Well, it took me 4 quick months to make it through T J Clark’s Farewell to an Idea, but I made it…


Say “it took you long enough!” True, I have been working on it, off and on, since November, and I was making good progress on it—first by reading a few pages every evening in lieu of television, then rocking out 2-5 pages a day on the stationary bike and more with coffee on the weekend—but I tore up my knee in Arkansas and had to take a month off.

I’m not sure why I needed a healthy knee, or even an 85% one, to read Dr. Clark, but I did. I had no problem with others: Chandler, L’Amour, Parker, Anthony, were easy… some went down in a day; Luigi Ghirri’s short essays were more difficult, but I still read some, haltingly, and when I had the energy for it. But I needed balance, stability, mobility, for the Clark. It definitely stretched my Art Historian muscles.

Clark composed the book after the fall of the wall, after the failure of the great socialist project and the triumph of capitalism, in “green-Black words tapped nearly soundlessly info screen space at fin de siècle.” (13) The Idea at its end, then, is twofold: the end of socialism; the end of modernism. The two are linked.

Capitalism needs an other. And Modernism needed, indeed contains within it, a longing to return to some glorious past, but with all the comforts of home. It was socialism for both, and after the Wall fell, they’ve both been a bit adrift. For now, here in the 21st century, tapping probably even more nearly silently, but into dark grey text on creamy white WordPress window 20 years later, it’s now something else, an imagined pre-modern barbarism starring barefoot, illiterate Bedouins living in caves in the desert. After the fall of socialism, it didn’t take long at all to find this other, and reading Farewell to an Idea now, it’s all very clear: for all the big talk, we’re not living in a post-modern time: we’re enjoying the fruits, the result, the triumph of two centuries of modernization.

Dr. Clark doesn’t seem to be much of a fan of Modernism, and he’s happy to see bid it farewell, with all of its “Bland promises, great collective dreams,” (405) though reports of its demise were greatly exaggerated.

Farewell is definitely intense and seriously funny all the way through. Dr. Clark guides us through a history of Modernism (and modernity) via some episodes from Art History: from its beginning way back in the French Revolution with David’s painting of Marat—you know the one—all the way through Pollock and the Abstract Expressionists. Each work, artist, period, is explored from all sides, leading down many branching paths, stopping at dead ends and circling back. In his discussion of the David, for example, Dr. Clark talks all around the painting: the communes and the terror; the assassination and the painting’s production; Marat’s leprocy (I had no idea) and the colors David used to model the skin; Marie-Anne Charlotte Corday and the various notes and bills in the painting. It’s fairly exhaustive, and reading it was exhausting, though I was woefully out of practice.

From David and the communes, he goes into Pissarro and the Anarchists, with a deep dive into Two Young Peasant Women, then Cezanne’s Bathers, Picasso, El Lissitzky and Malevich and Communism, and Pollock, with a short defense of Abstract Expressionism that calls it valuable/worthwhile only when it reaches the heights of vulgarity, which it does at a few exquisite points.

Now, I had never been particularly interested in Pissarro or his pretty little paintings, or Cezanne’s Bathers, for that matter, but I have an appreciation now that will make the visits to the Modern galleries in various museums worthwhile, should I find myself in Paris or New York or London again. (One of the Picassos discussed, Man with a Pipe is at the Kimbell in Fort Worth…) And I was not familiar with Pollock’s late work, like The Wooden Horse… they look a little bit interesting and will be worth looking up one day, maybe.

About Pollock, in a discussion of the Namuth photo of Pollock at work, and comparing it to photographs of Mondrian’s studio and Malevich lying in state under the Black Square, Clark speaks of “…the work’s overweening, utopian, slightly lunatic character. History is going to be overcome by painting. Human nature is going to be remade. Artists have invented a new alphabet. Pictures will tell the truth.” (p. 369) I hunted high and low for an online recording of the little snippet of sardonic laughter at the end of Within You Without You to insert here, but failed. It definitely played in my head when I read it.

So Farewell to an Idea lives up to every bit of the speculative 4.8 stars I gave it last fall, but now the .2 deduction is for the binding, which has gotten pretty loose, just by reading it (though I did read about 80 pages with it balanced on the handle bars of the stationary bike… I’m sure that had nothing to do with it). Perhaps it wasn’t meant to be read? I mean, I’m sure few people outside of some rare graduate programs actually did, despite its tending toward a coffee table book…

Farewell to an Idea is going to take up a nice spot on my bookshelves, among books that I hope to read again one day, but doubt that I ever will: Deleuze and Guattari are there, as is Infinte Jest. Good company, if you ask me.

So so long, Modernism (and modernity), it was good to know you, and we’re happily enjoying the fruits of your triumph. But don’t mourn its passing: “The Myth will survive its historic defeat. The present is purgatory, not a permanent travesty of Heaven” (408).

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