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Farewell to an Idea: Episodes from a History of Modernism Paperback – 1999
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From Publishers Weekly
No two social or aesthetic movements have been as agonizingly debated and lamented as Modernism and Socialism. Both arose in the wake of the French Revolution, and both were deemed untenable by the late 1980s. In this career-defining work, a collection of seven ruminative essays on the "co-dependency" of these concepts, eminent art historian Clark offers not so much a summation as an archeology, working through "limit cases" in the long and tortured relationship of art and politics, from David's shrewd positioning of his portrait of Citizen Marat within the fervor of the French Revolution to the perceived "anarchism" of Pissarro's laboring field women and the social meanings of Jackson Pollock's post-War drip paintings (Clark reads them in two intriguing contexts: first, as an expression of "lordly," aristocratic attitude, dismissing content in favor of form; and secondly, in terms of their use as backdrops for a 1950 Vogue magazine photo shoot). He writes about politics and art without cynicism, speaking often in the direct, if melancholy, voice of one who wants something to have been, so that it might still be. Clark's is a reclamation project: he seeks to return agency to the artists and paintings that gave face to modernity, and to steer us, as readers and interpreters, away from facile historicism on the one hand, and formalism on the other. The essays in this volume are always historically nuanced, aglow with Clark's deep learning and masterful prose; they will doubtlessly elicit much praise and be the subject of much debate.
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
From Library Journal
This synthesis of three decades of Clark's (modern art, Univ. of California, Berkeley) thinking and writing about modern art is not a simple book. It raises basic questions on the vitality and viability of modernism and its relation to other intellectual, political, and social developments of the 20th century. Modernism's duality, its inward reflecting and outward reaching, is echoed in Clark's approach, which treats both a broad historic view and specific works of art in relation to the material world. The reader is exposed to philosophical rumination, critical detail, and historic perspective: from David at work during the Terror of the late 18th century to C?zanne painting at the time Freudian theory was evolving to Pollock's view of an abstract form reaching outward limits. A difficult, thought-provoking work that requires almost as much effort on the part of the reader as that of the author but is well worth the effort. For all academic art collections.APaula Frosch, Metropolitan Museum of Art Lib., New York
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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He covers the apocalyptic nature of utopian nihilism and Freudian anxiety.He begins modernism early,from the French Revolution.Marat's murder and the subsequent painting as the revolution was for the future project of democracy. "I am doing it because I want to think about modernism as a set of responses to modern social and political conditions." He depicts the mystery of the letter,the writing,the background,the dedication,how it engages with politics and the world's disenchantment.Modernist work is a painting produced at times of "maximum (social and political) stress",which replies to those extreme circumstances with an extreme response.We are dealing with "the disenchantment of the modern world"(Weber). Farewell provides a series of limiting cases in the construction of modernism,core samples in a dialectic strategy.
His definition of modernism has 3 features:i)a recognition of the social reality of the sign;ii)the simultaneous belief that the sign was grounded in some experience of World/Nature/Sensation/Subjectivity;andiii)that modernism lacked the social and epistemological basis that these 2 beliefs could be reconciled.At the heart of the modernist enterprise is the peculiar status of the sign,suspended between convention and motivation,arbitrariness and origin. This antimony becomes the motor of his dialectical analysis. It reappears in a number of guises: the status of writing in David's Marat; the significance of `sensation' in the work of Pissarro and Cézanne; or the status of metaphor in Picasso and Pollock.
The book begins with Jacques-Louis David, painting at the height of the Terror in 1793, then leaps forward to Pissarro a hundred years later, struggling to picture Two Young Peasant Women in a way that agreed with his anarchist politics. Next the author turns in succession to Cézanne's paintings of the Grandes Baigneuses and their coincidence in time (and maybe intention) with Freud's launching of psychoanalysis; to Picasso's Cubism; and to avant-garde art after the Russian Revolution. Clark concludes with a reading of Jackson Pollock's tragic version of abstraction and suggests a new set of terms to describe avant-garde art--perhaps in its final flowering--in America after 1945. Shifting between broad, speculative history and intense analysis of specific works, Clark not only transfigures our usual understanding of modern art, he also launches a new set of proposals about modernity itself:to preserve the dream of freedom in a world increasingly hostile to that dream.
Cezanne and Cubism are often seen as the starting point of modernism,especially Cezanne's Large Bathers(1904-6),Cezanne abstracting progressively away from naked bodies in Nature,to leave unfinishedness and overall structure as definitive. How buttocks and shoulders merge in Freudian condensation and displacement.This delivers painting over to the psychic machine and mechanization of forces.Matter.Materialism.Aesthetic non-transcendence.A`turning of the handle of the representational machine'.Then analytic Cubism(1911-12),breaking form down to the exclusion of interest in colour,a reduction of natural forms to their geometric shapes.A balance between the abstract totalizing process and the local acts of illusionism. For the project to succeed, cubism would have required not only a new description of the world, but also an `overall recasting of social practice.'
This proved a failure. The antimony between visuality and texuality is central to his analysis of the Russian avant-garde. Clark's argument turns on two examples by El Lissitzky: a propaganda board from 1920, and a small gouache from 1920-21, Untitled (Rosa Luxemburg).The presence of writing energizes and complicates the picture's whole economy.Malevich and Lissitzky's stress on the sign as profoundly arbitrary,their belief that the world it posited was truly a fiction,led towards forms of public and collective action.Visuality vs.textuality. In both David'sMarat and El Lissitzky's Rosa Luxemburg, writing enters the picture and unsettles the relation between work and world.
Lastly Pollock(1947-50).There is the battle between sign/figure/metaphor and abstraction.He sees the exhilaration,freedom and energy together with the risk,nervousness,doubt,the threat of trivialization/absorption in mass media,of the creator's fragile ego and self-destructiveness."Is this a painting"?,Pollock once asked of one of his.Pollock is perhaps at the end of modernism.He expressed his feelings directly,he walked around his paintings,he felt in his paintings.Abstract painting must set itself the task of cancelling Nature,and ending painting'srelation to the world of things.Painting becomes a kind of writing at last,writing a script no one has read before.None of this is achievable with the means it has,Nature will not go away,reasserts its rights over the new handwriting, writes a familiar script:One-ness,Autumn Rhythm,Lavender Mist,returning painting to the body.He simulated Nature's unpredictability,variety,vitality.His lighthand borne of intelligence and a deep sense of the natural world,space a 3D physical fact.From the dance,choreography,space seeps through the thickets and skeins of paint poured.Clark sees this as the reason abstraction stopped at the moment of triumph.Clark's brilliance is his radical political engagement in a formalism in the arts and its implications on Marx's utopian project is the great drama of ideas carried out in this book's fond farewell.
Farewell to an Idea by T.J. Clark is an extraordinarily personalized text--- also long, dense, and carefully written, as any reader of Clark has come to expect. His new book is necessarily idiosyncratic, often brilliant--- with illustrations (many in color) of a quality of reproduction overarchingly essential to the book's aims.
Modern art criticism (and the criticism of modern art) will not easily be the same after this book, and a good thing is that Farewell to an Idea will not provide easy fodder to the multitude of its author's exegetes and followers--- for it is the "full monty" this time. And one does not imagine imitators.
For what it is worth, the book comprises a vast erudition and experience in the matter and materials of mass culture in the twentieth century, but claims little familiarity with mass society. For it was indeed thought out and written in the "wilds" of Northern California, as Tim Clark is, and for some years has been, Chancellor's Professor of Modern Art at the University of California at Berkeley--- conceived not in the "flats", then, but on high ground.
It's hallmark and strength lie in Clark's approach to art--- and to Modernism--- sketched out as early as the author's heroic, short manifesto "The conditions of artistic creation" published twenty-five years ago in the TLS (May 24, l974), to which in a number of ways Farewell to an Idea is the self-spoken answer--- not a bad shot for a quarter century's worth of work and of scrupulous looking in inordinate detail at pictures from Paris to New York's MoMA and the Barnes Collection outside Philadelphia, and, indeed, wherever the masterpieces, or the detritus, of Modernism is to be found. Incidentally, a significant number of the works illustrated here are from private collections--- and will be, to that extent, unfamiliar and "fresh" to the eye.
By specialists, it may be recalled that the TLS manifesto wished to express that art history was, then, in crisis--- Clark made reference to certain "fundamental questions", the conditions of consciousness, and the nature of representation. He called for "an archaeology of the subject" exercised via "dialectical thinking", that would enable certain "questions" to be asked by disinterring "the Hegelian legacy" of nineteenth-century historiography and pursuing a notion of "the history of art as work". One of these "questions" was the issue of ideology, which, now, at century's end is far less unfamiliar in the humanities than at the time of Clark's rebuke to the discipline. Yet what he sought for the future was a "point by point description" of the "contact of work [of art] and ideology"--- and this is now what Farewell to an Idea: Episodes from a History of Modernism is made out of. Answers, or tentative answers, to Clark's other "questions" are here too: what were "the conditions and relations of artistic production in a specific case", what determined "the particular encounter of work [of art] and ideology", how did "the wordless appropriation of the work" take place?
Farewell to an Idea , then, consists of a rich tissue of ekphraseis , or descriptions of art--- mainly painting--- from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The "episodes" of the subtitle are six in number: David's "Death of Marat" (l793) and surrounding events, Pissarro's "Two Young Peasant Women" (l892) in the Met, the Barnes "Large Bathers" from the turn of the century by Cézanne with its avatars from London and Philadelphia, Picasso's Cubism of l911-12, the relationship of El Lissitsky and Malevitch in Vitebsk in the early 20s, and the work of Jackson Pollack in the late 40s to l950. Each of these is a separate tale, painstakingly documented to an extent that each manages to break new ground, "philologically"--- as Manfred Tafuri was fond of saying--- as well as contributing to Clark's ongoing "history of [Modernism] as work".
Clark was ever a prodigy kid, and his new book is a "prodigy" book--- like the Elizabethan "prodigy house" full of many rooms--- and, possibly for this reason, the most up front, and reader-friendly of his several works. Its scope, in the end, is less valedictory than novelistic; one enters each episode as if it were a web site, thinking to oneself, as the youngsters used to say a few years ago, that "I have never been here before". My own favorite chapters are the first, "Painting in the Year 2" and the fifth, "God is not Cast Down", because there is so much extrapolated material about self-consciously ideological art in a political situation (the French and Russian Revolutions), whereas the other chapters are more about the conjuncture of art and ideology in the referred to sense of "wordless appropriation".
In addition to its episodic (really "case study" would be more descriptive) body, there are an Introduction, an epilogue "In Defense of Abstract Expressionism", and a Conclusion. Some interesting theory-based definitions are advanced, notably that of "contingency", which will bear further work. On the other hand, Clark's discussion of the chain of terms "modernization-Modernism-modernity", while thought-provoking, is also, I believe, problematic. In this connection, he makes heavy work of the [Walter] Benjaminian horror inspired by our century, that is nowadays (wordlessly) propagated in so much discussion concerning art and the humanities. One of the few weaknesses of the book is the occasional discursive passage on "taste" (that is, its history as opposed to art's), a domain I feel Clark rushes upon too intently to preserve the virtues of his own self-declared approach. Nonetheless, I have read every word of this book. I think my favorite one-line quotation, to give a hint of its writer's genius is from p. l09: "Seurat was the Nietzsche of painting."
David B. Stewart, Tokyo Institute of Technology