- Can Modernism Have a Future?
Most of me is delighted that this past spring my colleague T. J. Clark published what is clearly the best book ever written on modernism, Farewell to an Idea: Episodes from a History of Modernism. Clark is the best reader of difficult paintings that I have encountered. And his dense, scrupulous scholarship elaborates a powerful, intensely engaged meditation on the difficulties inherent in modernism’s efforts to make the resources of art adequate to a world in which inherited models of representation seem only to deepen the disenchantment produced by the dominance of capitalist modes of production. In my view one simply cannot go on doing modernist studies without fully engaging both Clark’s arguments and the passionate, anarchic utopianism that pervades the book. So I will devote this essay to just such an engagement, reveling in Clark’s ability to make dramatically compelling the demand that we find a level on which we can address modernism as a single set of interlocking pressures, projections, and strategies. I will not be able to deal adequately with the subtlety of his arguments or the intricacy of his readings, but I hope I will be able to honor the basic logic and insistent passion of his challenge to traditional perspectives on modernism.
I will argue that despite his remarkably compelling readings of individual works, Clark’s political commitments make it impossible for him to honor fully several fundamental features basic to the modernists’ sense that theirs was a distinctive, world-historical enterprise capable of radically altering what culture could expect of its arts. Clark may be right in his overall assessment of the problems modernism could not satisfactorily engage, and hence he might be right in wishing it a cold, deeply respectful farewell. However I don’t think we can [End Page 127] make such judgments until we give modernist self-representations the full hearing that they can gain under the pressure of Clark’s critiques. So I hope to foreground the stakes attending competing views about how modernist art might be “answerable” to contemporary social and political concerns. From my perspective, even Clark’s brilliance cannot overcome the fundamentally epistemic reliance on ideals of “representation” that shape his judgments about the limitations of even the greatest modernist art, or, as he would put it, “especially” of the greatest modernist art. I will take the opposite tack, arguing that his analysis reveals by contrast the deep intelligence and continuing usefulness of modernist efforts to provide alternatives to those representational ideals and the cultural assumptions on which they are based. 1
I have to begin by summarizing Clark’s general argument, which assures that at least this part of the paper will seem interesting. In his view modernism proves itself both necessary and engaging to the degree that it manages to struggle against the effects of modernity. Modernity, in turn, is best understood in Weberian terms as an increasing “disenchantment of the world” (7). Traditionally critics have located this disenchantment in the emerging dominance of Enlightenment forms of thinking. For Clark that picture can be sharpened by stressing the role that a spirit of contingency plays within those forms, since this spirit manifests the powerful effects of capitalist modes of production. The spirit of contingency produces “a great emptying, and sanitizing of the imagination” because it rejects all modes of authority based on the past (7). In their place it focuses attention on a “projected future—of goods, pleasures, freedoms of control over nature, or infinities of information” (7). A strong temptation to treat all goods in terms of the logic of markets emerges. Authority resides not in those who have practical skills but in those “experts” whose only faith is in empirical studies of tastes and tendencies: how we deal with nature proves inseparable from how we deal with marketing.
Modernism’s resistance to this “blindness of modernity” allies it with the projections of socialist politics, a fact emblematized in their sharing essentially the same historical span (8). Both perspectives try...