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.footnote1

Farewell to an Idea is based on the premiss that ‘modernism is our antiquity’, already ‘a ruin, the logic of whose architecture we do not remotely grasp’. The historian of modernism is like an archaeologist who has unearthed ‘a handful of disconnected pieces left over from a holocaust that had wiped out the pieces’ context’. That holocaust was the continuation of modernity, the triumph of capitalism, the disenchantment of the world. Recovering the context of modernism involves the recognition that it was ‘a desperate, and probably futile struggle to imagine modernity otherwise’, a struggle shared, ‘in a century-long co-dependency’, with socialism. Modernism and socialism may both now seem impossible, but impossibility is also the condition of their survival: they are the art and politics of ‘the time that is not yet ripe’.footnote2

Let’s stop there. We need to look at some of these terms. Modernism is not a lost civilization; it was never a civilization in the first place. What we are talking about is a series of cultural experiments that took place in capitalist countries around the start of the twentieth century. In other parts of the world (save Latin America) modernism is little more than a footnote in the history of colonialism. Even in the West, modernism had only a limited audience. Exclusively metropolitan, subsidized by eccentric millionaires and made by bohemians, it left most of the population untouched. Neither a style (uniform and diffused) nor a culture (multiform and organic), modernism always looked different and rarely appeared in the same place twice. The episodes that Clark discusses (David in 1793, Pissarro in 1891, Cubism in 1912, El Lissitzky and Malevich in 1920, Pollock in the late 1940s) may not be representative of modernism as a whole, but their disconnexion is an accurate reflection of its scattered distribution.

There were, of course, several modernisms, each with a different trajectory. Architectural modernism and theological modernism were both attempts to make the ornate structures of the past more functional. People were meant to inhabit these modernisms, and they often did not care to. Fundamentalism and architectural postmodernism were the reaction. The type of modernism with which Clark is concerned was always different. In literature, music and the visual arts, the rationalization of existing forms was rarely an end in itself. These modernisms addressed themselves only to those with disposable incomes; they did not have to cut their costs to accommodate the masses. But in all except the visual arts, modernism has had little lasting success. Literary modernism is kept alive only as a canon of set texts. Programmes of modernist music still cannot be relied upon to fill concert halls. Yet visual art is now more widely appreciated than at any time in its history. One thing that histories of modernism need (but usually fail) to do is explain why modernism in the visual arts had a lasting influence in a way that other modernisms did not.

Whereas modernism was local, sporadic and exclusive, modernity, characterized by the erosion of traditional ways and the rationalization of social life, has been global, continuous and inescapable. Establishing a context for artistic modernism within modernity usually requires a double manoeuvre. First extract the modernist seam from the visual culture in which it is embedded, and then argue that this thin seam is so semantically rich that it reflects, metamorphized, the entire stratum of social life from which it comes. This has to be a dubious procedure. When we juxtapose modernism and modernity we are not comparing phenomena of similar type or extent. Despite appearances, modernism was never the culture of modernity in the way that postmodernism has become the culture of postmodernity; there were too many places, too many media and too many people that modernism never reached. This makes it difficult to maintain that modernism is expressive of modernity as a totality, even of modernity’s revulsion at itself; and it carries the implication that modernity found its expression elsewhere. If modernism was not the culture of modernity, something else was.

I will come back to this in a moment. But what about the third term in the argument—socialism? Clark sometimes seems to picture socialism as being, like modernism, simultaneously an expression and a negation of modernity, a parallel counter-culture, modernism’s separated, non-identical twin. This is, at least, tacit recognition of the fact that modernism was even less the culture of socialism than it was of modernity as whole. Neither in Communist states nor in the social-democratic parties and labour movements of the West did modernism ever establish itself as the accepted form of expression or communication. In many cases, it was only briefly tolerated. But it would be equally wrong to suggest that modernism and socialism were separated because, as parallel critiques of modernity, they were in competition for the same space. If modernism was often against modernity it was only intermittently and obliquely opposed to capitalism; the captions to the illustrations in Farewell to an Idea (Private Collection; X Museum, gift of . . .) tell the story (untold in the text) of its total and painless assimilation. In contrast, socialism’s opposition to capitalism was undertaken in the name of modernity; and for many people in the world socialism has been the only modernity there is, not the struggle to imagine it otherwise. To argue, as does Clark, that since both were opposed to capitalist modernity they share the same utopian impulse is misleading; modernism and socialism were rarely opposed to the same things.

What Clark means by socialism is perhaps something slightly different, an ideal never realized. If so, it underscores the divergence of socialism and modernism in his argument. He suggests that modernism had two great wishes, ‘a recognition of the social reality of the sign (away from the comforts of narrative and illusionism)’ and the dream of ‘turning the sign back to a bedrock of World/Nature/Sensation/Subjectivity’.footnote3 But the failure to achieve those goals is constitutive of modernism’s meaning and identity in a way that the failure of socialism is not. Both modernism and socialism had their utopian side, yet nobody ever says that actually existing modernism was a disappointing travesty of what modernism should have been. Although individual movements may have had crazy ideas that came to nothing, modernism as a whole does not have an ideal form: the failure of its projects is what makes it interesting. Would anyone, even a cynic, make the same claim about socialism?