The Sight of DeathAn Experiment in Art WritingT. J. ClarkYale University Press, $30, 192 pp.
I have admired T. J. Clark ever since I was an art-history graduate student and read The Painting of Modern Life: Paris in the Age of Manet and His Followers. That book was one of several by Clark (including The Absolute Bourgeois: Artists and Politics in France 1848-51 and Image of the People: Gustave Courbet and the 1848 Revolution) that helped effect a shift in focus in modernist art history from formalist criticism toward the relationship between art and political power. Clark is that rare academic, wide-ranging and brilliant but also passionate about his subject. His passion bleeds into other pursuits, including politics-indeed, it might be more correct to say that his passion for politics bleeds into his art history. An avowed socialist, he recently co-authored a book on the post-9/11 world called Afflicted Powers: Capital and Spectacle in a New Age of War (2005).
At first glance, Clark’s newest book looks like a change of focus. The Sight of Death: An Experiment in Art Writing is a meditation on two works by the seventeenth-century French painter Nicolas Poussin. Anticipating the criticism that The Sight of Death represents a turning away from political readings of art history, Clark lays out the differences between Afflicted Powers and the new book: “real world politics written about from a Left perspective” versus “a small, sealed realm of visualizations dwelt in fiercely for their own sake.” This turns out to be not quite true; Clark does not allow his observations of the Poussin paintings to remain ensconced in an ivory tower. He admits that the political viewpoint of Poussin, which was anything but progressive, would have stood in direct opposition to his own. “But this has precisely nothing to do,” he continues, “with the ability of these paintings to speak-to speak back, to my mind irrefutably-to the image world we presently inhabit, and whose politics we need such (reactionary) mirrors to see.” Clark has not shifted his purpose, just his method.
The Sight of Death is a tour de force of looking. Organized as a diary, its focus is the chance conjunction, in a 2000 exhibition at the J. Paul Getty Museum, of two works by Poussin: Landscape with a Calm (owned by the Getty), and Landscape with a Man Killed by a Snake (on loan from the National Gallery in London). After encountering the two paintings in a small room set off for special exhibitions, Clark relates his long-held admiration for Poussin. Struck by the quality of light in the room, Clark takes the opportunity to return day after day to look at the paintings. Over the course of a few weeks, as he makes journal entries focused simply on the process of looking, he begins to think of what he is doing as an experiment in art writing, and resolves to complete the diary and publish the results. Part of the experiment, Clark explains, lies in his belief that purposeful sustained looking at a single, still image is a corrective (he would doubtless say a necessary corrective) to what he sees as the failures of current art historical scholarship and, more profoundly, the constant flow of manufactured images in everyday life.
Clark helps us see why it is so rewarding, indeed even necessary, to go back again and again to look at the same painting. He puts into words, better than anyone else I have read, why paintings can never be completely fixed in memory, but rather appear different each time we go back and see them again. These insights derive from Clark’s accounts of his daily meetings with the paintings, and of the way he fixes his eye on different details as the days go by. The result is an affirmation of the primacy of looking, and of art’s elusiveness-or, as Clark suggests, its “resistance” to being translated into words. Pictures can only remain pictures; images and words are not interchangeable. As his diary entries remind us, there is no single way to view a painting; he starts every day thinking he knows the painting and ends each day with a new observation and focus, a new relationship to decode. Because a painting is not a page read from left to right or a film viewed from start to finish, there is no single way to organize the facts; no progression of events, except the one the viewer creates.
The Sight of Death is more than simply a record of focused looking. Clark reflects on the current state of the world and the academic discipline of art history; relates memories evoked by the paintings; digresses on the avant-garde artist and intellectual Guy Debord and his major work, The Society of the Spectacle; and includes several of his own accomplished poems inspired by Poussin’s paintings. At the very end of the diary, Clark returns for a moment to the two paintings themselves. Characterizing Landscape with a Snake as a painting about seeing but also about the physicality of the world, he contrasts it to Landscape with a Calm, a painting about the distance between the eye and the world. Admitting that he is drawn to Landscape with a Snake because it focuses on the human reaction to “the sight of death,” which Clark likens to a call to political action, he reveals the purpose hidden within the title of the book. The Sight of Death is a deeply personal and passionate book about art, art history, and politics. Rather than an anomaly in Clark’s oeuvre, it continues his decades-long battle against preconceived ideas, propaganda, and consumerism in a capitalist world. At times bitter, at times meditative, this complex exploration of the importance of art to human endeavor is nothing less than an attempt to reclaim the past in the service of the future.