Notebook (the social)

February 6, 2013 § Leave a comment

“I am not interested in the notion of work of art ‘reflecting’ ideologies, social relations, or history. Equally, I do not want to talk about history as ‘background’ to the work of art-as something which is essentially absent from the work of art and its production, but which occasionally puts in an appearance. (The intrusion of history discovered, it seems,by ‘commonsense’: there is a special category of historical references which can be identified in this way.) I want also to reject the idea that the artist’s point of reference as a social being is, a priori, the artistic community. On this view, history is transmitted to the artist by some fixed route, through some invariable system of mediations: the artist responds to the values and ideas of the artistic community (in our period that means, for the best artists, the ideology of the avant-garde), which in turn are altered by changes in the general values and ideas of society, which in turn are determined by historical conditions. For example, Courbet is influenced by Realism which is influenced by Positivism which is the product of Capitalist Materialism. One can sprinkle as much detail on the nouns in that sentence as one likes; it is the verbs which are the matter.

Lastly, I do not want the social history of art to depend on intuitive analogies between form and ideological content – on saying, for example, that the lack of firm compositional focus in Courbet’s Burial at Ornans is an expression of the painter)s egalitarianism, or that Manet’s fragmented composition in the extraordinary View of The Paris World’s Fair (1867) is a visual equivalent of human alienation in industrial society. […]

What I want to explain are the connecting links between artistic form, the available systems of visual representation, the current theories of art, other ideologies, social classes, and more general historical structures and processes. What the discarded theories share is the notion that all artists experience, answer and give form to their environment in roughly the same way – via the usual channels, one might say. That may be a convenient assumption, but it is certainly wrong. If the social history of art has a specific field of study, it is exactly this -the processes of conversion and relation, which so much art history takes for granted. I want to discover what concrete transactions are hidden behind the mechanical image of ‘reflection’, to know how ‘background’ becomes ‘foreground’; instead of analogy between form and content .. to discover the network of real, complex relations between the two. These mediations are themselves historically formed and historically altered; in the case of each artist, each work of art, they are historically specific.

What is barren about the methods that I am criticizing is their picture of history as a definite absence from the act of artistic creation: a support, a determination, a background. something never actually there when the painter stands in front of the canvas, the sculptor asks his model to stand still. […]┬áThe social history of art sets out to discover the general nature of the structures that he encounters willy-nilly; but it also wants to locate the specific conditions of one such meeting. How, in a particular case, a content of experience becomes a form, an event becomes an image, boredom becomes its representation, despair becomes spleen: these are the problems. And they lead us back to the idea that art is sometimes historically effective. The making of a work of art is one historical process among other acts, events and structures – it is a series of actions in but also on history.

[…] we shall have to go far afield, from painting to politics, from a judgement of colour to more general concerns -concerns which touch the State, which move anger and delight because they are the concerns of many. But we shall discover these politics in the particular, in the event, in the work of art. Our starting point is a certain moment of historical coalescence – a gesture, or a painting, which is supercharged with historical meaning, round which significance clusters.”

— T.J. Clark, ‘The Social History of Art’

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