Books: Skewed perspectives from a Californian dreamer

When a great British art critic crossed the Atlantic, did he lose his vision on the voyage? James Hall surveys the wreckage of a Titanic folly: Farewell to an Idea: episodes from a history of modernism by T J Clark Yale University Press, pounds 30, 451pp

Bristol-born T J Clark is one of the most important and influential art historians of the postwar period. His pioneering studies of Courbet and of art and politics in mid-19th-century France (both published in 1973, when Clark was only 30) launched a double-pronged attack on formalist approaches to art history. In these books, and in a later one on Manet (1984), Clark insisted that modernist painting could not be examined in isolation from the culture and society that gave rise to it. Art was never simply done for art's sake, and even the brushiest of brush-strokes said something important about the world.

This in itself was not new; it was a central tenet of Marxism. In 1972, John Berger had given a classic Marxist account of art in his TV series and book, Ways Of Seeing. One of Berger's favourite tactics was to juxtapose famous artworks with advertisements, and imply thereby that both were equally exploitative. Thus Manet's Dejeuner sur L 'Herbe was paired with a colour supplement ad for slushy classical records which pastiched the paintings.

Clark's approach was more subtle, and ultimately the more original and effective. He would circle slowly round his chosen prey (say, Courbet's Burial at Ornans or Manet's Bar At The Folies Bergeres), painstakingly interrogating the picture from a multiplicity of angles. By the time he finished, the work had become the battleground for a range of discourses - critical, political, social, literary, philosophical - and was much the richer for it. What made Clark's writing so electrifying (in contrast to Berger's often boorish puritanism) was his evident love of art, and his conviction that it really mattered. Clark was a stern task-master, but he was here to praise rather than to bury painting.

Farewell to an Idea is billed as a book that "sums up the work of a lifetime". It is by a long chalk the biggest book Clark has written, in length (450 pages), scope (Jacques-Louis David to Jackson Pollock) and budget (290 illustrations). It has also had the longest gestation, arriving 15 years after his book on Manet. For all this time Clark has been living in America, and is now a Professor of Modern Art at Berkeley, California. So it would be truer to say this is the summation of his life and work in the US.

Farewell to an Idea strains to be a belting Moby Dick of a book but, sadly, we only get the most fleeting glimpses of whales. The writing windsurfs aimlessly from topic to topic, and just when you think a moment of truth is in the offing, Clark slopes off on a different tack. It feels just like a book written near Silicon Valley: 15 years' worth of cut-and-paste. There is little obvious connection between the individual painters discussed as he leaps from David to Pissarro, from El Lizzitzky to Pollock. Chapters are dessicated into endless sub-sections, and I suspect that many could be re-ordered without even the author noticing.

A book with modernism in its title should at least include a definition of modernism, but Clark is incapable, or unwilling, to offer one. We know we're in for a hard time from the moment when he observes: "This book was written after the Fall of the Wall. That is, at a moment when there was general agreement, on the part of the masses and elites in most of the world, that the project called socialism had come to an end - at roughly the same time, it seems, as the project called modernism. Whether those predictions turn out to be true, only time will tell. But clearly something of socialism and modernism has died, in both cases deservedly: and my book is partly written to answer the question: If they died together, does that mean that in some sense they lived together, in century-long co-dependency?"

This is sloppy, presumptuous and Hollywood-melodramatic. I don't know anyone who thinks that modernism came to an end at "roughly" the same time as socialism (and wasn't it Communism that came a cropper with the fall of the Wall?). Most intellectuals think that modernism in the visual arts ended c.1960 with the arrival of Pop and Neo-Dada - mixed-media phenomena which don't rate a mention. What is more, if modernism and socialism lived in "century-long co-dependency", why does Clark go on to say that modernism started after the French Revolution, in 1793?

To make matters worse, he has already listed a number of key "modernist" paintings which he believes deserve to survive some notional holocaust. These include Picasso's neo-classical Italian Woman (1919), about which he waxes lyrical: "I find it hard to imagine any human viewer, even on the other side of Armageddon, not responding to the tenderness and puctiliousness of... the shading of eyes and mouth, the different sheens and textures of what the woman is wearing, the pressure of hand on lap". Yet it is only very recently that critics have rehabilitated Picasso's neo-classical works from the realm of reactionary kitsch, and it is truly perverse to rate this saccharine picture as cutting-edge.

Throughout, Clark makes similar sweeping, assertions that he almost immediately contradicts. This is a Grand Old Man's cluster; we are supposed to treasure the inchoate crumbs of knowledge that fall from the high table. Farewell to an Idea says farewell to respect for the reader.

Can anything be salvaged from this art-historical Titanic? There are glimmers of Clark's pre-American brilliance, especially in the chapter on Cezanne's Bathers, which he compares fruitfully with Freud's contemporaneous Interpretation of Dreams. And he shines now and then in the two chapters on Jackson Pollock. For Clark, the best Pollocks have a ludicrous vulgarity about them, and therein lies their excitement. Judging by the Tate exhibition, he's right.

But Clark is suffering from a deep-seated intellectual death-wish and cannot resist ruining everything. At the end of his long discussion of Pollock, he mentions that the best painter of the 1950s was the fairly obscure Danish tachiste Asger Jorn, and then in his conclusion casually observes that the late-20th-century modernism that "mattered most" to him didn't take place in New York after all, but in Italy.

He really rates Italian postwar film and literature - a modernism that starts "roughly" (that dread word!) with Calvino's The Path to the Nest of Spiders (1947) and ends with Antonioni's L'Avventura (1960). This last- gasp assertion of European superiority seems like a tacit admission that he made a mistake in going to America, and a sentimental realisation that he was born too late.

All in all, it is best to draw a veil over this very silly folly. Spend your money on Clark in his pre-American pomp: Thames & Hudson have reprinted the earlier works.

James Hall's book `The World as Sculpture' will be published by Chatto & Windus in June

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