Editorial note: T.J. Clark’s essay “The Conditions of Artistic Creation” originally appeared in the Times Literary Supplement in 1974. We republish it here alongside responses by four younger art historians (Sampada Aranke, Megan Luke, Jeremy Melius, and Rebecca Zorach), in conjunction with a new interview between Clark and two editors of Selva: A Journal of the History of Art. Clark’s 1974 essay is searching indictment of art history as it is usually practiced, as well as a call for methodological reorientation. So too, in different ways, are each of the responses.
“To escape from the situation,” T.J. Clark writes in his 1974 essay “The Conditions of Artistic Creation,” “it seems to me we need a work of theory and practice. We need facts… but we need to know what questions to ask of the material.” Indeed, we need to know what questions to ask.
Megan R. Luke
Recently, I was asked by a colleague if I considered myself a “meta-art historian,” that is, someone who took her chief object of historical study to be the discourse about art, rather than the history of works of art themselves. To this position of “meta-art history” my interlocutor contrasted the possible mantle of the “avant-gardist,” the garb of a scholar who advocates for specific works of art, who claims for them a certain agency—political, ethical, even moral—and who understands her task to be a forceful articulation and defense of their urgency. Given these alternatives, where did I stand?
To re-encounter a text like this one in 2019 is sobering. It remains as powerful a statement as one could want of a program of inquiry left unfulfilled, one in which fierce abstractions might be wrested out of “the love and labour of the particular.” It proposes a mode of writing art’s history that takes on vivid, almost minatory form as one reads. But the art history it calls for never quite came to pass, and the essay itself lingers on, bereft, an orphan of its own history.
As I read T.J. Clark’s 1974 essay “The Conditions of Artistic Creation”—and let me say I read it as a symptom of its time and not of its author—one word leapt from the page: “feminist.” Though we might now think of the social history of art and feminist art history as inextricably intertwined interventions in the history of the discipline, feminist art history appears here as just one of so many symptoms of “disintegration” of the field, one of many consumerist trends in the discipline—for which social art history would provide the needed “concentration.” Feminism, by implication, isn’t something that shakes the discipline to its core, that attacks the underpinnings of a field.