Tuesday, December 12, 2006
A Certain Image Regime
At The New Criterion, Michael J. Lewis quotes from The Sight of Death: An Experiment in Art Writing, by art historian T. J. Clark:
My art history has always been reactive. Its enemies have been the various ways in which visual imagining of the world has been robbed of its true humanity, and conceived of as something less than human, non-human, brilliantly (or dully) mechanical. In the beginning that meant that the argument was with certain modes of formalism, and the main effort in my writing went into making the painting fully part of a world of transactions, interests, disputes, beliefs, “politics.” But who now thinks it is not? The enemy now is not the old picture of visual imaging as pursued in a state of trance-like removal from human concerns, but the parody notion we have come to live with of its belonging to the world, its incorporation into it, its being “fully part” of a certain image regime. “Being fully part” means, it turns out in practice, being at any tawdry ideology’s service.
“But who now thinks it is not?” A better question: Who ever thought it was not? What formalist ever believed a work of art or literature was literally “brilliantly (or dully) mechanical,” or, at least, that a proper response to art was one that regarded it as “something less than human, non-human”? Has anyone ever really confronted a work of art “in a state of trance-like removal from human concerns”? The very fact the a human being experiences a work created by another human being, both of whom presumably draw on very human attributes--creativity, attentiveness, for that matter even the ability to self-induce a “trance-like” state--would seem to make the transformation of the puerile metaphor of the “mechanical” response to art into something real, something to be contrasted with “human,” manifestly preposterous. Yet this association of formalist criticism of all kinds with merely “mechanical” aesthetic appreciation and “engaged” political criticism with the fully “human” world of “transactions, interests, disputes, beliefs” has been an operational assumption of academic criticism for almost three decades now, producing such an endless stream of ideologically sodden “scholarship” that apparently even Clark has had enough.
It’s good that T. J. Clark wants now to challenge the pseudo-analyses of “belonging to the world” and “image regimes,” but maybe he should have realized that his own interpretation of formalism was itself a “parody notion,” that he was exchanging one “mechanical” approach for what was inevitably to become its equally distorted mirror image. It now seems a fixed law of academic criticism that one generation will dismiss the previous generation’s preferred critical method based on its least representative, most exaggerated characteristics, while going on to practice a new method that seems designed to provoke a similar reaction from the next (or in this case, from one of its own.)
I am loath to quote The New Criterion approvingly, but I agree with Lewis (although I’d change his “immeasurably” to “somewhat"):
. . .The tendency of Clark’s career, then, has been to dislodge the aesthetic object from its pedestal to set it back into the social, cultural, and political currents that brought it forth. Such an approach, wielded judiciously, can immeasurably enrich the understanding of an object. But, used indiscriminately, it can also impoverish that understanding, rendering the object into a mere historical document—like a bill of lading or a deed of transfer. And a mediocre work of art always speaks far more eloquently about the society that made it than a great one. In the end, an insight that aspired to widen the scope and relevance of art history demoted it to a subspecies of social history. And Clark, whatever one may think of his politics, is too good an art historian not to realize that this is a loss for everyone.
And a mediocre work of art always speaks far more eloquently about the society that made it than a great one.
Do you really think this is true? I don’t. I really don’t. They may tell us different things, to be sure, but “always… far more eloquently”? No way.
In other words, isn’t Lewis right there on the slippery slope toward the caricatural formalism that you rightly denounce? The better the work of art, the less it has to tell us about the world from which it came, the more (it must follow) we slip into that “trance-like” state as we appreciate or analyze it.
"What formalist ever believed a work of art or literature was literally ‘brilliantly (or dully) mechanical,’ or, at least, that a proper response to art was one that regarded it as ‘something less than human, non-human’?”
It’s been awhile since I’ve read him, but I think Clive Bell came pretty darn close.
Speaking as an art historian, Clark is exactly right. It’s worth remembering that terms like “formalism” mean entirely different things to scholars of literature than they do to art historians. The intellectual tradition of formalism in art history--from Roger Fry and Clive Bell, through to Clement Greenberg--really did strip art entirely from its context. And even though Clark’s scholarship seems to have atrophied in recent years, I more-or-less agree with him. His second complaint refers to work published in the last 10-15 years which relies too heavily on post-structuralist theory and ends up implying a Foucauldian kind of point that art is merely an after-effect of the operations of ideology and power. In this way, art simply becomes an illustration for a study of historical power relations. Clark is sticking up for notions of contingency and agency in the creation, distribution, and reception of art--something that I also try and do in my own scholarship.
Lewis is arguing something entirely different. He’s saying that art historians should only study the “canon” of great art and ignore the wider visual culture in which it originally existed. Since Clark himself was a pioneer of studying what we call “visual culture” (e.g. in his magisterial study of Manet, published over 20 years ago and still rock solid), Lewis is arguing against Clark and his life’s work.
"The intellectual tradition of formalism in art history. . .really did strip art entirely from its context.”
This is exactly what formalist literary critics were accused of doing. That “entirely” is still bollocks.
If Lewis is saying that “art historians should only study the ‘canon’ of great art and ignore the wider visual culture in which it originally existed,” then I don’t agree with him. What he actually does say in the passage I quoted is that “an insight that aspired to widen the scope and relevance of art history demoted it to a subspecies of social history.” That I agree with.
If “Clark is sticking up for notions of contingency and agency in the creation, distribution, and reception of art,” then he also ought to be sticking up for *art*.
"Significant form”? “Road to flatness”? Are these terms used by literary formalists? I think there must have been some important differences between formalism in literature and in art. The tyranny of Greenbergian formalism was very real. An entire generation of scholars built their careers by fighting to put the context back into the study of art history (I know several of them). 20-25 years ago, established scholars of modern art refused even to consider such things.
To suggest that Clark is not interested in “Art” would be a grave error. The man made his career studying (and redefining the study of) some of the biggest canonical artists--Manet, David, Daumier, etc. But he prefers to study them in their context, and that means elucidating them by looking at contemporary images, the kind that Lewis thinks should be ignored.
Like the right-wing cranks who usually write in the New Criterion, Lewis is implying that Clark is part of all-that-new-fangled-codswallop that denigrates the canon and demystifies art. Griselda Pollock and Fred Orton c. 1981 might fit what he describes in your quoted passage. Clark doesn’t.
Daniel, I hope you’re not disappointed with the current state of art history as a discpline. The notion of High Art is largely ignored and all sorts of historical popular and visual culture is what a lot us study. “Beauty”? What’s that? I blame graduate school: there’s only so many things one can say about Manet or Picasso; if one has to do original research for a dissertation, one has to look elsewhere.