Jeremy Melius

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 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. For its call did not go entirely unheeded: In some form, a social history of art did emerge, and still lumbers on, dutifully pursuing its own banalization. But in another sense, it never came to be, not as a fully collective enterprise—a “debate going on, unresolved, sharpened, often bitter”—which art-historical practice could truly come to inhabit. Its great performances remained individual, effervescent, vitalizing just to the extent that they remained unrepeatable. In this way, such projects kept faith with the undisciplined singularity—the discontinuity—that had always marked the field’s greatest works.

For all of these reasons, “The Conditions of Artistic Creation” bears intriguing comparison to the past of art history that it projects. That past serves a less straightforward function than cursory reading might suggest. For the forms of “agreement” it looks back to—“agreement…as to what the important, unavoidable questions are”—precisely take the form of disagreement—of argument, endless calling into question, vicious debate. And moreover “our” own access to that disagreement remains fraught, overdetermined by instabilities of its own. For if the present “need[s] to rediscover the kind of thinking that sustained art history at that time,” that thought is now irrecoverable, “disappeared”; its “questions” and its “paradigm” have been “lost.” If the new history of art was to be anything, it had to be “the place where the questions have to be asked, and where they cannot be asked in the old way.” A paradox opens up. It resembles nothing so much as the one that had attended art history’s modern birth. “The only way we can become great, and, if this is possible, inimitable, is by imitating the ancients”: this was Winckelmann’s colossal “double bind,” as Lacoue-Labarthe once put it. And moreover, as Winckelmann’s project of recovery unfolded, even the possibility of imitation came into question. By the time he reached the Geschichte der Kunst des Alterthums (1764), the “style of the imitators” marked precisely art’s decline. The art historian stood on the shore, in tears, watching her beloved antiquity sail away.

As it was for Winckelmann, I take such ambivalence to be a source of strength. For it constitutes a tension that is truly dialectical, keeping the past the essay summons both dead and alive, maintaining the impossibilities and negations of its program as sites of potential. The historiographic orientation of “Conditions” proved prescient, of course. The work of translation and archaeology it called for has been taken up with a vengeance in recent years, attention lavished on the very figures—Riegl, Warburg, Wölfflin, Panofsky—that the essay cites. But to what end? I have sometimes thought art history’s backward-looking stance to be the representative form of its own backwardness. The hunger for art history’s history has served to support business as usual at least as often as it has enabled substantial change, out to describe set approaches we have supposedly managed to surpass, or else that mirror our own, reflected back to us in some sad, pseudo-rigorous mise-en-abîme.

But other relations to art history’s previous lives remain possible. Speculation after “new directions” in the field will go on as long as homo academicus exists. But the halcyon days of futurology are long gone. What matters is what moves are left in the vulnerability of an endlessly destabilizing present. As in 1974, it is art history’s inimitable pastness, its blind lanes and dead ends, that might still show the way. It is a good sign that there remains something faintly scandalous—“pointless”—about this turn to the (non-)discipline’s past. Art history’s real work happens elsewhere, many continue to say; historiographic “navel-gazing” still carries a whiff of deviance, of onanistic shame. This might be its greatest strength. For it is from this disgraced, “self-indulgent,” minoritarian position that something new might be wrested from the past’s texts. Art writing’s history offers a haunting array of paths never taken, pursuits that never took—never could have taken—hold. It offers an archive of generative instabilities awaiting activation, somewhere outside the petrified fields of “methodologies.” And in the first place, that generative potential lies in an ability to unseat the foundations of present practice. It opens up the possibility of a real dialectic between past and present inquiry, a relation made up of “a tissue of improbabilities, strangeness, losses of focus, looming nearness, unreadable shifts of space.” As in Panofsky’s history of perspective, here too “innovation” might find itself fractured: “bound up with a renunciation of previous achievements,” shot through with the temporality of “setbacks” and “reversals” that the past of practice brings. Schlosser, Ruskin, Max Raphael, Vernon Lee. A thing of “constraints and contradictions,” slowly stirring to life.