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Mike Gonzalez

Is Modernism dead?

(Winter 1999)

From International Socialism 2:85, Winter 1999.
Copyright © International Socialism.
Copied with thanks from the International Socialism Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

T.J. Clark
Farewell to an Idea: episodes from a history of Modernism
Yale University Press 1999, £30

I will not accept such fitting and fitted. William Blake

All art is an attempt to define and make unnatural the distinction between the actual and the desirable. John Berger

Tim Clark’s contribution to the remaking of art history has been extraordinary. His work on the painting of 19th century France has explored with great sensitivity the struggle that great events set off within artists. What is remarkable in his writing is the combination of an exploration of the painting itself with a microscopic eye and a powerful sense of the great historical forces that invade, in one way or another, even the most secret corners of the canvas. ‘The artists that matter come at the facts of politics sideways, unexpectedly, taking themselves by surprise,’ Clark says in the conclusion to his brilliant exploration of art and politics in France between 1848 and 1871, The Absolute Bourgeois (1973). Its companion work on Courbet, Image of the People, written in the same year, is equally as powerful.

The crucial thing about Clark’s insight is his insistence that ‘the making of a work of art is one historical process among other acts, events and structures’. Art is not autonomous. At one level it is a form of labour, shaped by the prevailing conditions of production, artistic or industrial. At another, Clark insists, it exists in the realm of ideology – it is part of a process of understanding, of making sense of the world. At times it can have a direct political role, subverting and undermining the prevailing ideas. At others it may resonate with fury or despair at its own inability to subvert, especially when, as in the modern age, that act of defiance can so quickly be sabotaged itself by the work of art’s conversion into an object of consumption.

So art movements do not have their own history but share the common experience. How they mediate or respond to that is a different issue, of course. Some 25 years after writing those two remarkable books, Clark has published a hugely ambitious overview of Modernism, an attempt to trace – in an avowedly Marxist framework – the fate of art in its conflict with the forces of history. At times, often in fact, artists have taken refuge in the work, in its ‘painterly’ quality – but was it possible to keep out the noise of the world? Clark’s answer until now has always been a definitive no – and that is what has set his work apart.

The Marxist tradition in art criticism is a search for that which is ‘fully human’ and is denied by a capitalism that fragments and atomises human experience into shards, into individual functions of a hidden machine. That is why we have always argued that capitalism is deeply inimical to art – it may transform it into commodity or consign it to the margins of reason, but it will never answer its questions.

The great art of the 19th century posed its interrogations with a brutal clarity: Delacroix gave freedom flesh and the struggle for it great drama; Courbet invested labour with a power and dignity. But perhaps the art of a confident burgeoning bourgeois society had its more representative expressions in architecture and engineering, at once heroic monuments and practical interventions in the world – bridges, dams, highways, towers. And yet there were insoluble paradoxes, so brilliantly expressed by Marx when he pointed to the monumental solidity that so quickly ‘melts into air’.

Out of that paradox, Modernism was born. It ceased to document the world, but we should not make the mistake of imagining that it stopped representing it. Representation, however, is a difficult and slippery notion – how does Jackson Pollock ‘represent’ anything in his drip paintings? How do Lissitsky’s flying wedges or Malevich’s black squares picture a real world? Even a work that can apparently be as easily read off the canvas as David’s The Death of Marat ‘represents’ a great deal more than a body in a bath.

In the course of his book T.J. Clark returns to that relationship many times and has a number of stabs at defining it. Indeed, his text is full of caveats and cautions – he has an infuriating habit of inserting brackets in the middle of sentences which contain a single word and a question mark that suggest he is hedging his bets as well as doing that very postmodernist thing of throwing a statement into doubt as soon as it is made.

In the end we can probably agree that a definition of Modernist art work is impossible, and yet most of those who attend exhibitions would feel able to point out the Modernists. They would be the paintings which could not be easily ‘read back’ into the world, whose subjects could not be traced from the painting to the street. And yet Guernica or The Scream obviously say something very important to us, just as Van Gogh’s Arles paintings said so much about the artist’s state of mind, although the subject was trees or cornfields. So there is obviously a relationship with aspects of reality – and a dramatic, deeply sceptical one at that.

The end of the end?

Clark’s turning point, or the last ‘episode’ in this map of what he calls Episodes from a History of Modernism, is undoubtedly 1989. His Marxism, with its powerful anarchist impulse, would not have lamented the collapse of Eastern Europe for a moment – indeed he would, at earlier times, have celebrated it as a new beginning. But now he seems to feel it has all come too late. The phrase that recurs throughout is Schiller’s: ‘the disenchantment of the world’. Art is a struggle against and with that terrible sense of loss, but, although he is ambivalent at the very end, the strong sense from Clark’s conclusion is that there is no longer a place from which to imagine the transformation of the world. The transformation of art works into commodities is so rapid, the colonisation of the languages and systems through which the world is described so absolute, that it seems there is little to be done.

It is a familiar argument, and, funnily enough, it arises out of the very thing that Clark rails against most often – ‘contingency’, adaptation to the immediate or what Raymond Williams memorably called ‘long term adjustments to short term crises’. And yet if anything gives the lie to such cultural pessimism it is the very ‘episodes’ recounted in such loving detail in this book. These seven moments in a history of Modernism begin, surprisingly perhaps, with David and The Death of Marat. Clark is an absolute master of the art of travelling into and through an art work (in particular, in my view, when he discusses Picasso and Pollock). It seems at first sight to be a very early place to start, except that the key to Modernism, as far as this writer is concerned, is its absolutely central grasp of the contradictions of economic progress under capitalism. ‘Modernity’, the development of industry, the evolution of the commodity, the forging of a fully fledged proletariat, is both a creative and a destructive process. That was at the core of Marx’s understanding of capitalism’s unfolding. Equally, art has provided a space where those contradictions have been explored. So Modernism is born with – but not out of – the construction of a modern economy. Clark finds the impulse to capitalist modernisation enough to produce the Modernist question.

There is in all of these key works of Modernism a struggle between the demands of the moment (‘contingency’) and a vision of the future, an ‘imaginative possibility of social revolution’ (as a more modern critic, Perry Anderson, put it). It is a well trodden argument that art suggests universals – moral, philosophical, religious at different times – whereas the restless materialism of the modern age dispenses with such things. ‘Modernism turns on the impossibility of transcendence,’ Clark says – and should have added, to explain the nearly 400 pages that follow, ‘but refuses to accept that impossibility.’ So, in his exploration of Marat, Clark finds a David whose dead revolutionary is caught in a moment of writing (he holds a letter). The empty upper half of the painting is full of possibility. The suggestion is that this work is not, as so many others were, designed to freeze the image of Marat into a symbol of the French Revolution (as David himself did elsewhere), but rather to disengage the qualities of a revolutionary leader from that particular life, that particular body. So even now, the argument is about what Marat represents, rather than what he was or is.

The long chapter that follows centres on Pissaro’s We Field-Women. Clark’s discussion ranges eloquently across the canvas and across the historical moment. He moves without effort through politics, music, art and architecture, and sometimes, I have to admit, loses me in the complexities of his argument. But at heart, the same issue arises in 1891 as in 1791. In ‘showing’ agricultural labour, Pissaro was raising questions of morality, of the relations between human beings and nature. The material meets the moral in the painting, and the idea seeks its expression on the canvas. The problem here, and with greater and greater intensity later, is that the work is an object, a thing in space and time, however much it might wish to be something else. Clark returns to this difficult issue again and again – that art can never throw off its ‘thing-ness’, and thus its capacity for transformation into a commodity. So, like it or not, the idea expressed in this way is always material, and the withdrawal into the painting can never be complete. That does not undermine the enterprise, but it absolutely guarantees a continuing and unresolved struggle.

In 1891, Clark suggests, a burgeoning modernity was producing a moral crisis of extraordinary depth. This was a turning point, and Pissaro’s anarchist allegiances made him, in the writer’s view, sensitive to and aware of the depth and nature of it. Van Gogh’s first major exhibition, the rediscovery of Monet, the authority of Cézanne, all pointed to a moment in which art was fleeing to the margins and expressing from there its revulsion at the impact of the modern – from Baudelaire’s poem Le Voyage to The Scream is a distance of several decades, but only a single step, I think. Simmel expressed it thus in 1902:

The modern mind has become more and more calculating. The calculative excesses of practical life which the money economy has brought about correspond to the ideal of natural science to transform the world into an arithmetic problem, to fix every part of the world by mathematical formulas ... It is decisive that city life has transformed the struggle with nature for livelihood into an inter-human struggle for gain, which here is not granted by nature but by other men.

In revolt against that ‘calculative excess’, Cézanne and Picasso provide two different forms of response. Both move away from narrative, from ‘representing the real’. It could be said that that particular task had become redundant anyway with the advent of photography, but that is far too simple an explanation. After all, we now know that even the earliest photographers used their plates in a painterly way, or played with the ‘reality effect’ to make convincing documents of, say, fairies at the bottom of the garden – so the ironising of photography is not such a postmodern business, after all. Clark’s journey through Cézanne’s various Bathers paintings (1904–1906) is confident and compelling. What emerges is how unstable or mobile the figures are. Homing in on the detail of a sexually indeterminate body in one canvas, it becomes clear that the body has both sets of sexual organs, but depicted with a kind of rush, or even an uncertainty, that makes identity a shifting and uncertain thing. In another moment of the painting, two bodies are fused into one. The landscapes, backgrounds, skies are almost flippantly artificial; all of this is a dream, a metaphor, an assertion of some other place, Cézanne struggling with the visual and symbolic language of his time. The last part of the Cézanne chapter is, I feel, evasive – at least, it is very hard to pin down. But, as I understand it through the earlier examination of the paintings, Cézanne is pursuing a picture of another, possible, world with the materials of this one. He exposes their limits, but does not and probably cannot find another vocabulary to replace it.

Flattening the ground

It is agreed by most critics that Cubism is at the centre of Modernist art, because it asserts a new and different kind of order. In his still brilliant essay The Moment of Cubism John Berger explains that ‘Cubism changed the nature of the relationship between the painted image and reality and by doing so expressed a new relationship between man and reality.’ Its moment was ‘a moment when the promises of the future were more substantial than the present’. Clark puts it in rather more complex ways, as ever, but there is no disagreement as to the extraordinary significance of the years from 1906 to 1910. In his immediately prior work, the Demoiselles d’Avignon, Picasso tried to repaint Velázquez, to rescue something from the classical tradition. He toyed with ‘primitive alternatives’ – African masks or the paintings of the Douanier Rousseau – perhaps in search of a metaphorical language that could speak of an imagined otherness. But while they could critically reflect on the ‘modern’, they were not of it. And then came Cubism. Faced with that ‘disenchantment’, Cubism set out to ‘re-enchant’, which meant imagining wholly different relations. Berger sees the great Cubist paintings as diagrams, sketches of a possibility. Clark travels through the spaces and lines of Picasso’s paintings of the time, but bumps each time into a surface which resists all attempts to find other depths beneath it. The language of the painting is all there is, is everything. As the Malevich circle in the Russia of 1920 would rediscover, the new art is architecture, experiment in space and form. To return to Berger, it is about relationships and possibilities. The Guitarist of 1910, for example, is analagous to the world at the top and bottom of the oval frame, but in between there is a shifting and experimentation, a playing with surface, line and volume. Is this revolutionary? Yes, because it suggests restless change, variety, possibilities still unimagined. Is it Modernist? Yes, in its severance with the past (or its overcoming of the past) and its projection of a visual utopia that prefigures different ways of living to match the different ways of seeing.

Clark is less confident, I believe, though his assumption throughout is that Modernism has an inextricable relationship with utopia and revolutionary thought. His unease, and I suppose that this anticipates his conclusion, is that reality drags the dreamer back to the horror of the present. The First World War threw horror upon horror against the dreamers. It proved beyond any doubt the savagery upon which capitalism rested, but it also engulfed everything and destroyed all morality, and the prophecy at the heart of Cubism seemed to sink without trace in Flanders’ fields.

And then came 1917. Clark chooses to address the revolution in art that accompanied the Russian Revolution from the perspective of 1920 and War Communism. Perhaps, as he suggests, it was a key moment in the work of UNOVIS, the movement led by Malevich and represented most familiarly by El Lissitsky’s ubiquitous Flying Red Wedge. But perhaps there is another reason, to do with Clark’s own resolute hostility to Leninism. Curiously this moment of what he calls ‘the absolute zero of all indices’, an unimaginable social and economic catastrophe imposed by conscious will on the nascent Soviet Republic, was a high point in the process of ‘imagining otherwise’ so central to the Modernist enterprise. It was, in Clark’s words, ‘both apocalypse and utopia’. In his view, the commitment to industrialisation and modernisation necessarily carried that ‘calculation and contingency’ which was always the enemy of dreaming. It was in a sense much simpler than that – necessity stood over Soviet Russia with dripping fangs. Clark recognises how little choice there was, but also underlines the barbarity of it. The paradox is that at this very time what was mobilised by the new republic was a new language, vital and fluid, precisely because in this time of constant convolution nothing remained standing.

What could be the relationship between a disintegrating working class, a siege on every side by well fed armies and the struggle to lift agricultural production, and these odd, sometimes whimsical encounters of squares and circles by Lissitsky, or the black square and the void within it that symbolised the Suprematist movement that Malevich led? In a sense, they picked up again from Cubism. The prophetic impulse lost in the carnage of the First World War was rediscovered with 1917. Gabo’s Constructivist manifesto said, ‘Nothing is unreal in art. Whatever is touched by art becomes reality, and we do not need to undertake remote and distant navigations in the subconscious in order to reveal a world which lies in our immediate vicinity.’ Lissitsky and Malevich called it ‘architecture’ – the geometries of this new imagined world could become speakers’ platforms or housing complexes or advertisements for galoshes. Quite rightly, Clark singles out Lissitsky’s design for a monument to Rosa Luxemburg, a familiar arrangement of squares and circles through which, barely glimpsed but pulsating through colour, is the name of Rosa Luxemburg – the future floating beneath the surfaces of the present.

For Clark there is little doubt that Jackson Pollock’s extraordinary creations are a limit-case. He represents, at a social level, the most extreme marginalisation of the artist. The many photographs of Pollock in his studio and Namuth’s film of Pollock at work show him embedded in a world entirely built of paintings in which he works with a kind of madness. He is the confirmation of how the bourgeoisie sees the artist, and the expression of the way in which that world has driven artists to the very edges of the social world – an act of rejection and refusal on their part that has become a kind of exile. Is it accidental that Pollock’s drip paintings suggest imploding dark stars, the line between the world and the void, the known and the unknown? Is it any wonder, too, that they are so obviously angry and aggressive?

For Clark, what drives Modernism is the need to explore the unknowable, with its concomitant refusal to accept that what is is all there is. There is an argument that sees the development of Modernism as a process towards formalism, towards the exploration of pure form. Malevich’s White on White paintings might, at first sight, seem to justify that conclusion, until (as Clark shows so convincingly) you approach them and see their movement, their displacement of the eye, their assertion that within an apparent one dimensional reality there are many other lines, dimensions and masses. There is certainly a journey into form as a metaphor, a search for other complex totalities. There is also perhaps an attempt to disengage that experiment from the demands of the material world, but that of course is impossible, partly because the painting is a material thing (which is why it can be commodified) and partly because it has meaning only when it is seen from a place within the world. So Pollock’s Starburst meets the edges of the canvas, and though his canvases grow bigger, they can never lose their edges.

‘There is a line of art stretching back to David and Shelley that makes no sense without its practitioners believing what they did was to resist or exceed the normal understandings of the culture, and that those understandings were their enemy. This is the line of art we call Modernist,’ writes Clark. This leads this modern art to challenge and refuse, to look inward and look outward, to reshape nature and to attempt metaphors of different systems of living and believing.

The suggestion in the title of this book and in its maddeningly ambiguous conclusion is that this charge has finally been lost in a world of immediate incorporation and the loss of utopia. And there is undoubtedly some art which is only decoration, a comfortable reaffirmation of all that is as it is. But the rage around the Turner exhibitions suggests that discomfort and offence is still provoked by what is being produced. I have heard Gilbert and George arguing against a Paisleyite vicar who wanted their exhibition banned because it would corrupt and deprave. It turned out that he had never seen a Gilbert and George exhibition – it was the fear of art he expressed. The curious thing is that whenever social struggles arise, they produce an art which is their vision of the world they are struggling for. Tim Clark himself is a product of the generation that lifted the cobbles of the Paris streets and found the beach beneath. Graffiti, like them or not, have become the utopian architecture of the inner city. And so on and on. Art remains a place of struggle, of contradiction. Of course a late capitalism will try to turn everything – even the imagery of revolution – into an object for sale and consumption. That is the manner of its appropriation of all human creativity. But if it momentarily silences the signs of contradiction, it can never hide the paradox and the conflict at its very heart. And with each discovery of that reality will come an impulse to imagine this horror otherwise.

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