Each of Timothy Clark’s two books merits a separate study. Both are important works, especially fascinating for a French reader. But I shall confine myself here to Image of the People,footnote1 since its field is narrower than that of The Absolute Bourgeois,footnote2 and for that very reason it is all the more conclusive. The choice of a single guiding thread (the formation of an individual style, an individual painter—Courbet) in fact makes it possible to pick up and amplify the meaning of even the most minute variations in a given work. The more visible the initial continuum, the more legible are the signs of any break from it. Courbet is treacherous ground precisely because of the openings which he offers to the Marxist critic: Clark traces a confident route through these difficulties, avoiding pitfalls and well-worn paths alike. He rejects from the start all ideological overloading, that whole mass of pious images and mechanical references which have finished up by making Courbet into a simple propaganda theme, the classic lecture topic for evening classes at the Université Populaire. Clark’s study is a real revelation in that it is first and foremost the work of a historian. Yet this history crammed with personalities, contemporary texts and factual information never lapses into mere anecdote. Its great merit is that it elucidates a number of crucial theoretical problems through the concrete analysis of a concrete situation. To the eternal—and false—question: ‘What is revolutionary in art?’, Clark gives as it were an oblique, implicit reply by substituting for it another, much more fertile question: ‘What were the effects of a particular Revolution upon contemporary pictorial practice?’ Specifically, in this book, he asks: ‘How did 1848 modify Courbet’s painting?’ This proves to be an excellent way of avoiding, from the outset, the danger which seems inherent in most Marxist ventures onto the terrain of aesthetics (think of Lukács, for instance, in the case of literature): the normative preconception, whereby camps are demarcated and prescriptions are laid down in the name of immediate political imperatives dis
It is by now generally understood that history of art in the sense of a strictly autonomous discipline, in other words left to professional art historians, comes down to explaining the work of art by the genius of the artist and in the end is simply tautologous. But we are also familiar with a naïvely determinist sociology of art, which has the unfortunate prospensity to liquidate its specific object by dissolving the work of art into the ideological sphere. The causal model of explanation is not relevant when the task is to elucidate the relation of symbolic forms to the societies in which they appear. The history of art is not a region of the Continent of History, united to social history by a relation of particular to general. No more is it another history, totally outside the latter. The two are related, without being equivalent; they imply each other, without explaining each other. Figurative reality has a nature of its own, and a picture is not an idea given form. Yet at the same time there is no figuration that is not the vehicle of an implicit ideology and no picture that does not betray some ‘representation of the world’—whether as background or as project. However, this twofold warning is clearly insufficient: for two negatives do not add up to a positive. The problem is how, each time, to find the modus operandi of the work of art, i.e. the internal rules of transformation of the real into the formal, the social into the figurative. Of all that is going on outside, what is it that penetrates the painter’s studio? What enters the painter’s head and what comes out onto the canvas on his easel? A mysterious but not necessarily a mystical operation; a transmuting transformation which is not necessarily alchemical in nature; a key problem of the kind which the image-filled language of cybernetics terms a ‘black box’. This is the problem which Clark seeks to elucidate with respect to Courbet.
Sartre, in his Question de Méthode, was already stressing the crucial urgency of this problematic for philosophy; and what else has he done in L’Idiot de la Famille but try out his method on Flaubert? The case of Courbet is closely akin, if only because the period’s the same and the central issue identical: the relationship of the artist to his public, his place in the field of power, his real and fantasy insertion into social space. But in Clark’s analysis there is a striking absence—psychoanalysis—though this absence may easily be excused by the relatively far greater opacity of figurative language to analytical interpretation. The scale of mediations here passes by way of the biography of Courbet and his family; the sociology of his native region, the Doubs, where he painted his masterpieces from life; that of bohemian life in Paris in the forties (which involved not simply a way of living, but an actual social group related to the ‘dangerous classes’); and finally the political history of the 1848 Revolution. Courbet, with his commanding trilogy of the years 1849–50 (Les casseurs de cailloux, L’Enterrement d’Ornans and Les Paysans de Flagey), is at the junction of these various instances, which are
These were decisive and exceptional years, an incandescent parenthesis that was the golden age of realism (the term was first applied to painting by Champfleury, Courbet’s friend, precisely at this time). They saw the meeting—or rather the violent clash—between an artistic tradition and a public. In these years, the political effects of plastic production attained their zenith, prior to the return to order of the Second Empire. Like the coup d’état of 2 December, the 1848 Revolution marks a break at once political and artistic if the term is taken to refer to the social relationship to the work of art (rather than to the production of such works). It is no accident that realism was born in the forward march of a revolution; it is at all events the proof that the relative autonomy of the artistic field does not thereby cut it off from the social field. At the moment of its birth, realism was neither a programme, nor even anything willed; it imposed itself as it were without the realists or Courbet himself being aware of the fact. But Clark shows the implicit complexity of this naïvety, this freshness, in the last analysis this lack of awareness. In a certain sense, Courbet’s work escaped him and found its diversity, hence its true nature, through contact with the public. It became ‘realistic’ and revolutionary through a recoil effect; the protests of bourgeois opinion and those critics who ‘set the tone’ made this painting in which ‘the people set the tone’ into an act of protest. The class struggle in the street, whose laws for good reason escaped its protagonists, took the place of an artistic manifesto and, in the event, substituted for ideological affirmation. Courbet was open to, rather than responsible for, a ‘socialist’ reading by his contemporaries. It was precisely this spontaneous reaction which made the works of the ‘Proudhon of painting’ an authentic action. Until the Commune, Courbet remained on the sidelines of politics and, might one say, of socialist ideology itself. To the very end of his life (like most Communards, in fact) he did not know the name of Marx; Proudhon, whose weaknesses with respect to the Second Empire are notorious, remained his central point of reference to the last. Courbet’s work was all the more revolutionary in that it did not proclaim itself to be such—indeed, it was revolutionary to the extent that it did not do so. An art is truly ‘political’ when it is political in spite of itself and without wishing to be: this is one of the lessons of Clark’s book, and a very paradoxical one with respect to the customary clichés. The proof, if one wishes to go further, is that Courbet’s explicitly political involvement in the Paris Commune was not accompanied by any aesthetic advance in his work. It was from the farthest depths of a highly reactionary rural province that the cry of realism was uttered, by a political ingénu.
One may nevertheless wonder whether ‘realism’ was really a pictorial revolution. Courbet no doubt modified the relationship of the artist both to his art and to his public, but did he modify the system of plastic transposition itself? He was certainly a deviant, with respect to the official painting of the Salons and equally with respect to the narcissistic withdrawal of Art for Art’s Sake. But with respect to the fundamental code of transcription of space that ruled in his day? It is perhaps on
A second displacement was operated in the hierarchy of the painter’s repertoire. Previously, a picture’s format had been proportional to the dignity of the subject. With Courbet, ‘major canvases’ were no longer reserved for Gods and Heroes, nor were small-scale works confined to ‘minor’ genre painting. He gave to the trivial the dimensions of History. Finally, there was a displacement in the treatment of subjects: no more theatrical mise en scène or dramatic composition. L’Enterrement d’Ornans presents a frontal juxtaposition of figures, with no obvious centre of gravity or lines of perspective, with neither action nor pathos, in which the characters are flattened against the background. This frieze-like technique borrowed from popular imagery shocked the public by its naïvety and made many critics say that Courbet was a mere sign-painter, a craftsman rather than an artist/painter (just as in 1866 Manet’s Le Fifre, with its abstract monochrome background and broad blocks of colour, was ridiculed as images d’ Épinal).
As Georges Bataille has said, ‘the bourgeoisie could not then admit that the world should be reduced to what it was and that only a man unadorned should remain’. The most conclusive part of Clark’s book is