Rebecca Zorach

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.

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. Class, you might say, is primary; other categories—“identity” categories—are secondary. Despite superficial similarities with issues of today, it remains difficult for me to grasp what was at stake, politically, in this moment of the early 1970s when social art history emerged, with feminist art history as a whisper on the horizon. How, indeed, to tell the difference between a politically engaged art history that represents a political turn from deadening disciplinary ideology, and one that represents a quietist turn from the potential for political activism?

I see the misconstruction of feminism in this essay as a symptom of its time because one need not believe T.J. Clark was deeply committed to the idea that feminism was a sign of disintegration to know that a lot of his readers did. When I was an undergraduate at Harvard in the late 1980s and early 1990s I had precisely one class solely taught by a tenured female-identified faculty member, the formidable Dorrit Cohn (I only had one other class with a tenure-line female faculty member at all—she co-taught with two men—and a few scattered postdocs and lecturers). Around the same time I took Cohn’s seminar on fictional autobiography, I also found myself the sole undergraduate taking a tiny graduate history seminar in which we did all the reading in Latin. I wrote a paper about gender and popular culture in medieval preaching exempla, and the instructor, a visiting professor from Oxford, told me I’d be better off teaching high school than planning on an academic career.

For good or ill I didn’t listen to him, and intentionally chose a graduate program where there were multiple women faculty members I could work with. But the history of the field was something else again. Clark’s critical genealogy—Lukács, Riegl, Dilthey, Dvorák, Warburg, Wölfflin, Panofsky, Saxl, Schlosser, Hegel, Burckhardt, Forster, Marx, Freud, Benjamin, Baudelaire, Sartre—sounds a lot like what I studied in my required historiography seminar in graduate school in the mid-90s. It didn’t bother me so much that they were dead, white, European, and male. I was a Europeanist, and this was the history of my field I was studying, people (men) thinking big thoughts channeled through the stuff that I worked on. It was thrilling. I might well have lamented, with Clark, the loss of a time when György Lukács might casually refer to two art historians among his three “really important historians of the nineteenth century.”

But I can’t, now, mourn the old syllabus. Fast forward some 20 years, and I am drafted to teach the introductory PhD seminar in methods and historiography. I could not teach it in the way I was taught, and not only because women of color are in the majority in our incoming class. There’s no reason my students shouldn’t be able to see themselves in the history of the field. I could not make the “classic” authors central without doing violence to the field as I imagine it could be in a future in which justice prevails. So I identified a few of these DEWMs (Dead European White Male, pronounced, of course, “doom”) and asked each student to research two of them and make a collaborative presentation and bibliography and summary to share with the other students, in case they would like to learn more. And then I organized my required readings thematically with a more recent and more diverse group of authors, not all of them art historians. My obviously non-exhaustive syllabus has the following women-identified scholars, many of them women of color: Lorde, Alpers, Olin, Iversen, Buck-Morss, Pollock, Tuck, Payne, Dean, Mundy, Garrard, Bond, Torgovnick, Edwards, Scott, Thompson, Brodsky, McClintock, Mulvey, Blier, Sedgwick, Winter, Lehmann, Bal, Irigaray, TallBear, Williams, Wynter, Cheng, Crenshaw, Leibsohn, Fusco, and Berlekamp. It has non-Euro-American male-identified authors: Appiah, Nelson, Mitter, Yang, Pedrosa, Wu, Coomaraswamy, Du Bois, Gikandi, Karatani, Enwezor, Hall, Chaudhary, Fanon, Miner, Copeland, and Gárcia-Canclini. (And yes, Clark is on it too.) Their fields are chronologically and geographically diverse. And, lo and behold: This isn’t a disintegration or a consumerist pursuit of the new. These authors, too, are working with big and challenging ideas that help us think toward a critical art history.

One of the essays we read in the seminar is Svetlana Alpers’s 1977 “Is Art History?”—a text that can carry on a fruitful and more historically focused dialogue with the 1974 T.J. Clark. The disciplinary situation Alpers describes might seem, at first glance, to resonate directly with Clark’s damning account of a professionalized and trivialized and market-driven art history. Rather than grand histories of stylistic development, Alpers writes, “today it is individual works or groups of works, individual phenomena located at a particular time and place,” that occupy the attention of art historians. For Alpers, this is a good thing. Indeed, for Alpers it is Clark himself—along with a few key contemporaries (Baxandall, Fried, Steinberg)—who is the exemplar of the new, more granular approach she celebrates. Insisting on the dialectic between the scholar and the historical viewer, Clark—in Alpers’s view—resolves a problem posed most starkly (and interestingly) by the work of Michael Baxandall, in his Painting and Experience in Fifteenth-Century Italy. Baxandall’s approach in Painting and Experience was to view fifteenth-century artworks as “the deposit of a social relationship,” works made with the understanding that their legibility was shaped by their viewers’ expertise in barrel-gauging, attendance at sermons, and enjoyment of dancing. And Alpers argues that Baxandall seems to evacuate the modern viewer—which is to say his own viewing position—entirely in favor of the historical viewer, the one with the proper cognitive equipment for understanding fifteenth-century paintings. Alpers argues on behalf of Clark, along with Fried and Steinberg, because their approaches more clearly present the work of the art historian as a conversation between past and present.

This issue was on art historians’ minds—as it has often been since. Steinberg, in particular, had argued in a 1969 essay against a “shrinking,” ascetic self that displaces the present point of view and in favor of one that fully acknowledges present concerns and how they drive our understanding of the past. His reflection appeared in a 1969 issue of Daedalus, the journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, which reported on a conference which had been held the preceding year to consider the condition of the humanities. The issue was entitled The Future of the Humanities. The relevance of the humanities, or lack thereof, was a primary concern. Steinberg’s essay, ‘Objectivity and the Shrinking Self,’ later published in Other Criteria, defends the relevance of the past to the present: ‘The legitimacy of retrojecting from our immediate experience to remote fields of study touches on the issue of relevance. No one imagines that relevance attaches to particular subject matter. Making things relevant is a mode of seeing. How relevant is the large Geometric Greek vase at the Metropolitan Museum to contemporary American culture?’ The answer at first glance appears to be “not very.” But he continues:

America has been shaken by three political assassinations, and each time we were forced into an awareness of some of our ritual forms. It became suddenly clear that all our rites of mourning – I mean what we actually do during mourning with our bodies – demand either total inertia or a slow funereal gait that is best adapted to the pace of old women. The physical rhythm of mourning constricts and punishes the normal physical energies of young men. Their need to assert feelings in their own physical mode, in exertion and speed, is choked and repressed in all conventional obsequies.

The real point here is about dialogue between past and present, where the art historian’s contemporary experience informs his understanding of the historical object, which in turn illuminates the present. Steinberg may or may not be right in his interpretation of what the charioteers and soldiers in the lower register mean. In fact, the images on the vase are not a ‘realistic’ representation of actual or even demonstration fighting. They hold anachronistic shields and chariots that would have been too fragile to fight with – the scene would have appeared heroically antiquated. Suggesting what can be learned from a kind of anachronistic projection, Steinberg also projects his own prejudices about the gendered character of mourning. He superimposes gender on a contrast which could be merely that of generations: old and young. (The conference’s twenty-odd speakers included not one single woman; not too surprising, but even then it did not go unnoticed, as Steinberg himself admits when he lightly mocks the critique in his introduction to the published version of the talk.)

Against the backdrop of these concerns Alpers argues that it is Clark who “comes closest to providing a response to the present problematic of our field as I have described it here” because, while examining the artwork in its engagement with the historical frame of its making, Clark acknowledges his own perspective, states his assumptions. And also, because he insists on the necessity of a lengthy, patient viewing of the work of art: “looking at a work takes time.” The question of subjectivity—of the relationship of subject and object and how ideology mediates this relationship—was of course important to Lukács too, and palpable in the passage Clark quoted. “What an age was this,” he writes, “when Riegl and Dvorák were the real historians, worrying away at the fundamental questions – the questions of consciousness, the nature of ‘representation’?”

When Lukács mentions his three “really important historians,” two of whom, it happens, study art, it comes as a response to Marx’s description of the operational logic of bourgeois economists when faced with a critique of the effects of the use of machinery (material culture, to be sure) under capitalism. Since they cannot imagine the use of machinery outside of capitalism, they claim that any critique of capitalism’s use of machinery is a critique of machinery itself, and therefore nonsense. Lukács argues that these economists view the machine as an “individual,” something existing in and of itself, as opposed to the effect of a set of ever-changing relationships. Its present relationship to capitalism is naturalized as its “immutable essence.” For Lukács the important historians understand that “the essence of history lies precisely in the changes undergone by those structural forms which are the focal points of man’s interaction with environment at any given moment and which determine the objective nature of both his inner and his outer life.” These historians, Lukács, argues, focused on the changing mediation between humans and their surroundings and not the immediate facticity of things (meaning, also, human beings and qualities and experiences that have, through capitalism’s process of reification—an extension of the fetishism of commodities—become thing-like).

Clark both alludes to, and dodges, the argument Lukács is making. “First of all,” he writes, “it proposes a difficult and fertile thesis about history – it comes, of course, in the middle of an argument, and I don’t present it for use on its own – that art historians might care to contemplate again. But let’s leave that aside for the moment.” That art historians might care to contemplate Lukács’s argument is a slightly odd turn of phrase, given that Lukács critiques the attitude of contemplation itself as part of his account of reification. For Lukács, the contemplative attitude—whether taken by the worker in relation to the machine, or the formalist philosopher manipulating logic drained of content—is the direct result of the process of reification operating at all levels of society. What is most “fertile,” perhaps, for art historians in this line of thinking, is the fact that Lukács claims for art the potential to break out of this situation by positing a totality in which form engages in an immediate way with matter. The conception of a totality models the broad understanding of social relationships that a revolutionary perspective would require.

Would Lukács’s view of art, his critique of reification, actually lead in the direction of the practice Clark advocates? Clark asks art historians to attend, in Vermeer, to the “subtle – infinitely subtle – lack of synchronization between two different interiors, which ideology wants us to believe are consonant: between the space and furnishing of those ascetic, gaudy rooms and the space and furnishing of a particular gaze, a particular inner life.” The encounter between work and ideology here manifests in the subtle contradictions in the way the artist handles light. This operates on the level of the individual, and the individual object. While he repudiates the Marxist “notion of the ‘representative’ artist, who gives us a complete depiction of the ‘possible consciousness’ of a class,” Clark nonetheless posits something as an object of study for the social history of art that operates at the level of the individual: we might call this art as an opportunity to study ideology in practice is. This is neither Lukács’s interest in the standpoint of production—does the producer possess revolutionary consciousness? —nor his account of the artwork itself as model of totality. Like Vermeer’s interiors themselves, neither quite fits.

It was certainly a different position on the artwork that Baxandall, in his work of the same period, took. Think of the now classic opening phrase of Painting and Experience: “A fifteenth-century painting is the deposit of a social relationship.” A deposit, in all its economic and geological force. This is plainspoken and relentlessly de-idealizing: it insists on art as a physical material, as the outcome of economic transactions. Perhaps it flattens it unduly, snatching it away from any questions of something “infinitely subtle,” indeed from the pleasure of complexity in interpretation. But it also made readers review their own assumptions, rejecting any sense of unbroken historical tradition uniting European art from Renaissance to modern. There isn’t a whisper of Marxist vocabulary in Baxandall’s text, but it does something Clark and the others don’t: it destabilizes the present-day bourgeois European standpoint. In this it is certainly political. One of Baxandall’s tools was anthropology, specifically the work of Melville Herskovits, an Africanist who, in a collaboration with two psychologists, studied cognitive styles across cultures to account for the effects of environment. Working with a value-neutral conception of difference, explicitly to counter racist assumptions, Herskovits and his colleagues showed that people living in plains with extended vistas developed a different set of visual skills from those developed by Western city-dwellers, in each case, a set of skills adapted to their surroundings. What, then, would it mean to fully acknowledge the fact that the inspiration for the “period eye” came from research done in Africa? Baxandall used this concept to pry open the distance between twentieth-century readers and fifteenth-century Europeans, relativizing the viewing assumptions of his contemporaries. An insistence on his own standpoint and its inadequacies is fully embedded in this approach, even if, in his book’s “handbook” sort of way, it can end up seeming reductive. Baxandall hints at the potential for a broader reflection on cultural difference, even if he himself did not fling the door wide open.

“With such a profusion of objects and cultures,” Alpers concludes, “with old hierarchies crumbling, how does one justify an occupation such as looking? It is a daunting question.” Closing in the way that she does, with this nod and a few brief references earlier in her text, Alpers places her reflections in a context that, at least haltingly, acknowledges women and cultures other than European. From this standpoint it’s not just what Clark says (“feminist”) but what he doesn’t say, in the catalogue of possible art histories on the horizon: post- or anti-colonial, anti-racist, Black, diasporic. (Of course, this list is different from “global” and it is different from “world.”) The closest Clark’s text comes to addressing extra-European art is his reference to a general weariness with “Riegl and his carpets.” Certainly none of the accounts I have cited above take seriously patriarchy’s system of gender oppression as centrally constitutive of modern capitalism—let alone squarely addressing the imbrication of the history of art, as a discipline, with colonialism.

Had it yet emerged in 1974, an anticolonial critique of art history presumably would have fallen into Clark’s category of those dispiriting sub-art histories hot-foot in pursuit of the new. More inconceivable, perhaps, than feminism, it shakes the discipline—constituted as a Eurocentrism that is not veiled at all, not even thinly—even more fundamentally to its core. To place these art histories in the position of “the new” would be to suggest that they were not always there. That those who are not white-European-cis-male did not suddenly arrive, historyless, on the scene, the product of capitalism’s search for new demographics to sell to—but that they have something to say, that they always had something to say. That taking account of their history of creative expression and action and material culture, of the relationships they have forged between form and matter, written in their own voices, as not just a matter of adding a chapter, or of adopting a new standpoint, but of overturning everything.