A Taste for Heaven

Art historian T. J. Clark’s new book sketches a vision for a new political Left through the affective registers and subtleties of painting.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Land of Cockaigne, 1567.

It’s counterintuitive and maybe a touch inappopriate that a review should start at a book’s final chapter. But the coda to Heaven on Earth: Painting and the Life to Come, art historian T.J. Clark’s latest offering, is critical to the book’s overall argument, I think. ‘For a Left with No Future’ is based on a lecture given as part of OCA’s biennial program in Venice 2011. In it, Clark – an excommunicated Situationist, and self-described scot-free Western Marxist – sketches his vision for a political Left that can look its own insignificance the eyes. This means being present-centered and non-prophetic, marshalling an anti-utopian critique of modernity equipped with a sense of the dangers that attend our human affairs. A Leftist politics, that is, that brackets the question of capitalism and instead revels in the mysteries of “greatness come to nothing.” Or, put differently, politics in a tragic key.

For Clark, what our era requires is not a politics of sudden, transformative events, but rather one of down-to-earthness, moderation and reform: a piecemeal dismantling of the world as currently understood. It’s a proposal rendered vividly in the book’s chapter on Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s painting Land of Cockaigne (1567). “Engulfing seems to be a better metaphor for change than metamorphosis” writes Clark, “what would a world be like… in which all human activities slowed to the pace of the large intestine?” Grim, but not completely disheartening. For in many ways, this opens onto one of the book’s central questions. Namely, “could there ever be a thinking and acting directed at changing the world that did not result in ‘paradise for a sect’ (meaning hell for everyone else)?”

T.J. Clark, Heaven on Earth. Painting and the Life to Come, Thames and Hudson 2018.

The writings collected here on paintings by Giotto, Bruegel, Poussin, Veronese, and Picasso, span roughly the last twenty years, which means that Clark has been wrangling with and refining these ideas for the better part of the millennium. If not longer. One also reads the germ of Heaven on Earth in the closing line of his tour de force Farewell to an Idea: Episodes from a History of Modernism (1999): “The present is purgatory, not a permanent travesty of heaven.” And while the intervening years have certainly provided more than their share of heavens travestied or worse, there has perhaps been no moment since that is more oriented toward posterity than our own. Clark’s urging, then, to prioritize the here-and-now over the imagined (a future beyond climate change, let’s say) couldn’t be more out-of-joint and untimely. And yet, this is precisely from where it draws its insistence.

In Heaven on Earth, Clark takes Ruskin as his guide, focusing his energies less on a social history of art than on the act of viewing itself, receiving what paintings have to offer. It is as if the author wishes readers to look along with him: repeatedly and painstakingly, with all the astonishment and curiosity of the art historian himself. When the social histories do appear, as in the chapter on Picasso’s 1958 mural commission for UNESCO Fall of Icarus, they profoundly inform the readings. In Picasso’s case, the vote in 1952 approving Franco’s Spain for membership in the organization becomes part of a sordid backdrop against which the painting’s negativity is measured.

Of course, there are moments where Clark lets his subjective stance get the better of him. For instance, in an ekphrastic poem to Giotto that even the author admits is inadequate. Art history, he says, demands  prose. Fortunately, Clark’s is brilliant. The way he folds Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot into a discussion on Giotto’s cycle of frescoes for the Arena Chapel in Padua ca.1305, is nothing short of breathtaking. Or take this passage comparing and contrasting a shadow in one of Veronese’s suite of four paintings Allegory of Love (1570–75), to a similar one in Rembrandt’s Night Watch (1642):

“One might feel that, ultimately, the shadow is a figure of the knight’s self-restraint: the double of his forward-pointing arm, but now pressing gently against his onward motion […] What the shadow materializes, then, is not the simple presence of the body – the part of the knight that Eros is urging on – but the play of inhibition and equivocation that lies at the heart of desire.”

Indeed, what’s most convincing is Clark’s virtuosic ability to get at the affective registers, the subtleties of timbre, evoked by a painting’s formal and material qualities. That is to say, his own style and tone – unmistakably urged on by Eros – of immersion in and enchantment with painting’s particular powers. Argued here, those powers are both the ability to imagine a world transfigured, and the capacity to render that world in all its specificity and detail: what it consists of, what it does, who does it, and so forth. What makes these particular paintings noteworthy, Clark tells us, is their acceptance of the numerous illusions that are threaded into life, and the logic and illogic of those entanglements; of greatness, come to nothing. “The more luminous and fully materialized” these paradisaical images are, “the more earthbound the vision becomes.” Belief in its strictest sense is, therefore, somewhat beside the point. What these very different painters offer us is painting as a critical resource and modality of thinking-through the order of things. Again, Clark writing on Bruegel’s Cockaigne: “having the thought [of an alternative world] shot through with a consciousness of its impossibility, maybe even absurdity… but not having the disbelief invalidate the thought… insisting quietly, on the contrary, that the thought keeps alive a necessary dream, a horizon of action and consciousness, an insubordination intrinsic to the human.”

Encouraging words for other scot-free Western Marxists. And perhaps for painters too, at least those who, having endured years of ‘zombie formalism’, still value the modes of looking and thinking with which painting is historically associated. Apart from its capacious timeline, Heaven on Earth’s most glaring shortcoming, though, is its neglect toward female visions of the life to come. What that might comprise, given the period under consideration, is a fascinating question. Yet, the closest that Clark gets to approaching how women figured paradise is his chapter on Poussin’s The Sacrament of Marriage (1648). Which is to say, not very close at all. Here, the art historian’s attention is paid to the so-called femme-colonne, a female figure partially obscured by a column at the painting’s leftmost margin. Among the book’s sections, this one fits least neatly into Clark’s thesis. However, its account of spectatorship in any case makes clear how high the stakes of attention-giving are.

To extend Clark’s argument slightly, what form of life does this work of art propose? what does it consist of, what does it do, and for whom? seem questions well-worth asking. Especially considering the degrees of critical autonomy that are implied in such queries. Even more so when that autonomy has become increasingly absurd and difficult to believe in. Does this amount to a vision of an art that can look its own insignificance in the eyes? Perhaps. Anyway, I’d rather not invalidate the thought. Because as Clark wrote nearly two decades ago, borrowing from Max Weber, “the disenchantment with the world is horrible, intolerable.”