Sunday, 9 June 2013

Style and substance in T J Clark's 'Picasso and Truth'

Picture: Amazon
T. J. Clark Picasso and Truth: From Cubism to Guernica Princeton University Press 2013 

This is a good but unlovely book.  The prose is - to borrow a word often used by Clark - portentous.  It's sometimes painful to read.  But it's also quite wonderful.  His readings of Picasso's famous paintings from his greatest years are remarkably fresh and interesting given how much has been written about them.  Jump in to his description of The Blue Room from page 26 if you're not sure if it's worth the candle.  The compelling analysis of the paintings are really worthwhile, and his appreciation for the paintings as physical works of art (particularly the attention paid to size) is a welcome change from the analysis of JPEGs to which we've become accustomed.  The problem is the painful, arrogant and pointless theoretical baggage that deadens Clark's prose.

I struggle to put my finger on exactly where Clark goes wrong.  Sometimes the conversational style of these published lectures grabs my attention and draws me in.  But more often it's just ponderous and pretentious.  It's especially striking when you spot his hidden references, such as: "The room, for him, remained the unavoidable form of being-in-the-world" (p. 151-152).  The hyphenated term 'being-in-the-world' is from the Nazi philosopher Martin Heidegger.  Many of his readers will know that, but Heidegger is not cited anywhere in the book.  It establishes a false bond of complicity between author and cognoscenti, but it made me wonder what other references I'm missing.  But on further reflection I'm not sure that it matters, because the allusion to Heidegger is simply redundant.  

Elsewhere he writes that "in Leger's world objects have finally disappeared into their commodity form" (p.77).  I guess we're supposed to think of Marx here, but the sentence actually doesn't mean much at all.  He's making a contrast between Picasso's depiction of rooms containing objects and Leger's depiction of objects alone, like the difference between an interior by Pieter de Hooch and a still life by Willem Kalf.  The reference to commodity form is redundant so far as I can tell, and isn't elaborated by Clark.  Marx himself was more careful.  In the first chapter of Capital he defines the term 'commodity' carefully, and his subsequent use of the term is controlled and precise.  For example, Marx famously wrote of relations between people assuming the fantastical form of relation between things - things, not commodities.  I think Clark means things, too.  But he uses portentous words to make the point seem more profound.  

There are more.  "Desire is a will to power" (p. 230, Nietzsche), "world of mechanical reproduction" (p.272, Walter Benjamin), etc.  Every single example that I spotted is simply redundant.  When Clark discusses Nietzsche directly, he's quite interesting.  I even agreed with his overall assessment of Nietzsche.  But this is a book about Picasso, not about Nietzsche, and I never thought that references to German philosophers advanced his argument.  

On Picasso's bathers on beaches Clark remarks: "they are the pictures we have - in some sense our pictures, sharing our strange myth of individuality - of bodies belonging fully to a world; pictures of self-possession and self-movement; of elation and abandon and composure...They are images of identity in the making - of the body turning itself to others, without self-loss or abjection or mere ruthless projection of its wishes. In a word, they have life" (p. 230).  I've read those words in the context of the rest of the book - a book that I'm somewhat positively disposed towards - but I'm still not sure that I can explain them.  'Bodies belonging fully to a world' - as opposed to what? Martians?  Images that have life are those that exhibit identity in the making?  These aren't meaningless claims.  I sort-of understand what he's getting at.  But the points he's making aren't nearly as obscure as they seem in this tortuous prose.

Brian Sewell is one of my favourite art writers and in my view a great prose stylist.  But he over-uses certain old-fashioned words like 'panjandrum' (flashing red in the auto-spellchecker) and no doubt some people are put off by his obscure words and his raw assertiveness, which I relish as beauty and directness.  I find Clark's prose demanding and sometimes it seems unnecessarily obscure and theoretical.  But maybe the preference for Sewell's directness over Clark's ellipticism is just a matter of taste. The positive spin that we could put on Clark is that he's inviting us to think with him, being deliberately open-ended and provisional rather than closing down meaning.  Even if, like me, you think that's pompous twaddle, I'd still urge you to give this book a chance.  

2 comments:

  1. I took the comment on Leger differently--as reference to the stream-lined optimism of his style, his emphatic 'yes' to materialist modernity. Picasso's 'Still-life in Front of a Window' is more cheery than any Leger, but also more fantastical and out of this world: its vitality is not at all a matter of reified conformism.

    One of the things I liked so much about this book is that its interpretation are rooted in close looking and technical analysis but always go beyond that to a sense of the feeling of the works. Meaning cannot be itemized.

    I too wish Clark had made plain his debt to Heidegger--his references are sparse, and never intrude into the body of the text--but your problem seems to be with German philosophy more than Clark's use of it. Personally I thought that Nietzsche and Wittgenstein were the conceptual core of his theorisation of Picasso's work, and that the book would be bereft of its argument without them.

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  2. Thank you, good points. I may be guilty of bending the stick too far against Clark, because the style annoyed me. I actually have an almost masochistic fondness for German philosophy, but I think Clark applies it badly. I'm going to review a book by Robert Pippin that I think does it well. Although I don't share his taste in either art or philosophy, I think Arthur Danto also writes well on art and philosophy.

    I think your summary of the Leger/Picasso contrast is right, and is much clearer than Clark's. My complaint is that the reference to 'commodity form' is both obfuscating and redundant. Your term 'reified conformism' is much better.

    I'm not sure that I agree with you about the importance of Nietzsche to Clark's thesis. He introduces Nietzsche at various points to think through certain questions, but I thought it could easily be dispensed with (though I could probably be persuaded otherwise - it's not a view I hold with much conviction). Wittgenstein seems more central, but I'd struggle to define how on the basis of Clark's book alone - you need to know something of Wittgenstein to get that, I think.

    Clark writes about the works, which I thought was great, but as you say he also wants to go beyond just stand-alone analysis of the works themselves - also A Good Thing. The root of my complaint is that the second part isn't grounded. He throws around terms out of context and hints at an underlying conceptual framework that's never explained properly. I think the book *is* bereft of argument because he hasn't followed through the philosophical implications in the way that Danto does. If you want to disagree with him, I think the only route is to challenge his reading of the paintings, because there isn't enough to hold onto from the theoretical stuff.

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