to be, as they were for so long led to assume it was, coextensive with the impulses of political revolutionism, but was in some respects deeply hostile to those impulses and incompatible with them. Modernism really did turn out to be an essential component of bourgeois culture. And to this fact of history, which they now recognize as a fact of history, they cannot reconcile themselves. It leaves them bereft of a sense of cultural purpose. Never mind that these disappointed acolytes are the same people, for the most part, whose embrace of modernism has confirmed its central place in bourgeois cultural life. Such paradoxes of history do little to assuage the bitterness of their disappointment. They were brought up, after all, to believe that they could have the cake of revolution and eat it too, and now that they have discovered otherwise there is no consoling them. Their grief is great, and it has disposed them to welcome any and all attempts to discredit the achievements of the very thing in which they once placed their fondest hopes.
There remain, of course, for the people I speak of, certain sacred moments in the history of modern art that are exempt from the general condemnation. The Russian avant-garde in the early years of the Bolshevik Revolution, the German Dadaists in the upheaval of the First World War and the German revolution—these, above all, have not lost their luster. For true believers in the doctrine that modernism must remain synonymous with revolutionism if it is not to be despised and rejected, these remain the exemplary episodes in the history of artistic production (as they call it). Hence the loving references to these episodes in Professor Clark’s writing. (Hence, too, the whole program of a critical journal like October, by the way, which draws its name and indeed its Weltanschauung from a similar reading of history.) Hence, above all, the need to discredit the idea of aesthetic achievement in art and replace it with scenarios claiming to represent an authentic social history of art.
Professor Clark is only one exemplar of this movement which has made such headway in the academy and the art journals (including such eminently bourgeois journals as Art in America and Artforum) in recent years, and Harvard’s is by no means the only department of art history to have felt its influence. Yet precisely because Harvard for so long represented a philosophy of art that has now been made a special object of ideological deconstruction, T. J. Clark’s appointment to that faculty has inevitably acquired a significance which reverberates far beyond the groves of academe.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 3 March 1985, on page 1
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