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New Left Review 11, September-October 2001


T. J. Clark’s landmark study, Farewell to an Idea, takes the art of modernism to be a convulsive attempt to imagine modernity in forms other than the triumph of capitalism. Malcolm Bull suggests it might be better conceived as a fold in the overlap between two contrasting cultures of capitalism, classical and commodity, of which only one is left today.

MALCOLM BULL

BETWEEN THE CULTURES OF CAPITAL

Modernism in its various forms has generated a body of critical and historical writing that is without equal. Within this field, the work of T. J. Clark—on Courbet, on Manet, and now in a sequence of essays on painters from David to Pollock—is as exciting as it gets, indeed, as exciting as art history has any reason to be. What makes his achievement unique is not his sensitivity to the nuances of the primary sources, or his almost physical engagement with the surfaces of paintings, but the conjunction of these qualities with a revolutionary’s instinct for the limitless potential of particular historical moments. And if he sometimes writes (as he says Pissarro paints) ‘on a knife-edge, between simplicity and portentiousness, or strong expression and souped-up emotion’, so much the better. No one else would dare. [1] T. J. Clark, Farewell to an Idea, New Haven and London 1999, p. 61. Hereafter FI.

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