Megan R. Luke

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.

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?

This question—which, I’ll admit, I still find challenging to comprehend—came as a response to my recent research. For better or worse, I am presently consumed by a series of interlocking debates among art historians, critics, and museum directors in Germany in the late 1920s regarding the limits of facsimile reproduction, the re-organization of state collections, the public display of contemporary art and the artifacts of mass production alongside the auratic relics of medieval devotion, and the terrifying specter of inflation and “ersatz” culture more generally. This research into the palpable anxieties of protagonists who are, in the main, all but forgotten today is, I believe, a necessary consequence of my attempts to come to terms with much of the art that continues to grip and fascinate me. This art—let’s call it the wreckage left in the wake of expressionism—was impossible to reconcile with the narratives about modernism that I had inherited as a student and continued to fall back on as an apprentice in the field. And while much has been done to bring this art into new light, it seems to me that the horizon of those narratives nevertheless remains in place and the art itself remains in a kind of purgatory, condemned forever to hover in an indeterminate space beyond our reach.

There are many reasons for this situation—fascism, then and now, being the most obvious, and, hence, least understood. But before I could even tackle that relationship, I had to attend to a different question. Why does my own discipline—or, rather, its tools—conspire to veil the objects I most wanted to see? Was there something about the way the problems of art history had been conceived and framed at that “alien time” (as Clark calls it) that actually requires the ongoing sacrifice of this occlusion?   

A fundamental premise of the kind of critical history that Clark longed for in 1974—and that Lukács championed in 1922—is a conception of “structural forms” that permit an entire epoch, in all its “uniqueness,” to be “discovered and exhibited in them and through them.” There must be an unbroken connection between these forms, which express and condition the relationship between self and world, and the moment of their irruption in consciousness. For the protagonists populating my research, this connection was described by the term “contemporaneity” (Gleichzeitigkeit), and without it, history appeared irretrievable. Indeed, their precipitous loss of faith in the security of these articulate forms of past experience and in our ability to feel ourselves contemporary to them was, perhaps, the greatest source of their alarm. Furthermore, it was this loss—this negation—that made the relationship between art history and contemporary art in the 1920s and early 1930s a problem. (And we have by no means put this problem behind us with the convenient academicization of “contemporary art history” and the attendant collapse of the public for art criticism.)

Here is not the place to unpack what precipitated this loss of faith, this vertigo before the “antinomy at the core of time,” as Siegfried Kracauer memorably put it, much later, in his meditations on “Time and History” from 1963 and in his subsequent correspondence with George Kubler, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Erwin Panofsky, and Hans Blumenberg. Suffice to say, once art ceased to be seen as a reliably concrete form of past time that could be enlivened through perception, it could be uncoupled precariously from history. The wedge that pried apart the present from the past was perhaps the same that drove the alienation from dialectical thought that Clark once felt so keenly (and, in all likelihood, still feels). But if I am to have any hope of attending to the “conditions in which a certain ‘subjectivity’—utterly false, utterly undeniable—was constituted and given form” in the specific case of the disintegrating Weimar Republic, then I see no way of avoiding an account of how the very object of art was discursively produced by a generation of historians who, in their efforts to stabilize it, chose to look away from what was right before their eyes.