Manet in situ:

T.J. Clark's The Painting of Modern Life

According to the back flap of The Painting of Modern Life: Paris in the Art of Manet and His Followers (Knopf, 1985), the book's author

was born in Bristol, England, and was educated at Cambridge University and the Courtauld Institute of London University. Before becoming professor of art history at Harvard University in 1980, he taught at Essex University, Camberwell School of Art, U.C.L.A. and Leeds University. He is the author of two previous books on nineteenth century French art, The Absolute Bourgeois: Artists and Politics in France, 1848-51 and Image of the People: Gustave Courbet and the 1848 Revolution.

In his own "Narrative of Career," T.J. Clark writes,

From fairly early on in my undergraduate career I was determined to do my graduate work in art history, and in particular to find a way to put the history of painting in contact with other histories, social, economic and political. From 1964 onwards I was enrolled for a Ph.D. at the Courtauld Institute of Art, London University, and in 1966-67 I was in Paris as a research fellow of the Centre Nationale de la Recherche Scientifique.

Perhaps most relevant to us is the fact that Clark was once a member of the Situationist International: in December 1967, Clark and the rest of the British section (Christopher Gray and Donald Nicholson-Smith) were excluded from the SI for reasons that are difficult, if not impossible to reconstruct.

But we should not prejudge Clark or his work because he was excluded from an organization we hold dear. Well after the exclusions of the British situationists, the SI considered all three of them to be (at the very least) quite talented and very likely to make excellent uses of their respective talents. Before their exclusion, the British situationists produced a manifesto and had translated several key situationist texts into English. In "The Latest Exclusions," an unsigned article that appeared in Internationale Situationniste #12 (September 1969), it was made clear the British situationists were not excluded for "their activity in England," which was otherwise exemplary; their exclusion was in response to mere "details regarding the SI's solidarity and general criteria for breaking." Thus, it makes sense that Donald Nicholson-Smith, in his translator's preface to Raoul Vaneigem's The Revolution of Everyday Life (Rebel Press/Left Bank Books, 1983), says that the "parting of the ways seemed to me then -- and still seems to me -- thoroughly justified on both sides."

The Painting of Modern Life is a most unusual book: unlike the post-exclusion projects of Gray and Nicholson-Smith, which have been by and large limited to translations or translated anthologies of situationist writing, it is an attempt to write a properly situationist book about an important topic (impressionist painting and the birth of modernity), almost as if the SI itself had not disbanded in 1972 and was still in action. Furthermore, unlike Clark's two previous books on nineteenth century French art (both of which were published in 1973), The Painting of Modern Life is explicitly situationist in perspective. It is only nine pages into his introduction, which defines the terms that are used in the text (class, ideology, spectacle and modernism), before Clark tells his readers about the organization to which he once belonged. "About the concepts of 'spectacle' and 'spectacular society' it is not so easy to be cut and dried," Clark writes. "They were developed first in the mid-1960s as part of the theoretical work of a group called the Situationist International, and they represent an effort to theorize the implications for capitalist society of the progressive shift within production towards the provision of consumer goods and services, and the accompanying 'colonialization of everyday life.' "

And so here we have an excellent book on the nineteenth century by a professor of art history at Harvard University (of all places!) who is overtly attempting to keep alive the situationists' radical critique of the society of the spectacle and to update that critique in the light of the experiences of the last decade and a half. There are "problems" with such a book, and no one is more aware of them than Clark himself. In his introduction, he gives us a "standard proviso."

The notion of spectacle, as I hope will be clear from even my dry summary, was designed first and foremost as a weapon of combat, and contains within itself a more or less bitter (more or less resigned) prediction of its own reappearance in some such form as this, between the covers of a book on art. Although I shall not wrestle in the toils of this contradiction too long, I wish to at least alert the reader to the absurdity involved in making 'spectacle' part of the canon of academic Marxism. If once or twice in the text my use of the word carries a faint whiff of Debord's chiliastic serenity I shall be satisfied.
But the critical concept of the spectacle doesn't make a "reappearance" between the covers of Clark's book: somehow it makes itself felt as an original appearance, as one of the first iterations of situationist cultural critique.

Appropriately, Clark's critique of the spectacle of Impressionist painting involves a critique of the theory of the spectacle (itself). He writes in his introduction,

There are various problems here [in situationist theory]: for instance, deciding when exactly the spectacular society can be said to begin. One is obviously not describing some neat temporality but, rather, a shift -- to some extent an oscillation -- from one kind of capitalist production to another. But certainly the Paris [of the 1860s] that Meyer Shapiro was celebrating, in which commercialized forms of life and leisure were so insistently replacing those "privately improvised," does seem to fit the preceding description quite well. And it will be argued in chapter one that the replacement was not a matter of mere cultural and ideological refurbishing but of all-embracing economic change.

This isn't a trivial problem. If one can situate the beginnings of spectacular society, then one can also trace out the end of that society. Once traced out, the end of the spectacle can be set into motion, or accelerated in the movement of its own self-destruction, by revolutionaries such as the Situationists.

Guy Debord's situations of the historical beginnings of the spectacle -- he made at least two of them -- are quite different than T.J. Clark's attempt. Significantly, Debord's situations are much closer to our own time. In The Society of the Spectacle (1967), Debord identifies the Russian Revolution of 1917 as the spectacle's beginnings; in Comments on the Society of the Spectacle (1988), he identifies the start of World War II as its beginnings. Taken together, Debord's and Clark's theories cover a very wide historical period, from the 1860s to the 1930s. Surely one can also detect (or would that be deduce?) the negative presence of the spectacle as far back as the 1840s, in the poetry and prose of Edgar Allan Poe and Charles Baudelaire. Thus we must say there is a (meta)problem with the fundamental problem of deciding exactly when the spectacle came into being. But this is as it should be. The spectacle (even as it exists today) is not complete: indeed, what makes the spectacle the spectacle is that it is always under construction and never completed. The spectacle must never be fully realized, because it must always have a sphere from which to recuperate new forms of social practice, especially those that resist the spectacle's ceaseless turning of life into images of living. Thus the spectacle is very weak, its hold on power very tenuous. It can be fought with disalienating theories and practices that came into being way before the advent of modern industrial society; it can be fought with Socrates, Plato and Herodotus, if need be, for they already knew the spectacle of gold coined into money.

Not surprisingly, The Painting of Modern of Life has been negatively "reviewed" by every major writer (except Greil Marcus) who has devoted more than a paragraph to it. The manner in which The New York Times responded to it may be paradigmatic: it chose to publish two "reviews" of Clark's book, one devoted to Clark's "politics" and one devoted to his "aesthetics," precisely because his book is an attempt to supercede the contradiction between politics and aesthetics. In its "review" of the "politics" of The Painting of Modern Life, the NYT claimed that "ultimately [Clark] remains weighed down by the chains of ideology"; in its "review" of the book's "aesthetics," it claimed that Clark's book is "seriously flawed" in its lack of attention to the Impressionist painters' concern with "light and color." One isn't sure which is the more preposterous: the ridiculous content of the respective "reviews," or their spectacular separation from each other.

Unfortunately, we do not have the space here to explore very much of Clark's book, which is quite rich and provocative: each of the book's four chapters could stand on its own, as separate statements on closely-related issues. We have attempted to reduce the reader's sense of missing out by writing a separate article ("The Red Hot Chili Peppers: Rocks Off?" included elsewhere in this issue) on the relevance of The Painting of Modern Life to rock music criticism. The rest of this article will be taken up with a relatively small, but hopefully very interesting point concerning Clark's treatment of Manet's famous 1863 painting Olympia.

In his readings of Impressionist paintings (Olympia included), Clark is engaged in an analysis of the all-too-frequently ignored fact that "the perfect heroes and heroines of [the] myth of modernity were the petite-bourgeoisie" (the socio-economic group that, strange as this might seem, included prostitutes such as the one presumably depicted in Olympia). In Clark's words, the perfect heroes and heroines

appeared in many ways to have no class to speak of, to be excluded from the bourgeoisie and the proletariat and yet to thrive on their lack of belonging. They were the shifters of class society, the connoisseurs of its edges and waste lands. And thus they became for a time the alter egos of the avant-garde -- ironically treated, of course, laughed at and condescended to, but depended upon for a point of insertion into modern life. I believe that sometimes in depicting them the painters discovered the limits and insufficiencies of their own ideology, and in some sense described these people's belonging to the class system. That only happened occasionally. Clearly one such occasion was Olympia, which manages to describe both the prostitute's and the painter's own belonging to the (one and the same) class system, despite their respective and sometimes self-conscious detachment from or shifting within it. Properly speaking, the subject of Olympia is the class system.

In a footnote -- the only one in the entire book -- Clark states that "a text by Georges Bataille is sometimes enlisted in the argument that Olympia 'has no subject' (is purely pictorial, visual, or whatever)." It is strange that Clark should mention Bataille in a footnote, and not in the main body of the text: there is little question that Bataille's elaboration of the concept of "the spectacle" in his 1933 essay "The Notion of Expenditure" (not to mention his involvements with experimental micro-societies and radical politics) were crucial precedents for and influences upon the situationists' and thus Clark's own theory of the spectacle. And yet Clark stays within the footnote to relate that,

in Manet: Etude biographique et critique, Bataille takes issue with Valery, who described Olympia as a "public power and presence of a miserable arcanum of Society," "the Impure par excellence, she whose position obliges a candid ignorance of any kind of shame. Bestial vestal, given over to absolute nudity, she makes one think of all the remnants of primitive barbarism and ritual animality which lurk beneath the routine of prostitution in great cities." Bataille comments: "It is possible (though questionable) that in a sense this was initially the text of Olympia, but this text is a separate matter from the woman . . . the text is effaced by the picture. And what the picture signifies is not the text, but the effacement. It is to the extent that Manet did not wish to say what Valery said -- to the extent that, on the contrary, he has suppressed (pulverized) that meaning -- that this woman is there; in her provoking exactitude, she is nothing; her nudity (in this, it is true, corresponding to that of the body itself) is the silence which issues from her as from a drowned and empty ship; what she is, is the 'sacred horror' of her own presence -- of a presence as simple as absence. Her hard realism, which for the Salon visitors was the ugliness of a 'gorilla,' consists for us in the painter's determination to reduce what he saw to the mute simplicity, the open-mouthed simplicity, of what he saw."

At this point, Clark's overly-stuffed footnote should have come to an end. "O.K., Tim," we want to say to him, "we get the point: Olympia does indeed have a subject (the class system); if we want to argue otherwise -- which we may not -- we can call upon Bataille to help us do so."

But the footnote continues on, almost to the point of becoming a supplementary body of text and turning the book as a whole into a footnote to it. Clark writes of Bataille,

This is a stranger argument than it seems. What Bataille objects to in Valery is the poet's attempt to situate Olympia in an older, established, pseudo-sacred text of prostitution -- a text of ritual, mystery, pollution, animality. Olympia is the obliteration of that text, and the putting of another in its place -- the text of literalness, the real silence of the body, the fact of being nothing -- another sacred horror, that of presence so unmediated that it has no sign. Clearly Bataille sees this as reducing Olympia to what a man sees, but vision for Bataille is always wrapped up in some such complex act against meaning ("it is the hard resolution with which Manet destroyed that was so scandalous: as before, Bataille's italics); seeing is making the world into nothing. These are themes which figure endlessly in Bataille's fiction and philosophical prose: presence as absence, the body as essentially inanimate, death as its purest and most desirable state, representation as colluding in this putting to death.

What is truly strange here is the fact that, in a footnote that has taken on a life of its own, Clark has not only put forward Bataille's argument, but he has also tried to elaborate on it, make it more comprehensible, even to contextualize it. If Bataille's argument is -- in the final analysis -- irrelevant or misleading (as Clark will argue that it is), then why pay so much attention to it? And if Clark is going to spend so much attention on Bataille's "strange" argument with Valery about Manet's painting, then why relegate it all to a footnote?

Perhaps the answer to this mystery is here, in the words with which Clark tries to conclude his footnote on Bataille.

Bataille's untranslatable last words on Olympia -- "Aux yeux memes de Manet la fabrication s'effacait. L'Olympia tout entiere se distingue mal d'un crime ou d'un spectacle de la morte . . . Tout en elle glisse a l'indifference de la beaute" -- should therefore be read in at least two ways: as a reproduction of the cadaver fantasies of the critics in 1865, and as final, overt recuperation of Olympia into the terms of Bataille's own eroticism. Whatever else one might wish to say of this criticism, it has little to do with the simpler narratives of modernist art history.

Are there judgmental tones of snobbery, condenscension and prudishness in Clark's last sentence? Yes, indeed, there are, and they give the reader the idea that, whatever those untranslated French words might mean -- and they are the only untranslated words in the entire book -- they must be pretty fucking sick, at least by the prim standards of "modernist art history" (which is presumably what Clark wants us to believe he is engaging in). This impression is perhaps unintentionally reinforced by the English translation of Bataille's 1955 book Manet: Etude biographique et critique, which acknowledges the difficulty of "Bataille's untranslatable last words on Olympia" only or precisely to the extent that it silently and completely omits them.

"In the eyes of Manet the fabrication effaces itself. In its entirety, Olympia distinguishes itself poorly from a crime or a spectacle of death . . . Everything in the painting [or everything about her] glides over the indifference of beauty."

According to Clark, these lines should be read "as a reproduction of the cadaver fantasies of the [Salon] critics in 1865, and as final, overt recuperation of Olympia into the terms of Bataille's own eroticism." That is to say, they should be read with the emphasis placed on the words "crime" and "a spectacle of death," not on the words "eyes" and "effaces itself." The nude woman (perhaps a prostitute) depicted in Olympia is dead; she is a corpse, a victim of the crime of murder. The indifference of beauty to death is "glided"over, not challenged nor negated. While this image or "fantasy" repelled the Salon critics of 1865, it attracted Georges Bataille. In either case, Clark's point seems to be, a fundamental perversion has taken place. The death of the spectacle (which was implied by Manet's discovery of the limits and insufficiency of bourgeois ideology in the process that produced Olympia) is perverted into the spectacle of death (in which bourgeois alienation at its most gruesome is fetishized, "enjoyed," and reproduced). But surely the spectacle of death at some level contains within itself the death of the spectacle.

In addition to the theme of the eye's violence against meaning, "the spectacle of death" appears "endlessly in Bataille's fiction and philosophical prose." For Bataille (even for those others who are not hung up on images of necrophilia), the ultimate spectacle -- the most "spectacular" spectacle, if you will -- is the spectacle of death. More specifically, the ultimate spectacle is the spectacle of public execution (state-sanctioned murder). Indeed, in a very precise way, one can date the beginnings of the society of the spectacle in the decisions reached all across bourgeois Europe in the 1830s and '40s to ban "the spectacle of the scaffold" and public executions: they were stirring up the masses (the newly formed urban proletariat) in ways that seemed increasingly dangerous to the modern state. From then on, death was administered scientifically and secretly by a carceral society. Is Olympia in part a reaction to this specific situation? Did Clark ever explain from whence the Salon critics' cadaver fantasies came? Perhaps they did not come from the bowels of their immemorial collective unconscious, but from their repressed memories of recent history. Surely there is enough material to warrant a transplant of Clark's footnote on Bataille into a proper text of its own.

(Originally published in NOT BORED! #9, 1986.)



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