The Turning Look: T. J. Clark Interviewed by Ryan Meehan

Hope at the point of despair; doubt at the point of hope.

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Tj Clark1

Courtesy of Thames & Hudson. 

The work of T. J. Clark brings to mind certain birds of prey whose power of vision is to observe the subtlest of movements at the greatest possible distance. In Clark’s case, the movement is that of the painterly hand, in all its ambiguous signification and style; the distance is the one spanning the epochs between the world of the painter and our own. Heaven on Earth: Painting and the Life to Come, his seventh book, is his first to treat at length the increasingly remote regions of the Late Medieval and the Italian and Dutch Renaissance. While much of his previous work treated the modernisms of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries—notably, Farewell to an Idea: Episodes from a History of Modernism (1999) and The Painting of Modern Life: Paris in the Art of Manet and His Followers (1984)—with Heaven on Earth the sense is of an inquiry into aesthetic subjectivity at the limits of contemporary recognition. The name Clark gives to this remoteness is faith, not simply in the Trinitarian God, but in a life of plenitude still to come, of a world yet unseen by mortal eyes. It is this unknowable world (and, by implication, that world’s unknowability from within our own) that the likes of Veronese, Poussin, Breughel, and Giotto strive to make manifest, on canvases and chapel walls throughout Christendom. It is Clark’s vantage point, as a vehemently secular critic, to reinhabit this faith, not simply as a set of background practices, but as discrete material concerns of tone, theme, and technique. As always, his concern is as much with what is visible as with what can be made visible to us in an age of political fallenness. Heaven on Earth is actually Clark’s eighth book, if you count the Iraq War samizdat Afflicted Powers: Capital and Spectacle in a New Age of War (2005) he published as part of the Retort collective. Clark is the great living interpreter of images and image-regimes for the Left, and Heaven on Earth concludes with a détournement of its own, subtle to the point of obscurity, first toward a gnostic work by Pablo Picasso in the lobby at UNESCO, and finally toward a polyphonic lament for resurrectionary reformism worthy of late Jean-Luc Godard. It was with this balancing act in mind—between weightlessness on the one hand and free fall on the other—that I had the chance to speak to him over the phone.

—Ryan Meehan


Ryan Meehan How did the opening chapter on Giotto, which in the book you say came together last, bring the book’s larger project into focus?

T. J. Clark I had the chance to see the Arena Chapel six or seven years ago. It’s hard to see it properly these days: conservation issues mean that you can only see it for fifteen minutes. It’s heartbreaking, actually. I was asked to talk at the University of Padua, and I said, “I’ll gladly talk, but please pull strings and allow me to stand there for as long as my kidneys let me.” And I was hooked. I’ve always revered Giotto, but my attention turned to Joachim’s Dream, and slowly over the next couple of years I’ve tried to come to terms with why. Part of it was that this picture, of Joachim in the Desert—a humiliated, isolated, despairing individual, thrown out of the community of his fellow citizens because of barrenness; the idea that that was somehow or other God’s verdict—existed at the moment of complete despair, and at that moment comes the possibility of a turn of fortune, the possibility of the world becoming radically different, the possibility of reversal, even here, maybe especially here at the point of despair. Another world appearing.

And then, because Giotto is such a complex thinker, it seemed more and more important that it’s hope at the point of despair, but it’s also doubt at the point of hope. It’s misgivings on Joachim’s part in the face of the promise of salvation, the promise that the world is going to turn.

I saw the Arena Chapel during dark years, specifically the years of the Middle East truly turning toward a dreadful, ruthless, apocalyptic end-time politics. Our image-world was full of people in orange jumpsuits being beheaded in front of our eyes, and we seemed to be reverting to a politics of religion, or religious war—a politics of apocalypse. So I was thinking about Joachim, and about this balance between doubt, misgiving, and the possibility that the world could indeed be remade, could reverse its terms. It brought into focus a lot of political thoughts of mine at that point, and a lot of my response to the world around me, and other pictures that had been already very important to me. I began to see that to some extent they were answering to the same dilemma.

RM That rootedness in the present is something that permeates the book. You indicate that the stakes of modernism ought to be provoked by the questions you’re investigating in Renaissance depictions, images from an age of faith. Is this book in some way a call to renew the modernist project? 

TJC There’s a part early on in the book where I say that it’s very hard to sustain the optimistic cold materialism of modernism in the face of the world we live in, which seems to be reverting to a kind of older revival of many things we thought we’d got past. There’s a sentence where I say, “A later enlightenment is, alas, not for us.” It’s hard to hang on to the radical materialism of Édouard Manet, Georges-Pierre Seurat, and Paul Cézanne and say: this is the guide to the world we have. But of course I still revere them, and I hope we can live with modernism’s determination to be fully and only in the world.

It’s an indelible strain in humanity, this idea that the world is insufficient, and false, just a spume on some deeper reality which may be about to reveal itself. I share with Friedrich Nietzsche a horror at human beings’ wish for that, and the recklessness and vehemence with which they commit themselves to some idea that the world is to be disposed of, that we’re at the turning point. But it’s indelible, so somehow or other, we need modernism’s disabused dwelling in the merely material world, but we need to recognize that that’s always going to be haunted—and not just haunted but also energized—by the wish that the world (certainly the world we have) wasn’t all there was.

RM You open the book with a quote from John Ruskin about the inadequacy of the written word compared to the painterly image. Your own writing style hinges on a kind of rich indeterminacy that’s mimetic of thought, but also of the practice of painting. I’m thinking of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s quote on speech and silence and that maybe your practice is an act of faith in speech over silence.

TJC I do have faith in speech. I also have misgivings about the way we human beings dwell so completely in a textual universe. That’s part of the problem of apocalyptic, life-to-come politics—that it’s textual. There’s a story of the world about to give way to another. And it’s a great story, it’s perhaps a necessary story, but it turns so easily into the script of a cult, or a sect, or an army, or—to be a little mean about it—an avant-garde. I want a relationship between language and the world which is much more skeptical. I value paintings for their muteness and their indeterminacy. We’re language animals; I don’t think we’ll ever escape from that, nor should we want to. But if somehow or other we could have a language that responded to the strangeness of our stake in description; it fascinates me that the crystallization or acceleration of the language faculty seems to have happened at the same moment as this enormous investment of Paleolithic man in the making of depictions. So Venus of Willendorf, Altamira, and Pech Merle coexist somehow or other with language. And it’s that coexistence which I want to go on thinking about.

I love Ruskin, of course, but the wild claim that, “There’s more in Veronese’s picture than in a thousand poems,” this is wonderful hyperbole, and Ruskin himself is traducing his own worship of the visual over the verbal because he’s such a writerly writer himself.

RM It’s a great platform for provocation. I think of poetry as a language that can respond to strangeness, and poetry figures as a major interfacing force with painterly images in your book. You invoke Homer, Dante, Donne, Baudelaire, Eliot; you’ve also begun to incorporate your own poetry into your books. Has this always been a major background practice?

TJC It’s been there before, it’s been constant, this worship of poetry and the importance of it for me, as a writer, as a reader. The book I wrote about Nicolas Poussin fifteen years ago [The Sight of Death: An Experiment in Art Writing, 2006] already had poetry incorporated in it. If you really want to know, I think I was writing more poetry then, much more than I am these days. I think returning to London and having to face up, after forty years away, to my own society, with which I have a very unhappy, unresolved relationship—I don’t know, sometimes I think it’s crushed the poetry out of me!

But that’s too pessimistic. I am still trying. It’s fundamental. Poetry is that use of language which is always pushing language beyond its norms, and that is absolutely determined to confront and somehow or other incorporate the unruliness, the strangeness, the alien-ness of the world. That’s a measure for me. That’s what I want language to do.

Tj Clark2

Photograph by Anne Wagner.

RM It’s been some time since the book’s coda, “For a Left With No Future,” was first published. You mention Syriza there, but there are other movements emerging and subsisting further east: in Rojava, in Kerala. There’s also Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders—make of them what you will. Do you see the possibility of an image-regime of the Left emerging?

TJC I don’t want to be the voice of despair. I’m Joachim at the point of doubt, rather than some nihilistic naysayer. I, too, look with real hope at some of those points of light you’ve just mentioned. But of course, you know as well as I do that, in a certain sense, times are darker than we ever could have imagined. None of us perhaps really anticipated that the 2008 crisis of world capitalism would be greeted by the kinds of opposition from the Right—triumphant in Europe—that actually arose; that, by and large, in the capitalist heartlands, the Left has had very little purchase on events.

There’s a kind of deliberately bleak sentence somewhere in the coda where I say, “If the last fifteen years hasn’t produced proof that no revival of the Left in its nineteenth- and twentieth-century form is possible, then what would proof be like?” That’s not a counsel of despair in my view; it’s saying that if we wish to confront consumerism, its appeal and its crisis, I think we have to reconstruct, really from the bottom up. And you’re absolutely right that there are regimes in which that’s being tried. Poor old Syriza was crushed, it was held in the vice of big capital, and it may indeed be right that it’s when smaller, more marginal regimes are carved out of the chaos of the situation in the Middle East that some other possibility will emerge. I really hope so.

Ryan Meehan is a writer based in Brooklyn. His criticism has appeared in VICE, Aquarium Drunkard, and the Notebook at MUBI.com. He is currently at work on a novel about art and terrorism.

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