This interview was conducted at the Office for Contemporary Art in Oslo, where T.J. Clark had a residency in November 2010. In connection with this, he held two public lectures on Picasso, relating to his forthcoming book Picasso and Truth: From Cubism to Guernica. The first lecture entitled «Picasso in his century» dealt with Picasso in relation to the history of modernism at large. The second one, «Picasso’s Guernica revisited» was devoted to Picasso’s artistic process while he worked on this seminal piece during the spring of 1937, and the new conception of pictorial space it projects.
Jon-Ove Steihaug (JOS): Professor Clark, you have previously written about Picasso’s Cubist period in your book Farewell to an Idea from 1999. Why did you choose to work on Picasso again and why this particular point in his career?
T.J. Clark (TJC): I think it started because I wasn’t quite satisfied with the account of Cubism I gave in Farewell to an Idea. I also thought that Picasso was badly served in the literature we have. There’s a strong and interesting literature on Cubism, but after Cubism I think the literature is dominated by a biographical approach which evades many of the great questions that are raised by Picasso’s art. The more I worked the more I found that particularly the 1920s were a challenging period that had really been sort of lost. It was strange, because in the 1920s Picasso did get criticism that was substantial, imaginative and serious—you know, extraordinary writers like Carl Einstein, Michel Leiris, and André Breton, to some extent. This was writing that confronted the true strangeness of Picasso’s art. It was particularly troubled by what happened after Cubism, and how on earth Cubism in the 1920s came to coexist with a version of classicism, and the nature, then, of the kind of turn towards monstrosity and deathliness in the late twenties. In other words, the criticism of the time faced the question of what Picasso’s art was about. Another answer to your question is that my new book actually started from reading Nietzsche, particularly On the Genealogy of Morals, and beginning to think hard about the critique of truth that Nietzsche poses there – his challenge to the atheistic science of his own time, which he regards as the only viable position. He is an atheist himself, through and through, and he respects scientific inquiry, but he does pose the challenge of whether this is just yet another metamorphosis of the devotion to truth. And whether art is ultimately the proper enemy of truth, art as the human practice that admits that human beings live in deception, appearance, illusion and performance – that human beings could not bear the truth, even if they could attain to it. That challenge became a certain common wisdom of the avant-garde in the late 19th and early 20th century, and I think Picasso would have been very well aware of it in the bohemian, avant-garde circles he moved in, in Barcelona and Paris. I wanted to think of him in the light of that Nietzschean challenge: what is art going to be if it no longer sees itself as the pursuit of truth? This is a huge question for avant-garde art, because after all, in the age of film, and in 19th-century Realism, Impressionism and in Cezanne, the whole raison d’être of art had been the search for a more complete and immediate exposure to the truth of visual experience. This is a profound crisis when art is reminded by Nietzsche that maybe that project is collapsing all around us.
JOS: At the same time you still see his Cubist paintings as relating to a concept of truth and as a search for visual truth?
TJC: That’s absolutely right. I think the fascination of Picasso is that if any moment in art corresponds to a sort of last, ascetic, rigorous, methodical pursuit of complete visual truth, then sure it’s the Cubism of 1908 to 1912 or 1913. So my book is really about asking the question: what does Picasso do on the other side of that project? What does he do when he finds that project to no longer be viable, and its assumptions about the nature of the world and our access to it begins to collapse around him during the war years and after. I choose the 1920s because it seems to be a moment when he is maybe facing up to the idea of art as no longer a truth project, but a performance project – that the best art can do is play, persuade, dazzle. It’s a complicated argument, and I think that there are still remaining commitments to truth-telling in Picasso’s art in the 1920s. He does not become just a mere conjurer, and his art simply an art of display. He is still trying to assemble a complete, convincing, intuitively appropriate account of our experience of the world, but he is doing it with an understanding that almost all the means we once had to construct such an account of the world and our access to it are in doubt.
JOS: An important part of your argument is the way you connect this Nietzschean problematic of truth with a more formal discussion concerning Picasso’s way of dealing with space. How does this go together?
TJC: That derives from Cubism, I think. Truth in Cubism is a certain spatiality, the construction of a coherent and immediately available being in states of objects. That is the truth that Cubism pursues. This is what I call room space, the human realm as a finite, enclosed space of possessions, property, enclosure, intimacy, availability, a space of musical instruments and other familiar things, of the everyday. This is, in some sense, also an eminently bourgeois space. At one level it’s, of course, banal to say that in the 20th century that space is no longer the given. But the interesting thing is how hard Picasso fights to preserve it, and how little confidence he has in painting’s ability to actually offer us any other space besides that space. That is the space of painting for him. But, slowly, painfully, hesitantly I think he does work his way towards some means of constructing space in way that the room is still there – the intimate, nearby and tangible – and yet, it’s completely under threat from the outside, from a kind of space which does not belong to us. Ultimately, in Guernica that outsideness is the outsideness of terror and destruction. Although Picasso is not a dramatic, historical kind of artist, he is actually intuiting the collapse of a certain system of belief in the world, exploring how fragile, vulnerable and open our kind of belonging to the world has become.
JOS: Can you be more specific as to how this comes about in Guernica?
TJC: I think that with Guernica, Picasso began to realize that what he could show us is a proximity that is at the same time foreign and horrifying; everything is near and yet it does not belong to us, it’s invaded by an otherness that makes it no longer ours. It was very hard for Picasso to build on that; Guernica is in many ways a one-off. It contains an absolute breakdown of spatial structure, of the division between inside and out. The inside is still there, and yet it’s in the process of being destroyed in front of our eyes. That’s basically my argument. The ultimate question about Guernica is: What is it that makes it endlessly reusable and the unsurpassable vision of war in our time. To put it a little crudely, I think its power lies in its vision of total war. But it’s also a vision of a collapse of a certain way of life and vision of what it is to have a human world, a human space.
JOS: In your first lecture here at OCA, you painted a very grim picture of the 20th century in historical terms as a continuing catastrophe, very much in line with what Guernica is about. You also discussed two opposite positions that artists tended to take in relation to the onslaught of modernization, arguing at the same time that many avant-garde artists basically came from a 19th-century bourgeois background and carried this worldview with them. On the one hand, you drew the picture of the «retrogressive» artist, reacting to modernization by retreating into a private, idiosyncratic dream-world, where you placed a figure like De Chirico, as well as Picasso with his more and more sexually obsessed imagery. And then you have the other type of avant-garde artist, like for instance, Rodchenko – the artist who wants to be politically responsible and do the good thing, but in the end becomes part of the atrocity himself, by working in the service of Stalin’s deathly and totalitarian politics. It’s interesting that Picasso actually could be placed in both these extreme positions. How does this model add up?
TJC: These two polarities are polarities, and most artists that matter are pulled between the two. I don’t want Rodchenko to be this bad guy here, because I think it’s basic to the paradox of the 20th-century avant-garde that it’s constantly uncertain whether it’s on the side of modernity and a revolutionary change in the social order, or whether art in the face of what revolutionary change actually means – chaos and disintegration – is forced back into a position of trying to hold onto the known structures of the human, or even the unknown structures, the unconscious, in the face of mass programming and propaganda. The artists worth anything are pulled between these two possibilities. This even goes for a great artist like Bonnard, for example. Even if he is completely committed to the idea of the domestic, the erotic, the personal and hedonistic, you could say that structurally, formally his art is full of a kind of admission of the fragility of everything, and the actual sort of pleasure that comes from a dissolution of the world. For me this is the modernist dialectic. There’s a utopian dimension to the overused phrase in Marx’s and Engels’ Communist manifesto saying that «all that is solid melts into air». It’s a promise, a source of astonishment and delight, and continues to be. But on the other hand, it is terrifying. If our human world melts into air, will it be a human world anymore? Will it just be a field open to a sort of totalizing vision of obedience, political obedience or consumer obedience? Does modernity enhance the idea of individual freedom, or does it sort of make the idea of individuality less and less convincing?
I think all modernism is in two minds about this, both attracted by the promise and the excitement of modernity, but very often, in spite of itself, trying to reassemble and re-anchor a notion of the known.
JOS: In your lecture it still seemed as if you put your stakes a bit more on the artists reacting against the totalizing forces of modernization by establishing their own private image world – maybe somewhat in tune with Theodor Adorno’s view that the only thing art can do is to try to save whatever is left of genuine humanity by negatively turning away from the world, in contrast to the heroic avant-garde artist advancing forward into a bright and utopian future.
TJC: If we look back at the artists who still exist for us as key figures, it is a challenge to our notion of what modernism is to discover that so many of them are these idiosyncratic rebuilders of private worlds – even the ones who make themselves out to be prophets of modernity. Are Mondrian’s various artist studios models of modernity, or are they rather new versions of the hermit’s cell? I’m forcing the question because I do think that we tend to take it for granted that the first ideologies of modernism – the futurist, constructivist, left-leaning, pro-revolutionary avant-garde – represented the truth of practice. I’m saying that if you look at what was actually done this is a very incomplete account.
JOS: Has this work on Picasso in some way changed your larger perspective on modernism, for instance, the one you deal with in Farewell to an Idea?
TJC: I think there are different questions arising. Farewell to an Idea doesn’t ask the same questions about the balance between private and public, the regressive and the progressive. These terms began to emerge for me while thinking about Picasso. Concerning Farewell to an Idea, it was written largely in the high period of postmodernism, of postmodern hostility to modernism, and this of the most ridiculous and vulgar kind, with absolute nonsense being written about modernism – for instance, that modernism equals phallocentric form, end of story. Well, that really was the gospel for a while, so it was written in a pretty appalling moment of historical misunderstanding. In a very basic way, Farewell to an Idea argues that you cannot flatten modernism in this way; you must see it as already grappling with the paradoxes and agonies of modernity. For instance, you can’t reduce modernism to Greenbergian formalism, not even Greenberg did. Although he thought that in the end the hope of late modernism was a kind of rigorous formalistic abstraction, he was fond of saying that of course most abstract art is terribly bad because it is nothing but formal. At the same time he would state that the very top level of abstract art is better than almost all figurative work. That is the Greenbergian paradox. But even he doesn’t think that modernism is just a kind of series of formal developments. He knows very well that it’s always in agony about its place and purpose, whether it can reconstitute some kind of figurative, descriptive, intervening project in the tragedy of modernity. He interested in artists like Fernand Léger for nothing. So what is Greenberg doing, thinking so hard about this communist, fellow traveler? He knows very well that Léger is a typical modernist in this irresolvable tension between formal experiment and social commitment.
JOS: The criticism of Greenberg and formalist theory has been foundational to a lot of contemporary art, art criticism and art historical writing since the 1960s, to the extent that it has become something of a rote formula. You seem to accuse the typical criticism of Greenberg of being reductive.
TJC: Greenberg himself became a very reductive reader of Greenberg late in his career, rejecting all his earlier dialectical and Marxist-inflected work in which the two-sidedness of modernism was being reflected upon.
JOS: This anti-Greenbergian position is also premised on the rediscovery and new centrality given to Marcel Duchamp’s work from the 1950s and onwards. What is your relation to this now, nearly hegemonic story of art in the 20th century?
TJC: I don’t want to get into this too deeply, so I’ll just say briefly that I don’t find Duchamp a very interesting artist. And I particularly don’t think of him as a representative counterweight to a formalist strand in modern art. There is something peculiar in the way that he was made the counterweight to Matisse. Whereas for me, the counterweight to Matisse is the Russian Constructivists, Malevich, De Stijl and Dada – a wider field of Dada than just Duchamp. There are many dadaists that are much more interesting to me than Duchamp. Modernism just doesn’t polarize into Duchamp versus the abstract artists. There are many interesting reasons why in America Duchamp was elected as the counterweight to a certain caricature of high modernism – partly it’s also dependent on his extreme success of quietly publicizing himself.
JOS: In your work you have on several occasions applied the Situationist Guy Debord’s concept of spectacle. Concerning contemporary art, it’s tempting to condemn a lot of it as being precisely on the side of capitalist spectacle and image-saturated consumer culture. At the same time, there are serious attempts to counter this with an art that is critical, discursive, socially responsible and politically engaged. What is your relation to the field of contemporary art?
TJC: I find contemporary art hard to relate to, and this is partly a matter of my own biography. In the 1960s I was involved in the Situationist movement, and held the serious belief that art was at an end, finally, and would be replaced by various forms of new political action. That certainly didn’t prove to be true, but such an ultra avant-garde moment leaves you in a very strange place. It certainly didn’t leave me in a place where I could come to terms with the art that was being done during the eighties and nineties. The sheer extremity of this situation you are describing, this extraordinary weird coexistence of the absolutely commodified and spectacular together with a desperate wish to re-mobilize art for critical, political purposes, this unresolved tension becomes stranger and stranger, and perhaps more tragic. So what is art now, is art just admittedly and without guilt a part of symbol management and fashion, or is there some kind of other space for it? And if so, what space? Should we understand ideologically impeccable international biennials, all about migration, displacement or the reign of the commodity, is this in opposition to a Jeff Koons or is it a mirror image? It’s very hard to work out what’s going on, and again, I don’t have any very original or profound ideas about this situation. I recognize the situation and it interests me more because of its extremity. But, don’t let’s fool ourselves, in the middle of the 19th century most art was appallingly bad, geared to the salon market. We shouldn’t fool ourselves that we are living in a wholly new situation of the subservience of art to the worst. But maybe what’s new is the sheer extreme visibility of the contradiction.