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TJ Clark Entrevista

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In Conversation withTJ Clark
nicholas addison
FAREWELL TO AN IDEA: EPISODES FROM A
HISTORY OF MODERNISM
t j clark
Yale University Press £30.00
451 pp. 252 col and mono illus
isbn 0-300-075324
Any new publication by T J Clark is something ofan event. Both Image of the People, 1973,heralding the `political project' of social art
history, and The Painter of Modern Life, 1985, with its
contextual felicities and reprimands, received near
hysterical critical responses. Farewell to an Idea: Episodes
from a History of Modernism is already no exception,
although reviews are torn between extremes: `Clark is
suffering from a deep-seated intellectual death wish
and cannot resist ruining everything' (James Hall,
Independent); `. . . a book whose weight and scope seem
to alter the whole geography of art writing' (Julian
Bell, TLS). Clearly a must for critics and fans alike.
However abused in review, Clark has been
thoroughly used in teaching, his forensic, muscular
empiricism becoming the methodological habit of the
pragmatic wing of Anglo-American scholarship.
However, his method is now more speculative despite
the intricate textual and object-based analyses. In
Farewell he seeks analogies and convergencies between
experience and form, an experience perpetually
disrupted because it lies within a particular history,
post-revolutionary Europe and the USA. But the forms
of modernist painting, the focus of his six episodes or
case studies, are no pale reflection of that disruption.
They have in turn the potential to disrupt and produce
experience itself. His urgent concern, the unresolved
question, is to discover how modernism re-engages
and impacts on modernity: from the iconicity of
David's Marat, through the risk-taking of Pissarro's
Two Young Peasant Women, to a phallocentric reading of
Cezanne's late Bathers; from the pseudo-language, the
habits of Picasso's cubism, through the collective
denial of ego by artists in the Soviet UNOVIS, to the
manic excesses, the depressive negations of Pollock's
painting. If today Clark is frustrated by the inability of
the Left to subvert bourgeois structures of power, his
historical writings tell of a time that was, a time that
still might be.
I began our conversation by asking him about the
retrospective title of the book, its valedictory tone. He
pointed out that `farewell' is `fare thee well', not a
closure but a gesture of goodwill, an anticipation of
further meeting.
NA Would it be a misinterpretation to conclude a
sense of loss from your book, intimations of regret
and, your word, a sense of `desuetude'? By the end
you seem close to despair.
TJC I don't agree that the conclusion is near despair:
in fact I think it is actually plucking some sense of a
future out of a pretty bleak present. To put it in
British terms, I have lived through three decades in
which any notion of a socialist opening to British
politics has vanished, pretty definitively, and three
decades in which the whole infiltration by the new
free-market capitalism of European economies,
pre-eminently the British, has become complete.
Why shouldn't one feel bleak? I don't believe one
has a moral duty to lunge at optimism when
pessimism seems the rational response to the
situation. I don't think there is any point in gloating
on the sense of hopelessness, but I certainly think
one of the things the Left suffers from at the
moment is the lack of a convincing rhetoric of
alternatives, utopias, openings, and a failure to
own up to that lack, to write in the face of it.
NA With a profound sense of melancholy for a lost
moment, you refer to figures who have been
formative for the critical project on the Left:
Adorno, Benjamin and Gramsci (through Pasolini),
a melancholy akin to Adorno's own. I wondered if
you weren't indulging in that melancholy?
TJC Well, I think that is for a reader to judge. I was
alerted to the danger by others: I say as much in the
introduction. I tried to correct the melancholy tone
as far as was possible. One person's `indulgence' is
another person's `facing up to reality'. I think the
book has plenty of moments which take the
utopian project of modernity seriously, it is actually
far kinder to that utopianism than most recent
treatments of the last 150 years. Isn't the common
wisdom: `All of that is over, it was a lot of silliness ±
the idea of modernity as an uncompleted project
which somehow or other socialism and modernism
would terminate and fulfil ± none of that happened,
or will happen, so let's make our peace at last with
the world of endless commodity difference and
depthlessness . . .' Now that seems to me despair ±
whether or not it wears a cheeky, philistine, New-
British-Art face . . .
NA Despite the melancholy, there is perhaps more
comedy in this book than you have been willing to
admit in the past.
TJC Yes, yes there is, I hope so.
NA Yet the five episodes you have chosen appear to
oscillate between moments of melancholy and
Issues
volume 7 issue 1 january 2000 ß bpl/aah TheArt Book 15
violence, a continuous cycle of trauma and rupture.
I wondered if, like Adorno, you felt that these
ruptures might be redemptive?
TJC I do see what you mean about the kind of
oscillation between melancholy and violence, but of
course they are not the only tonalities here. I
wouldn't say that Pissarro, for instance, was
melancholy, and certainly his art is not violent,
although he was perfectly well able to contemplate
the use of violent means for political ends in
extreme circumstances. I wouldn't say that UNOVIS
was exactly violent ± certainly it isn't melancholy ±
it's extremist. So I'm not quite sure. But I do accept
that my picture of modernism is of a practice always
veering between positive and negative extremes ±
between euphoria and desperation.
NA Where in relation to a history of the Left do you
place your episodes? There is a congruence between
political, aesthetic and philosophical revolutions in
your choices.
TJC Yes, I think that is right. It is not an easy
congruence. Obviously I find myself writing about
moments when modernism and the Left converge.
The Left is a broad term, and meant to be ±
`socialism' is one word for it, or the cult or ethos of
revolution, or the myth of capitalism's fall . . .
These movements converge with modernism ± but
time and again there is tremendous tension
between the two practices. The David case is
instructive. David is being called on to do some
pretty crude political work in 1793, which involved
all kinds of duplicity and disguise, effacement and
compromise. And the painting of Marat does the
job, politically speaking; but it's not quite con-
gruent with its public purposes and circumstances;
it contains within itself, I think, a level of
reflectiveness about politics, discourse, language,
truth and lie. It does the job ± in the worst of
circumstances ± but it also manages to be about
what doing the job of representation now involves.
NA But you do somewhere admit that there are other
modernisms besides your own, that this is a his-
tory. One could so easily write a history where
modernism is, for example, a history of the modern
nation state or a history of colonial experiment. You
don't deny these?
TJC No, I certainly don't. The history of the nation
state does actually figure in the book, the Russian
chapter is centrally about the relationship between
revolution and state formation. If there is one
gloomy sentence in the book, then surely it is the
end sentence of the Russian chapter: `For whether
or not the age of revolution is over, the age of state
formation has only just begun' ± which certainly
seems like a message for today, doesn't it?
NA You stress that your episodes are concerned with
modernism at its limits, artists who are pushing at
the edges of representation or the edges of what it is
possible to represent. Has this conditioned your
choices and why only canonical painting ± or more
correctly, image-making?
TJC Plenty of things to say about this. For a start, I
don't agree my choice of work is canonical,
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