The following essay is part of the Los Angeles Review of Books special series “No Crisis”: a look at the state of critical thinking and writing — literary interpretation, art history, and cultural studies — in the 21st century. Click here for the full series.
T. J. CLARK begins the first long essay in Farewell to an Idea with a measured but keen sense of drama, reporting two major historical events while gesturing to pressing issues offstage: On October 16, 1793 (or 25 Vendémiaire Year 2), “a hastily completed painting by Jacques-Louis David, of Marat, the martyred hero of the revolution […] was released into the public realm.” At midday on that same day, “Marie-Antoinette was guillotined. Michelet tells us that her death, so long demanded by Hébert and the Paris wards (the so-called sections), in the event went off quietly. People’s minds were on other things […].” In an immediate engagement with the portrait of the dead Marat in his bath, we can easily forget intimately its production is bound to those “other things” — ongoing upheaval and revolutionary struggles — and yield to a reductive iconographic reading of the image through its overt references to a deposed Christ. But universalizing Marat’s depiction in David’s work misses the import of its identity as a modern work, situated in and formulated in response to a specific set of conditions and circumstances.
As Clark’s discussion of the portrait unfolds, he brings every component of its formal construction (brushwork, degree of finish, iconography, lighting, composition, and draughtsmanship) into an intricate dialogue with the unfolding political events within which its representational strategies were conceived, and in which they were meant to signify. He draws on a wide range of primary materials and synthetic accounts to present a study of the rapidly shifting power relations in the unstable political climate. So, for instance, he quotes the four-line poem composed by David’s friend Gabriel Bouquier (calling for the death to be avenged) that was pinned to Marat’s bier, cites passages by Citizen (the Marquis de) Sade condemning Charlotte Corday, that “soft and timid sex,” to her fate (“break this monster in pieces”), uses contemporary accounts from L’Ami du Peuple, and gleans insights from the vast scholarly literature covering the history of this complex period of the Revolution.
The result is a presentation of the work within the “cult of Marat” where allegiances and alliances were shifting day by day, sometimes hour by hour. The “image” (painting and idea) of Marat had to flirt with martyrdom while avoiding certain overt features of religious and secular clichés that might sidetrack viewers from the cause. The painting, in other words, cannot simply be “read” in its evident materiality. (Clark is anything but a formalist, in spite of the strength of his eye and sensitivity to construction.) Each element of that visual making has to be seen as integral to decisions made by David within constraints that conditioned the painting’s production. The elaborate “stage managing” of its presentation was crucial to the value and the reception of the work. Politics is what the portrait of Marat is made of, Clark asserts, and to make form out of it, David created the quickly painted image to signify the realization that Marat was “a political sign to be controlled.” Ultimately, Clark concludes, David’s goal was to “return Marat to the people through the combination of visual codes and spectacular events within which it came to public view.”
The long chapter is replete with carefully chosen evidence whose judicious use depends upon sustained research and the craft of argument. To be aware of these various materials, and understand their connection to the painting and its circumstances of first exhibition, is the essence of scholarly practice. Throughout, Clark’s work is a compelling demonstration of the humanities as a field of intellectual work essential to our understanding of present and past as a never simple interpretation of the material record. Nothing in that record, including the paintings that are Clark’s major concern, is self-evident. Interpretation is argument, and Clark’s is deeply felt. How, he asks, are we to understand the history of modernism (aesthetic work) in the face of the overwhelming triumph of modernity (capital)? How was that history written? On what terms and by what critical method did it proceed to construct (and not merely reflect) a set of beliefs about representation and the role of painting? The answers to these questions form the framework of the book. They raise issues of method central to epistemology and politics. How do we know what we know? On what grounds do we understand the representations we make to ourselves of our beliefs, individually and collectively? In this case, how are we to understand what is being lost as modernism comes to an end, and what is at stake in coming to terms with our current condition? The humanities are disciplines, after all, and claims for the value of “the humanities” benefit from a solid foundation. Clark’s work is a superb example of what constitutes the humanities at its most professionally adept and passionately significant.
Clark’s method is premised on recognition of loss. He knows that once the reference frames by which we read works have completely disappeared, their meaning disappears or alters radically. These once-legible images have become obscure or are misconstrued. “Modernism,” says Clark, “is our antiquity.” In other words, the 19th and even 20th centuries are already so remote that their remains, their “forms of its representation [… are] now unreadable.” His goal in this project (the book was first published in 1999) was not simply to create readings of works that marked shifts and change points in the longer history of modern art, but to construct an examination of the fragments and remains of a past that can no longer simply be read as if they are self-evident (if they ever could). “Modernism” in this context refers to a set of cultural practices, “modernity” to historical (political and economic) conditions that arise with industrialization and modern capitalism. To understand how representational activity, specifically painting, worked in and as modernism, he does not just read what is in these images, but reads them as expressions of beliefs, philosophical concerns with negation, visibility, anarchism, and as a semiotics through which to decry the monstrousness of the modern world.
The elegiac tone of Clark’s book is signaled in its title, Farewell to an Idea. The work was marked by the moments of its conception, when certain long-held beliefs could no longer be sustained. Clark started thinking about these essays just as the Berlin Wall fell. The momentousness of this event, celebrated as an end to the oppressions of the Cold War, coincided with a common perception that the project of socialism was at an end. Many theorists and historians of modernism had believed aesthetics and politics were bound together. But with the political changes, the hope that a mature form of socialism could assert a check, even a constraint, on unchecked capitalism was up for question. If socialism and modernism were dying at the same moment, he asked, did that mean that their existence and life spans had been intertwined, mutually determined? The “social project” and the representational explorations were both ending, not because modernity (culture driven by capital, economic forces, markets, and their colonization of every aspect of political and social life) had failed, but because it has triumphed. As an investigation of representation, modernism had had two wishes: to lead its viewers toward “the social reality of the sign” and to turn signs into their own “bedrock of World/Nature/Sensation/Subjectivity.” To believe that representations might have force in the world, they had to have substance and authority as things, not illusions, and not even representations of other things. They had to be things whose function was embodied in their ability to work as structuring systems of signification. Modernism had to function critically in relation to representation in order to perform its critique of modernity.
To understand how the signifying activity of modernism functioned as a politics, Clark invokes the idea of “contingency” as the concept of social order without anchor or transcendent values. In such circumstances, socialism “was one of the forces, maybe the force, that made for the falsely polarized choice which modernism believed it had before it — between idealism and materialism, or Ubermensch and lumpen, or esoteric and popular.” Without that organizing, oppositional structure, where are we? The strains of modernism that were allied with the socialist aspiration do not, of course, comprise the whole of modernism’s aesthetic range, any more than aesthetic work defines the entirety of socialism’s political activities. But belief in their powerful, mutually driven connection has been at the core of a particular tradition of art historical work. The “idea” to which Clark is bidding farewell is not socialism, but modernism, and the conviction that the choices it faced were framed as the opposition of esoteric to popular, negation to compromise. In that tradition, fine art’s function was to oppose the culture industries, the totalitarian state, and the hegemony of modern capitalism through an avant-garde disruption of normative representation. In the face of historical realities, as Clark acknowledges, this has to be recognized as a false framing of the modernist project. So he offers a series of readings of paintings that show the ways representational strategies can be understood differently, as enacting the “disenchantment with the world” of modernity.
That disenchantment is certainly intensified in the current moment, and even if one reads the development and crux of modernism against the grain of both received traditions and Clark’s reframing, those of us who ever imagined things might be other than they are derive little solace for the state in which we find ourselves now. The experiment of democracy hatched in the Enlightenment and the visions of socialism provoked in response to industrialization are in the throes — if not in the aftermath — of failure. Democracy is so broken that its parts no longer seem to fit together. The fundamental analysis on which socialism was conceived seems unfit for the challenges of contemporary life, too earnest and directed to address the systemic degradation of civil society, public good, or common sense (all notions that seem decorous and antiquated, a symptom of how much they are needed). The question is not how did we get here but what is the “here” at which we have arrived — so destructively far from rational thought or political-ecological realities that our very survival hangs in the balance. The fate of socialism seems a smaller matter compared to the grim future of a planetary ecology capable of sustaining human life, and yet, the two are interlinked. And thinking about the history of modernism as a tale of aspirations to set a path that could have been different, with a less dire outcome, is one we must engage with now and in the days to come. Looking at modernism as a history of how we got into this state might also be useful. The celebration of individualism and progress, complicity with commerce, cult of celebrity, creation of rarified commodities and consumable spectacles are all, also, inscribed across the corpus of modern painting. But first, back to Farewell.
Modernity is bereft, as Clark points out in his introduction, of the values that had driven religious art, courtly practice, monarchical or aristocratic patronage systems. Modern culture constructs a belief system from economics and the management of risk. The economic system of signs is a crucial piece of the theoretical armature, because money “is the root form of representation in bourgeois society.” Modernity is driven by economic considerations, he says, and had no “compelling image or ritualization of purpose” outside of these conditions. This is not the same as describing a teleological fall from the grace of the sacred to the plane of the secular in cultural practices and institutions. Instead, it is a description of the removal of a frame of absolute beliefs and certainties that are replaced with contingencies. That term, and its multivalent possibilities, forms one of the key concepts of the book, and though autonomy, the usual term of modernism’s self-definition as an aesthetic practice, gets less play, the two are entwined as myth and explanation of modernism’s representation of itself to itself in works of art. Contingency describes the condition in which no givens, no a priori certainties or transcendent, absolute, value systems, can be depended upon as the ground of reception or production.
To get at this concept more concretely, Clark examines six “limit cases” in that history, through close studies of works by Jacques-Louis David, Lucien Pissarro, Paul Cézanne, Pablo Picasso, Kasimir Malevich/Lazar “El” Lissitzky, and Jackson Pollock. He characterizes these as moments in which the “contingency” that characterizes modernism is exposed in representational activity. His six studies are different in length and kind, but they share certain methodological strengths. Each work is situated within arguments that muster evidence from carefully selected documents. The course of a day, the date of an exhibit, a moment of publication, a season of change, the particular temporalities, like the details of circumstance, are attended to with care. He reads these moments in the surfaces and structures of works of art, their particular demonstrations of ideas about what a painting might be — and in so being, expose some belief about the efficacy of works of art to perform ideas as instantiations. Or, to put it more simply, Clark shows how in their specific construction and production paintings perform ideas about what painting might be — and by extension, what representation shows us about the function of images as cultural objects embodying beliefs.
In standard critical studies of modern art, formal innovations and strategic disruptions are often characterized as “political” interventions into sign systems. These approaches are too literal for Clark, too close to the ideologies that produced them, to satisfy his inquiry. Thus he takes the common discussion of Cubism — as a way to represent a new way of seeing the world — and suggests that, at least in the period of 1912 on which he concentrates his study of Picasso’s monochrome canvases, Cubism was not about representation. It was not about a painting in the service of visual epistemology, but instead, “a metaphorical admission of counterfeit.” Cubism, Clark concludes, was not about an object world, but “a performance of contingencies at every point.” The paintings fail to create a new language, and only pretend to do so. They are filled with “nothing but devices.” Aesthetically beautiful, they are a demonstration, in Clark’s reading, of the failure of painting to represent a way of seeing.
In Clark’s account, modern painting is a play of procedures, not a language game or an activity of sign systems. He argues that modernism’s philosophical moves question the way painting’s means are used in their specificity. Pissarro’s women standing out of the sun enact an anarchist worldview, or flirtation with it, through the painter’s portrayal of labor and rest at the edge of a field. Picasso’s layered (cubist) transparency obviates the referential world. Malevich’s black square performs an act of negation that becomes the sign under which communism’s non-objectivity will be made into a shared consciousness. And Pollock’s paintings “about nothing” contest “bourgeois hegemony in the realm of consciousness.” The construction of outsider-ness, the stance of the avant-garde, was frequently complicit, and Clark does not flinch from acknowledging Pollock’s opportunism even as he holds onto the more potent weight of Malevich’s negations. The conditions of War Communism are not those of postwar America, though the face of triumphalism is no prettier to look on than that of repression and horror. They are related in ways that are uncomfortable to admit.
Clark’s technique relies on selectivity, exclusion, and oppositions. Critical attention to the “social reality of the sign,” so marked in its import, depends upon picking some signs and not others. The “good” objects of his modernism are pitched against the “bad” or bad faith works — so David’s portrait of Marat is posed against Joseph Roques’s 1794 depiction of the same scene, Pissarro’s Two Young Peasant Women (1892) against Jean-François Millet’s The Angelus (1857), Picasso’s Woman with a Mandolin (1910) against his own work in the previous years, Pollock’s Sea Change against Alchemy, both painted in 1947. This was his approach in the magisterial Painting of Modern Life, where the selection of the “good” impressionist works were those critical of the deleterious effects of modern life in Paris and opposed to those whose depiction of idylls and entertainments is so characteristic of Impressionism writ large. Clark gives an account of the decisions that determined his studies in Farewell. Mapping his project across the six cases he chose for the book, Clark notes the long gap between the dates of the first and second study — David in 1793 and Pissarro in 1891. Gesturing to his other books and their contribution to that period, he acknowledges that his critics accuse him (somewhat justly, he admits) of not wanting to look at the long periods of “the true quiet — the true orderliness and confidence of bourgeois society in its heyday.” His rejection of the “true quiet” hinges on a belief that all of modern painting — all that matters in modern painting, that is — is an outcry against the disastrous reality of modernity.
And here is where my description of Clark’s project ends and questions about its premises arise. If we understand modernism only through those works that despised it, those artists whose output stood in a negative or negating relation to it, then do we provide ourselves with an adequate assessment of what occurred and what role fine art has played in its complicities? What alternative is there to the consensual narratives that propose that the function of aesthetic work is the power and legitimacy of critique? At stake is the question of how to formulate our understanding of the present, and future, of art as a category of cultural activity. To look again at modernism outside the (exclusionary) frames that allow it to be significant only when it stages a protest against modernity may be an unsavory process to those used to the version of that history that privileged the “esoteric” and oppositional. Much of modern art was conceived and practiced very differently, not as an opposition or negation, but instead, as an engagement with the institutions, drives, and forces of modernity. Think of Caspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer Above the Mists (1817–’18), John Martin’s crowd-pleasing spectacles of biblical scenes, Frederic Church’s landscapes, George Bellows’s boxing men, charged with the physicality and virility of an emerging nation, of Charles Sheeler’s River Rouge Plant, Robert Delaunay’s studies of the Eiffel Tower, or the portraits of Thomas Eakins, John Singer Sargent — the list could go on and on. These are celebratory paintings, not critical, and that needs to be addressed. To understand the political realities of signs, and roles of representations, we have to engage with their various complicities and compromises, alliances with ideologies, not only oppositions to them. Through their integration into modernity, they also provide useful material for reworking a specific idea of modernism. In the body of critical practices whose lineage tracks almost directly from early 20th-century debates about aesthetics and politics, too much was excluded from consideration. Like biologists whose attention was focused on a rarified species as if it were indicative, the art historians who subscribed to esoteric critique missed the complexities of the larger ecology. This is not a popular view in academic circles.
If we consider the broad spectrum of painting and image production in modernity, it might change the basic characterization of modernism, aesthetics, and arguments in and with representation. We see other ways images naturalize modes of representing — realism and naturalism, reportage and entertainment, celebritization and branding, commercialism and consumption, sentimentality and celebration — within the larger history of modernism. The potential of the sign to be a site of political struggle or of representation to be a thing in itself, an aspect of the material world, is only one part of its operation. Its capacities to produce a naturalized illusion, an absorbing experience among others, is another. Our current ecologies of knowledge require a suturing, however clumsy and inadequate, between the semiotics of representation and the material world at risk through its misrepresentation. But tasking fine art with the burden of fixing the broken world through a practice of esoteric critique may not be the way to preserve either aesthetics or humanity.
I am not posing these observations as a criticism of Clark or his work. I have no standing to do this. But the questions I am posing come from the fact that I never subscribed to the core belief that modernism was at its best (either aesthetically or morally) when it was focused on critique. Nor can I accept the unifying rhetoric of the term “modernism” as a rubric. The difficulty is that that version of modernism is what the art historians made of it (critical, oppositional), and that consensual narrative — however fine its arguments about representation and belief — is inadequate to the historical task of describing and explaining aesthetic activity, positing its function and identity. These other aspects of modernism, their bulk and volume, can’t be shrugged off with an elite dismissal, as if they don’t matter because they didn’t do the “real” work, the sanctioned work, the true task of aesthetic ideology — which was somehow construed as performing critique. Much of modern art overtly reaffirmed commercialism, engaged popular and mass media cultures, became part of corporatization, and assisted in the global reach of colonizing systems of capital, of the info-entertainment industries that use the techniques of fashion, seduction, and consumption as their effective instruments. Modern art was a culture industry, not outside of or apart from the culture of modernity.
Modernism was not an idea, not a singular and well-formed position. The multiplicity and heterogeneity of its dimensions have to be addressed. Many of the robust aspects of modernism are ignored in the tradition of high academic art history: the traditions of reportage and journalistic modernism that arose in work of Americans, Winslow Homer, then the Ashcan School; the course of what might be termed “commercial” modernism, beginning with the scandal caused by John Everett Millais’s contract with Pears’ Soap for his Bubbles painting of 1886, but continuing into the partnerships forged between corporate culture and design — the transformation of the modern world into its very modernity. If Lissitzky’s 1920 Propaganda board mounted in a street in Vitebsk is the voice of the state shouting through the revolution, as Clark so chillingly suggests, then what are we to make of the absorption of the lessons and forms of Lissitzky, by way of the Bauhaus, into the world of Paul Rand, IBM, and global systems of corporate capitalism? Do we dismiss these or look at them as formations of modernism and modernity? These are legitimate (and, for better or worse, legitimating) aspects of visual culture in the period of modernity in which industrialization, the rise of nation-states, systems of capital and labor, transformed Europe, Russia, and the United States so dramatically.
In the first decades of the 20th century, the affirmative tone of American modernism — with its celebration of construction sites, new bridges and train stations, love of steel construction, the subway, shop girls and immigrants — is a long way from critical attempts at disruption. John Sloan published his images in The Masses, and Ben Shahn depicted Sacco and Vanzetti, and efforts to support the organization of workers are everywhere evident in the early decades of 20th-century art, alongside the elevation of determined grit to the status of quintessential American spirit. Their direct and directed attempts to intervene in “the disenchantment of the world” and to alter the conditions that caused it are evident and embodied in their production, but the same can be said of Thomas Hart Benton’s works, which have a radically different ideology.
A history of modernism based on only those works with an evident commitment to a project of social reform will always read as a failure. The goal “to imagine otherwise” that repeats as a leitmotif in Clark’s works (not only this book) always assumes that the “otherwise” is a world remade with capital tamed, justice served, labor’s interests addressed, and, perhaps, inequities of gender, class, education, and advantage redressed. These are all goals to which any sane person would subscribe. But it is not a description of modern art. Rather, it is a prescription for what modernism was supposed to do. Once feminism, queer activism, and civil rights add their own literal advocacy to the world of fine art, much of the allusive and performative activities of sign and surface, of feints of representation, and of strategies of epistemological reflection about the seen, unseen, and unseeable disappear in the banner and slogan protest art and iconographic struggles of identity politics. Didactic works do not lend themselves to the same kind of interpretative work; they direct our attention rather than calling us to engagement with their workings. The terms on which insight is produced experientially shift the bases of interpretation for many minimalist, conceptual, installation, and performance works. What might it mean to suggest an approach to works of art for their experiential rather than their critical activity?
How, for instance, do we discuss Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate, a strikingly successful piece of public art mounted in Chicago’s Millenium Park? A beautifully complex elliptoid of seamless steel plates with a mirrored surface, fondly referred to as a silver jelly bean, is a masterwork of technical craft and elegant form. Weighing more than a hundred tons and about three stories high, it creates intimacy rather than intimidation. All reflection, illusion, deception, all tricks of distortion and disoriented perception, it is a work that enchants, spellbinds. It has no outside, performs no exclusions. Its engagements are immediate, its defamiliarizations are without edge or threat. They perform an experiential opening into attention, to the activity of seeing and knowing, of belief and its grounds. How, it proposes, do we figure to ourselves within a landscape of sociality and public space? What locations are produced as assurance of our place in relation to others? How do we see ourselves — not what perception of a given self returns to us through vision, but how is the visual constructed to create a sense of self and of visuality as its means of construction? How do we know what we know and enter into the belief systems that either reinforce or reformulatethose beliefs? What ideas do we have now about art and its ability to perform some role in our lives?
Only a cynic would condemn the Cloud Gate on the basis of its universal appeal, characterize it as a sop to popular taste, a fun-house mirror meant to please the uncritical appetites of the bourgeoisie and their petted offspring. If the Cloud Gate functions — as it does — through direct engagement, appeal, immediacy, without the distance of criticality, and yet, performs its aesthetic operations in that generative place between formal qualities and sustained engagement, in the never-ending irresolution of the relation between what it is and what it does, its identity and its activity — then what aesthetic principles can be generated from it as a work of art? How are the belief systems that formed premises for understanding the past history of modernism rethought if Cloud Gate belongs, as it irrefutably does, in that lineage. Behind Cloud Gate, in simple formal terms, are Arp and Brancusi, the mirrored halls of palaces, the public fountains of Rome and Paris, the monumental scale of Gehry’s polished surfaces, the threat and phenomenological complexity of Richard Serra’s forms, and so on — as well as the entertainment spaces of amusement parks and boardwalk sideshows. The modernism of engagements, an aesthetic of experience, of attention called rather than directed, has many dimensions to it long left out of the canon created by those guided by a principle of “critique” and negation, a stance of moral superiority and outsider positions, or exclusionary selectivity that ignored the larger fuller field of art production at its peril. That peril is ours, in a perilous world whose fate hangs upon a different kind of intellectual engagement with the production of illusion and belief.
The assumption that at its core modernism was committed to redressing the horrors wrought by modernity is a belief we cannot afford — it neither explains the extent to which other forces of representation were at work, in some cases all too successfully, nor provides an alternative. This attitude condemns us to the failure of art as directed energy, as the moral conscience of the culture, the site for and instrument of a realization that the world is broken and we must fix it. That last statement is all too true. But the belief that aesthetic activity is circumscribed by that task is neither accurate nor useful. Directed energy will never call us to attention. Prescriptive approaches limit the imaginative possibilities of works of art. Oppositional tactics are always reactive. We have to realize that negative notions, like the bankrupt ideas of critique, don’t offer a way forward. They keep us at a superior distance from reality. We need to formulate a modernism of engagement founded in a recognition of complicity — ours and its — with the machinations and values according to which we live.
Johanna Drucker is the inaugural Breslauer Professor of Bibliographical Studies in the Department of Information Studies at UCLA.