T. J. Clark with Kathryn Tuma

Portrait of T.J. Clark. Pencil on paper by Phong Bui.

T. J. Clark is George C. and Helen N. Pardee Professor of Modern Art at the University of California at Berkeley. Since the appearance in 1973 of his first two books, The Absolute Bourgeois: Artists and Politics in France, 1848-1851 and Image of the People: Gustave Courbet and the 1848 Revolution, Clark has been one of the most influential and challenging voices in the field of art history. The books that followed—The Painting of Modern Life: Paris in the Art of Manet and his Followers (1985) and Farewell to an Idea: Episodes from a History of Modernism (1999)—both stand as landmark studies in Modern Art. On the occasion of the release of his most recent book, The Sight of Death: An Experiment in Art Writing (Yale University Press, 2006), T. J. Clark speaks with Kathryn Tuma, Assistant Professor of Modern Art at Johns Hopkins University, to discuss art, politics and teaching in 21st century America. Clark’s new book presents an extended examination—“a record of looking taking place and changing through time”—of two of Nicolas Poussin’s greatest achievements, Landscape with a Calm (1650-51) and Landscape with a Man Killed by a Snake (1648). The two paintings were installed together at the Getty Museum in 2000, while Clark was in residence for six months at the Getty Research Institute. What began as an almost daily series of journal entries of his impressions and thoughts about the pictures evolved into one of the most original art history books to have been published in recent memory. The Sight of Death is many things: a study of two paintings; a reflection on the place of writing in art history; a meditation on death; a heated response to contemporary “image-culture”; a critique of current trends in academic art history; and an impassioned argument for the value of time spent looking at works of art, making more than good on its claim that “astonishing things can happen if one gives oneself over to the process of seeing again and again…”

Kathryn Tuma (Rail): Tim, the question of “political responsibility” comes up a number of times in The Sight of Death. It wends its way all through your reading of Landscape with a Man Killed by a Snake, but also through specific incidents you recount from your own personal history and your thoughts about art history as a discipline. The book, as you say, is a response, or a “reaction,” to the current ideological moment—the world we live in, inundated by the internet, political soundbites, televised eight-minute therapy sessions. A world where the average time spent by a museum visitor is best measured in seconds. You openly describe feelings of bitterness. But, as you note, Snake is “not a picture where darkness is winning.” Yours is also, I feel, not a book in which darkness is winning. How does that faintest glimmer of optimism manage to hold in the current state of global affairs? Can it hold at all? Of course I ask this question against the backdrop of Sight of Death’s relationship to another recent publication of yours, your collaborative work with the group Retort, Afflicted Powers: Capital and Spectacle in a New Age of War, that describes a bleak picture at best.

T.J. Clark: “Yours is not a book in which darkness is winning”… Well, I guess I agree with that judgment, taking The Sight of Death as a whole. Though obviously the book does look certain kinds of darkness more fully in the face than anything else I have written. It’s not called The Sight of Death for nothing! I think (or I hope) that you and other readers come away from it without a sense of terminal glumness because you’re carried along by the simple, central pleasure of looking that drives things forward—and the astonishment at what one or two pictures have to offer, if you give them half a chance. This pleasure and astonishment are unnegotiable. Nothing the world can do to them will make them go away. And yes, I agree: the world does plenty. Pleasure and astonishment seem to me qualities that the world around us, most of the time, is conspiring to get rid of. Or to travesty—to turn into little marketable motifs. It amounts to the same thing.

I don’t know what one person does in such a situation—and you’re right that for me it’s experienced as an extreme situation, far more stifling and catastrophic than almost any current “politics” wishes to recognize—besides trying to describe the catastrophe, which is what Afflicted Powers is mainly concerned with, and trying at the same time to keep the opposite of the present alive. By which I mean the full range of human possibilities that the present is dedicated to destroying—the kinds of recognitions and sympathies that make up the human, as far as I’m concerned. Recognitions and sympathies, but also losses and horrors and failures of understanding. Everything the present ecstasy of “information” wants us to transfer to trash.

You do this wherever the possibilities put in an appearance—for you. In my case, that means above all in certain paintings. In other words, I think that over the years I may have built myself a way to talk about these possibilities as they take form in paintings without the talk immediately degenerating into moralizing or wishful thinking. And that’s the essential problem in our “21st century,” isn’t it?—to talk about alternative worlds without the alternatives coming across as just as flat and formulaic as the world they’re supposed to be against.

Rail: Your book seems to me to put tremendous pressure on issues of living and dying, how we make our choices about how to live, how we conceive of—or represent—death to ourselves and what doing so means. As, in part, an extended reflection on death—“the sight of death”—yours is all the rarer in this culture that we inhabit where images—or perhaps I should say the “spectacle”—of death are so pervasive and yet so perverse. You began writing this book closely following Y2K; you finished revising it in a post-9/11 world. Is the dizzying array of catastrophes we are now facing related to an entrenched inability in America to grasp the sight of death in a way that is not “flat and formulaic”? Or perhaps not so much to see death, but to bear the true weight of its thought?

Clark: Immensely hard to talk about these things, Kathryn—but you’re right, they’re ultimately what the book is about. These days I can’t get the lines by Emily Dickinson out of my mind: “Because I could not stop for Death—/He kindly stopped for me”. I guess it’s Dickinson’s verb that particularly strikes home. Death is everywhere, but we can’t stop for it. We can’t make it part of our lives—and therefore of our politics. The capital D Dickinson was able to give it is way beyond us.

Yeah, yeah… I don’t mind you bringing on the word “spectacle” at this point, just as long as we’re not using the word to reduce the issues simply to “too many images too fast!” It’s not the technics and quantity that matter most, it’s the shattered sociality in which the images circulate. It’s the dismantling, over the past half-century, of so many forms of resistance to the image—so many of the forms of life in which the image-life of power could once be derided or spoken back to. Who was it who called the spectacle “the totalitarian dictatorship of the fragment”? It’s a bit clumsy, that formula, but it gets a lot right.

Rail: I’d be interested, with your last answer in mind, to hear your thoughts about your life and your history as a teacher. Let me bring up a specific example from The Sight of Death. You talk there about the quality of “stillness” that a certain kind of experience of works of art can inspire. This seems to me to get at something very profound in what time spent with pictures can do. But is this teachable? In this culture of distraction, I confess to having had my own doubts. What is it that we are trying to teach when we teach “art history”? What is it you yourself have hoped to do? Have your thoughts about teaching changed as the culture in which that practice takes place has changed, and so dramatically? As the students themselves are changing?

Clark: Tough subject… You won’t be surprised to hear (remember I began as a university teacher in 1967!) that teaching for me has always seemed a pretty embattled activity, taking place in a culture—university culture very much included—increasingly turned against it. Let’s call it the culture of multiple choice, of lectures as performances, of “methodologies” chosen from the supermarket shelves of “disciplines,” of books as disposable databases on the verge of being superseded by others less quaint and inflexible (less “elitist”). This culture has always been the dominant one in the universities I have worked for. There is almost no difference, ideologically speaking, between the claptrap of Clark Kerr and Harold Wilson (universities “forged in the white heat of the new technological revolution”) and the current utopia of cyberspace and “virtual higher education.”

But, of course, there is a sense in which the social and educational drift of the last fifteen years has made a difference—at least, to the teaching of art history. For somewhere at the center of the current claptrap is the idea that “we” are passing from a word-based culture to an image-based one. And this idea, lite as it is, does point to a new, or intensifying, social fact. We’re back to the question of spectacle again—and this time, let’s talk about the technics, the machinery… Citizens of advanced industrial societies, to state the obvious, are accustomed from an early age to living in a constant flow of visual imagery. “Flow” is important here. The imagery is designed not to be looked at closely, or with sustained attention. It would not do its work (of selling, of confirming and enforcing approximate—marketable—visualizations of the good life, of achieved satisfaction, of individual fulfillment) if it was looked at closely. (Videogames are the exception that proves the rule. Attention is allowed here apparently because it can be stripped down to a state of nerve-racking fear and suspicion, with the world continually scanned for incoming bullets.) “Flow”—meaning constant replacement, fading in and out of focus, speed-up and slow-down, instant magnification and miniaturization, a ludicrous and mind-numbing overkill of visual stimuli—erodes the boundary between the imaged (the imaginary) and the real. Everything is “representation,” they tell us. Everything is manipulable, virtual, scaleless, infinitely translatable.

I think these are the lineaments of the visual culture in which our students are brought up. And I see teaching art history as a modest, no doubt quixotic, effort to present to them the fact that other visual cultures were (and are) very different, and in some ways preferable. Visual images were, for a start, made in the past with limited and intractable physical means. An oil painting or a lost-wax bronze are pathetic, vulnerable, proud things. They bear the mark of individual or collective effort (call it craftsmanship) on their faces. The best oils and bronzes are full of a sense of—a positive reflection on—their own mere thinglikeness and vulnerability (as well as an exultation in the thinglikeness and vulnerability overcome). In a word, they are human. They spell out the limits of human imagination and practice. They are all about the eternal war between possibility (“virtuality”) and resistant material fact. The best moments in teaching come when I find a way of conjuring this kind of consciousness back into being—against the worst that the belching slide projector and crumpled screen can do. I go on wondering if this year, finally, the conjuring trick will fail. There is a social pessimist in me, who sees less and less reason to doubt that one of these days the symbol managers and cybertechnicians will have made the world they dream of, so that I and my sad little technology—words from a stage, xeroxed handouts, essay requirements, dim celluloid shadows of Titian or the Demoiselles d’Avignon—will mean nothing. But it interests me that this has not happened yet. I still get a kick from the fact that simply presenting the opportunity for sustained attention, and proposing that visual images carry within them the possibility of genuine difficulty, genuine depth and resistance—doing this strikes some students as such a relief! Of course it does. It’s a relief because it offers an escape from the flimsy and infantile imagery of human purposes, which is what they are mostly offered by the world we inhabit. There’s nothing invulnerable about that infantilism. It’s flimsy, as I say. It’s always possible to talk back to it—to show alternatives to it.

Rail: You mention that you started teaching in 1967. The most striking thing about that year is its obvious proximity to 1968. Can you say something about how you came to art history as a discipline? And why, and how, you found your way to writing Image of the People and The Absolute Bourgeois?

Clark: It was all pretty ordinary. I’ve been hooked on paintings ever since my parents took me to the National Gallery on a trip up to London at the age of twelve. I stood in front of the Constables, and that was it. God knows why! And I was a political animal. The 60’s happened. And then Paris—as so often, a way of escaping my assigned place in the good ol’ English class system. And the Situationists—the picture of a possible politics, more and more on the agenda as the culture went into free flow (for a while). The books you mention came out of this history. But of course they were also, in a sense, a place of shelter from the storm. Doing art history—being an academic—was a compromise. It was as much as I had the nerve to do. But this is confessional, Kathryn! Ugh!

Rail: Since you bring up the Situationists, Tim, let me ask you this: Afflicted Powers keeps getting described as a Situationist account of current politics. It has received more attention in the art press than in The Nation or Mother Jones. From what I hear, Retort has an installation as part of the Seville Biennial this November. What’s going on here? Are you happy with all this?

Clark: Well, you’ll guess that there’s an aspect of this that drives me and the other Retorters mad! I wrote Afflicted Powers with an economic geographer, Michael Watts, a novelist who was once a defense lawyer fighting it out in the California prison system, Joseph Matthews, and an historian of past and present capitalist enclosures, Iain Boal. Not exactly a Situationist (or even palaeo-Situationist) line-up! Obviously our book takes advantage of certain Situationist concepts and hypotheses, and tries to apply them to current politics. And yes, we do think that the power of the image, and the control of appearances, are more and more part of the very structure of statecraft (and resistance to statecraft). We think the established Left suffers—suffers badly—from an inability to think about the new conditions of social control, and social struggle… Surely the horror of the recent war in Lebanon, and the fact that so much of that horror was played out, often in real time, over a whole battery of image-machines—and that the playing-out as imagery had real political consequences—that it was part of Israel’s “defeat”… surely this points to the emergence in the world out there of a different kind of political process, of political arena.

Nor did it entirely surprise us that Artforum and October had more to say about the book than The Nation. We’re used to the idea that the U.S. Left will maintain a dignified silence if anyone tries to move political thinking beyond the usual Bush-bashing-plus-policy-studies. (And by the way, there have been notable exceptions to the decision not to notice, thank you. Counterpunch, and New Left Review, and the Rail itself…) “Politics,” in the present desert, has migrated to many strange places. As for Seville—well, Okwui Enwezor offered us a forum, no strings attached. Our “exhibit” will center on the broadsheets we produced for the marches in 2003, and just recently in response to Lebanon. There’s a video, done by Gail Wight. Milton and Yeats are in evidence… Let’s see what happens.

All we would say to readers of Afflicted Powers is read the whole of it, not just Chapter One. Certainly the book is concerned with possible destabilizations in the regime of spectacular power. We think that these are happening, and need to be thought about—with and without Debord’s help. But the book never argues that such destabilizations have been the result of a single image-event, or even of a cluster or sequence of image-events. The sources of instability are complex. Some are long- term and tendential, having to do with the problems of social management in late capitalist society. Some are short term, or mid term, and geo-political: resource crises and the politics of oil, mutations in the politics of Islam, the way the absolute vacuum of official U.S. politics provided the space for neo-Christian, neo-Hooverite ideologues to seize power. The book is agnostic on the question of the depth of the new image-instability. But one thing it does not do. It does not say or imply that from now on it’s victory in the realm of appearances that counts. A new thinking of politics, in other words, won’t fixate on the squalid details of the image war. On the contrary: what really concerns us—what Retort goes on looking for—is the emergence of a possible new ground for war against the image in its present form. And that’s a social question—a question of the emergence of new forms of social identity and non-identity, new kinds of social resistance—not a technical one.

Rail: Let me press you a little further on the relationship between The Sight of Death and Afflicted Powers, and the fact that they were written often, you say, in tandem. You talk at various points about the “image-politics” of our present moment, and Sight of Death as some kind of response to that politics. Can you say more about that?

Clark: Some of this has cropped up already, when I was trying to answer your question about teaching. But let me go back to it, and take things a bit further. I think that The Sight of Death stands or falls, ultimately, as an argument with the present regime of the image. In particular it has in its sights the notion that some kind of threshold has been passed in our time between a verbal world and a visual one. I’ll be largely repeating the book at this point.

No one in their right minds is claiming, I guess, that the realm of language is simply being left behind by the new image-technics. But people do really believe (and I see why) that language’s previous pacing and structuring and sedimentation of experience is now invaded, interfered with, overtaken by the different rhythms and transparencies of the shifting visual array. We’ve got ourselves a technology of visualization—here’s the claim—that can emulate language’s flexibility and power to make otherwise, but augment that power by its own unique offer of vividness, its promise of worlds laid out in an instant. Grammar is giving way to perspective.

It’s a good story, but I don’t believe it’s true. On the contrary, I reckon our present means of image-production are still utterly under the spell of the verbal—that’s part of the trouble with them. They are an instrumentation of a certain kind of language use: their notions of image clarity, image flow, image depth, and image density seem to me all determined by the parallel (unimpeded) movement of the logo, the brand name, the product slogan, the compressed pseudo-narrative of the TV commercial, the soundbite, the T-shirt confession, the chat show Q&A. Billboards, web pages, and video games are just projections—perfections, perfected banalizations—of this world of half-verbal exchange. They are truly (as their intellectual groupies go on claiming) a “discourse”—read, a sealed echo-chamber of lies.

Here’s why it seems to me more and more urgent, politically, to point to the real boundaries between seeing and speaking, or sentence and visual configuration. And to try to keep alive the notion of a kind of visuality that truly establishes itself at the edge of the verbal—never wholly apart from it, needless to say, never out of discourse’s clutches, but able and willing to exploit the difference between a sign and a pose, or a syntactical structure and a physical (visual, material) interval. Sure, I count myself an enemy of the present regime of the image: not out of some nostalgic “logocentricity,” but because I see our image machines as flooding the world with words—with words (blurbs, jingles, catchphrases, ten thousand quick tickets to meaning) given just enough visual cladding.

This is what The Sight of Death is aimed against. It wants to discover what images are capable of—and what real wordlessness, in the face of the world of words, looks like. The running man in the main painting I look at—Poussin’s Landscape with a Man Killed by a Snake—is someone genuinely at the edge of speech, just outside the reach of the verbal. And Poussin wants to show us what is involved in being there—what risks there are in wordlessness, what possible powers…

Rail: Let me pursue this a little further. I certainly understood as I read the book that your account of Poussin was a way of arguing with the present notion of us entering an image-centered world—leaving “logocentrism” behind. Your reading of Landscape with a Man Killed by a Snake comes to revolve around this set of issues as—forgive my reducing such a complex argument to a few words—an allegory of the relationship between word, image and meaning. You write that, as in the case of Poussin, “certain pictures look like language in order to alert us precisely to their unreadability,” and that Snake is “a picture of the moment before speech…” The intersection of those two worlds—ours and Snake’s—makes for a powerfully charged book. In retrospect, was coming upon that clash of worlds just serendipitous? Or do you think some other painting or group of paintings might have given rise to these issues? I guess I’m curious about the fact that it was Poussin, and not a painter you’ve written about in the past—and, moreover, not a Modernist painter—who prompted this “experiment in art writing.”

Clark: I guess I wanted—I needed—a kind of painting that seemed, on the face of it, to be happy with its own nesting in the world of language; so that it could emerge, gradually, as the book went forward, that this being at home with the linguistic—with the conventions of narrative, with the idea of a signing and “expressive” body, and so on—ended up making a real argument about the limits and deficits of language possible. You don’t have to be at odds with language—in the way so much modernist art has been—to be able to picture it as part of a world, not the whole of it. Language doesn’t have to be posited and hypostatized as the enemy—or as some all-invasive, all-determining human reality, which only modernism will put to flight. And yes, Poussin has always been my key example of just that kind of sanity in face of the word.

Nicolas Poussin, “Landscape with a Man Killed by a Snake” (c. 1648–51). Oil on canvas, 47”× 88.25”. National Gallery, London.

Rail: Right at the start of the book, in the Preface, you say a few words about the difference between what you’re doing in Afflicted Powers and The Sight of Death and “the alternative currently on offer in so much of the Left academy.” It’s pretty clear that you haven’t much sympathy for what passes these days as Left art history. Why not?

Clark: I think it’s stuck with an out-of-date sense of the issues. As if it mattered any longer—as if it had any present political point—to prove for the umpteenth time that what we poor suckers had imagined was a difficult and double-edged picture of the human condition was really, hey presto!, just another instrument of ruling-class oppression… Here’s Bruegel for you—provider of sneering moralistic services for a bunch of bourgeois Puritans. Where does one start with this? Maybe by looking back at the canonical quote from Walter Benjamin, and reminding oneself of what it did and did not say. It did not say that “There is no document of civilization which is not really, when you look at its origins and function, a document of barbarism.” It said: “There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.” This is a dialectical thought, not an anti-canonical put-down. The work of art is a document of civilization and of barbarism. The job of the materialist is to think the two identities—the two kinds of belonging to history—together. Not to reduce one to the other. A materialist will presumably be interested in what it was, in the sets of possibilities offered by a specific medium, a specific practice, that opened the space in which a jolly denunciation of peasant foolishness became something else.

And always in the back of my mind is the question: Where does the Left actually get its picture of the humanity that class society stifles and travesties if not, in part, from Bruegel and Poussin? Is it all there in the pages of Marx and Foucault? I don’t think so (neither did Marx). Or is it that Left art historians lead such rich and unalienated lives that they simply don’t need their picture of humanity enriched by other people’s representations? That must feel good…But all of this, in any case, is so remote from the questions posed by actual image-war going on around us—that’s the point. The “canon question”… The “great art question”… The sins of museums… Wake me when it’s over.

Rail: The Sight of Death publishes for the first time in one of your books of art history several of your own poems. What first brought you to writing poetry? The reading of poetry, too, like the time spent with painting, has a special capacity to—for lack of a better way to put it—alter the thickness of space and the rhythms of time. Who do you read, when you are writing your own poems?

Detail of “Landscape with a Man Killed by a Snake.”

Clark: Well, the poems about the paintings just occurred. I can’t do much better than that. Of course I think that poetic language—language at maximum intensity and concentration, taking full advantage of the materiality of language itself—is about the best way we have of dealing with the world. But only if it’s good. Bad poems are worse than most prose. The poems in the book happened abruptly: the kernels of all of them, and sometimes a version of the poem as a whole, forced themselves on me, usually in the first minutes of the day. That’s to say nothing about poetry in general, just about these poems on this occasion. And naturally I worked like mad to make them better after the first shot. Probably too hard.

I read more poetry than prose—at the moment, if you want heroes, Zbigniew Herbert in Milosz and Dale Scott’s extraordinary translation, and Brecht, particularly as he comes over in the renderings by Hannah Arendt in her great essay in Men in Dark Times. But of course these are voices far beyond imitation, or even influence. What is it that Brodsky said about Platonov’s novels—something about Platonov being untranslatable, and that we should count ourselves fortunate that ours is a language that can’t say again what he had to say? I feel the same way about every line of Brecht and Herbert—as I say, in spite of the miracle of Milosz’s translation.

Rail: What surprised you the most about the process of writing this book?

Clark: The whole thing surprised me: the fact that the two paintings were there to be written about in the first place, the fact that I couldn’t stop once I’d started, the poems cropping up, the utter unpredictability of the “topics” that presented themselves day after day—and the feeling of delight at the process (idiotic satisfaction at the end of each morning, as if I was doing what I had lived to do)… I’m not saying I felt the same way all through. There were black passages later. I got into areas I’d have liked to have avoided. From journal to book wasn’t easy. But the initial months—they were sheer luck!

Rail: Was it “luck,” really, or a commitment to the openness of possibility? There is one day I remember in the book when you describe going to the paintings “with an idea of what I should try to write about.” And you say: “Not a good sign.” It strikes me that this does well to describe the great problem with so much art history writing these days. Everyone shows up to the work with an agenda. The best art resists our efforts, of course.

Clark: I hope… But your final “of course” is optimistic…

Rail: Yes, it is. I can live with that. One last question, Tim: you began writing this book during a stay at the Getty Research Institute, where you intended to complete a new book on Picasso. Do you think your experience writing The Sight of Death will change how you approach your next project?

Clark: I’m sure it has. I know I have to return to Picasso, and the book I’m beginning to work on has a working title something like Picasso and Nietzsche or Picasso and the Will to Power. It comes out of a feeling that what Picasso was up to in the late 1920’s still hasn’t been confronted adequately. (Carl Einstein began to at the time, but then his suggestions got buried under the mountain of Picasso schlock…) I want to look at certain Picasso paintings with questions from The Genealogy of Morals and The Will to Power in mind. Questions that have to do with truth in painting—or about how painting operates in a world after Truth. Big, nasty, portentous Nietzschean questions… But I’m more and more convinced that they were Picasso’s too. Nasty and portentous, but also—this being Picasso, and this being Nietzsche—light-hearted as hell.


Kathryn Tuma

Tuma is a Professor of Art History at the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, MD.