Copyright (c) 1999 First Things 96 (October 1999): 59-61.
Farewell to an Idea: Episodes from a History of Modernism. By T. J. Clark. Yale University Press. 451 pp. $45.
Reviewed by Robert W. Jenson
I had better put the news right up front: this is a wonderful book, by a Marxist art critic. To be sure, Professor Clark is Marxist in the way of the offended consciousness—he is Marxist as, say, Ingmar Bergman is Lutheran. He takes no stock in dialectical materialism or any other mechanistic reading of history; he regards all attempts to build socialism as nightmares; he knows that the one thing revolutions do is devour their children; and a modernism he clearly loathes is "suprematism," the fine–art branch of Leninist propaganda. Nevertheless, his book is an exercise in class analysis; if he hangs his heart on anything it is the promise of a stateless society; his God is unidentified but he names capitalism his Satan; and he teaches at the University of California at Berkeley.
I praise the book because reading it has transformed—no weaker word will do—my ability to see the modernist paintings I have long loved. I am sure the transformation is much for the better, that what I now see is really there. And there is doubtless some advantage in being told about the modernist painters by a critic who, as we will see, shares their own self–understanding.
Readers should be warned: any ordinary review of this book must somewhat mislead their expectations of it. For Farewell to an Idea is itself a modernist composition. It changes the subject unpredictably, it argues by irony and allusion, it loops and backs up, it quotes oracles—Hegel, Adorno, etc.—it defies grammar for the sport of it. Since I am writing a review for a relatively sober journal and command few Joycean devices, my attempt to represent the book’s representation of modernist modes of representing must inevitably misrepresent (but see how with this sentence I have slipped in a low–rent bit of modernism).
Clark leads the eye on the canvas by going back and forth between detailed description of what is in the most direct sense there—this patch of green here, that suggestion of shade there, the distance between hand prints in a drip painting of Pollock’s—and almost equally detailed description of the ideological milieu within which the artist understood himself and his task ("his" is the word here; women appear in modernism’s story mostly as objects of the painters’ desires). One and all, the modernist painters were, or thought they were, revolutionaries—anarchists or radical collectivists or whatever—enemies of bourgeois ways in general and in their vocations enemies of the bourgeois representation of reality. "The task of art was held to be some . . . action against the codes and procedures by which the world was lent its usual likeness." I knew about the political allegiances of the modernists, but had not really connected that to how they painted. I should have.
An example will be best. I read in my youth that cubism was the attempt to show all sides of an object at once on a two–dimensional surface, to dissemble and then frontally present surfaces of the object, so as to take the eye around the represented body in its space. And for a time I dutifully tried to see that in cubist paintings. But I could never make it work except with epigonal cubists, and finally gave it up to enjoy cubist works simply for the patterns they were, never mind what they were supposed to represent.
Once pointed out, it seems obvious: the great cubist works are attempts to do more or less the opposite of what I had been told. It is the bourgeois eye that wants to apprehend the world as a secure arrangement of objects in space and to find a vantage from which to see the world that way, and the devices of eighteenth– and nineteenth–century "illusionism"—shading, illumination, focal–point perspective, etc.—were the means by which painters served that eye. What Picasso did was to take all these devices and turn them against the kind of seeing they had served. He took bits and pieces of the surfaces that illusionist techniques had made represent bodies salient in space, and made them seem busily to do what they had formerly done, while in fact preventing them from doing so. What do they now represent? Sheerly something other than bourgeois spatial totality.
And that by itself is the point. Or so Clark claims, and I believe him, because it lets me see what is happening in the paintings.
Each chapter centers on a painting or group of paintings that in Clark’s judgment marks a decisive moment in the history of modernism. One does not have to remember the paintings; the book is in general lavishly done—indeed in the surely self–ironizing style of a coffee–table book—and is well supplied with plates.
Every critic’s chronology of modernism is a bit different. Clark stretches far back for a beginning; his first chapter is on David’s Death of Marat of 1793. This, I have to say, reaches too far to convince me. It is possible to find antecedents for the art of any period in any earlier period you like, but they are best recognized as only antecedents. And it is too transparent why Clark stretches. Since he sees modernism as determined by modernity’s hankering for revolution, he naturally wants to find a modernist painter among the makers of the paradigmatic revolution. And indeed, David’s painting was hastily finished off to serve as the banner of a street demonstration by Robespierre’s faction—a kind of thing you incidentally learn from this book. But the traces of modernist procedures Clark ferrets out in the painting itself hardly add up to what he elsewhere calls modernism.
The rest of his chronology is more usual: the central chapters treat of events just before and after the turn of the twentieth century. There are chapters centered on Pissarro’s Two Young Peasant Women, Cezanne’s late pictures of Bathers, Picasso’s classic cubism between 1909 and 1913, and the suprematists during the years of "war communism." Then come chapters on modernism in extremis: Pollock’s big drip paintings, which Clark regards as truly great in their extremity, and the most vulgar (his word) of the abstract expressionist work.
Clark’s general thesis, if he can be said to have one, is that great modernist paintings are great precisely in virtue of the impossibility of the task they set themselves. Every more than routine modernist painting is an attempt to solve a finally insoluble problem: how to make paintings at all within a bourgeois society whose inner contradiction is becoming ever more extreme.
Clark’s understanding of the bourgeois project and its doom strikingly resembles Karl Barth’s. I must here rather brutally summarize his various approaches: we bourgeois want both to grasp reality as a reliable comprehensible totality out there and to be the autonomous and so finally arbitrary manipulators of the signs by which we grasp it. Revolution, political or painterly, breaks out at the clash between these incompatible wants. And there is nihilism at its heart, for revolutionaries know the totality they want to destroy but in their constituting autonomy and contingency cannot know a totality to create. Clark finds the most explicit evocation of modernity’s inner longing for nothingness in the black square obsessively painted by the suprematist guru Malevich.
Modernist painting’s problem is finally insoluble because painting itself is part and parcel of the way the bourgeoisie represents the world to itself. Modernist painting wants to represent, but differently, indeed antithetically. Yet painters cannot simply inhabit some other society, nor abandon the procedures of putting paint on a canvas of such and such dimensions by which painting is constituted as an activity. An easel painting, after all, is an object made to be sold in the market, for bourgeois interior decoration, and the means and techniques of such painting are those developed to represent reality the bourgeois way.
Again an example will be best. I had read the bodies in Cezanne’s late paintings of Bathers simply as late–impressionist nudes patterned to the modernist grid and colors of the composition, and taken pleasure in the nudes and the pattern. But if you look at what Clark tells you to look at, you see that the nudes are in fact in process of dissolution as human bodies; they are turning into sheer flesh, indeed, into materializations of erotic dreaming, given some structure not by their humanity but only by the rather mechanical grid of the canvas. And, indeed, Cezanne was philosophically a materialist. One step more on this path and Cezanne would produce mere horrors or banalities. The paintings are great in the struggle between the temptation of Cezanne’s ideology and his invincible vocation.
Although he does not want to say so, Clark clearly thinks that modernist painting has run out its string. Nor does he see anything replacing it. Modernity’s general project must undo itself, and so far offers no successor. We are left with the totalizing empty state and the mere individual with his or her arbitrary self–expressing little signs, and no space between them where art and many other things should be. Clark ends his book: "The present is purgatory, not a permanent travesty of heaven." It is a pure statement of unfounded faith. One is reminded of the famous ending of Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue.
But whither this St. Benedict?
Robert W. Jenson is Senior Scholar for Research at the Princeton–based Center of Theological Inquiry.