If only the wheel of fate rolled smoothly, we could all leap aboard with a good running start. But it does not; it whirls and jerks and spins in place, and to seize it for but a moment is to be lucky. For a very select few, however, it seems to stop and wait like an obliging private elevator. So it did for T. J. Clark, who in 1973 made his debut with a pair of path-breaking books: Image of the People: Gustave Courbet and the Second French Republic, 1848–1851 and The Absolute Bourgeois: Artists and Politics in France, 1848–1851. Here was art history of a new kind, one that looked just as much at art’s political life as its aesthetic—perhaps more so. For Clark, then just thirty, the books were career-making.

His debut was timed exquisitely. Previously, it had been a point of honor among modernist critics that one judged art independently of all considerations of politics and morality. To burden...

Introduce yourself to The New Criterion for the lowest price ever—and a receive an extra issue as thanks.
Popular Right Now