Corrective Vision

The Sight of Death

An Experiment in Art Writing

T. J. Clark

Yale 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...

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About the Author

Donna Gustafson is chief curator of exhibits at the American Academy of Arts.