Sampada Aranke

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. Clark’s essay opens onto a series of questions around the method and content of art historical analysis. In an attempt to articulate what exactly critique looks like in a 1974 version of art history, he calls for special attention to the methods and processes of an artist’s work. For Clark, the historian’s primary task should be to return to these practices precisely because they alert us to the dynamics of ideology at play in a given work, and by extension, a given era. This approach would inevitably get us back to the question of class, and the social world in which the art object is made, circulated, and received.

What strikes me in Clark’s polemic is his unflinching commitment to an idea of history, one that struggles dialectically to turn to a stable past in order to make sense of an uncertain future. Later, Clark would reframe this as a salutation—“farewell to an idea,” he’d say—to think about the way that we inherit history’s address; or, how to write art history—“addressed to posterity, then—but posterity meaning us.”[1] Here we’re strangely back at Clark’s 1974 notion of escape. How do we escape the contours of a modernism that proposed a future (subject position) that it could barely announce? How is that escape never clean, but in fact part and parcel of a mode of subjectivity that is ideologically anchored and materially constructed? These questions undergird Clark’s commitment to de-naturalize the conditions of our being, to produce a set of questions about the problem, and to seek the artistic material processes that attempt to address the questions asked of that problem.

Clark himself was belated in this mode of public address. Three years earlier, Linda Nochlin had asked “why have there been no great women artists?” and in doing so pressed upon another set of problems. Nochlin utilized public address in a radically confrontational way, asking her reader to think of the problem of the question itself:

It is when one really starts thinking about the implications of “Why have there been no great women artists?” that one begins to realize to what extent our consciousness of how things are in the world has been conditioned—and often falsified—by the way the most important questions are posed.[2]

Nochlin’s attention to the implied commitments within a posed question moves us towards an acute awareness of the ideological underpinnings of both subjectivity and aesthetic positioning. In what reads as an undeniably sharp, funny, and astute polemic, Nochlin leads us to face several problems: what constitutes “woman,” “woman artists,” “artist,” “art,”and “greatness” is always already constituted from within a position of ideological investment aimed against those bodies, practices, and sensibilities that lie on the edges of discernibility if not outright recognition. Her mode of address is directed towards the gendered dynamics of the question itself, posed in present perfect progressive tense in which the problem takes place in the past, present, and future. This question, for Nochlin, determines the object of art history itself—its assumptions, aims, and, most importantly, its aspirations.

Clark’s insistence on attending to what questions to ask of the material takes a peculiar turn in light of Nochlin’s essay. For Nochlin, the questions are all organized around what kind of art history is ideologically made available, and what kinds of ideology thinly or not so thinly veil art history. As an anticipatory response to Clark’s question about questions, then, Nochlin opens us onto the ways that the discipline itself presumes a detached relationship to the very artistic conditions that Clark himself is concerned with retrieving. It’s not that art history is above and away from the very conditions within which artists themselves produce. By extension, Nochlin presses us to think about how the idea of a public itself is constituted in and against the differences that constitute it as singular (read: white, male, and mostly bourgeois). [1] 

So what happens when the artist reverses this disciplinary position and makes art history her object? This might be what Kerry James Marshall means when he insists that “art history itself is an object that can be explored, manipulated, and modified and transformed.”[3] Marshall, with a classic Black American sensibility, deforms[4]the very premise of Clark’s question by redirecting it from below. To get into the historian’s theory and practice opens up a place for the artist to manipulate those so-called “facts,” to exploit the limitations of the canons in place, and more decisively transform that history. Such a transformation would make art history an object of parafiction,[5] a hardly discernible set of circumstances, a faith-based narrative we sometimes want but definitely don’t always need. And most importantly, those subjects who all too often land outside of art history’s focus turn away from the idea that art history belongs to a public at all in order to ask: “wait, whose art history do we need to escape from?”

  • [1] T.J. Clark, Farewell to an Idea: Episodes from a History of Modernism, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999), 7.
  • [2] Linda Nochlin, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?,” ARTnews, 1971.
  • [3] Courtney J. Martin and W.J.T. Mitchell, moderated by Esther Adler and Kerry James Marshall, “Charles White: Beyond Images of Dignity,” November 7, 2018, Museum of Modern Art, NY, 1:41. Accessed December 1, 2019,
  • [4] For more on deformation as a Black American aesthetic practice, see Houston A. Baker, Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003).
  • [5] Carrie Lambert-Beatty, “Make-believe: Parafiction and Plausibility,”  October, 1.129 (2009), 51-84.