A Matter of Moderation and Negotiation

TJ Clark, Heaven On Earth: Painting and the Life to Come

Thames & Hudson, 288pp, £24.95, ISBN

reviewed by Dan Barrow

In Giotto's Joachim's Dream (1304-6), one of a sequence of fresco panels in Padua's Capella Scrovegni, a mountain's profile marks the boundary between earth and sky, at once contiguous and rigidly opposed. The angel descending from top-left marks the sky out as the realm of the divine, its blue ‘as cold as a colour can be, pressing down into the desert at the angel's behest’, and seeming almost to pop out of the picture plane. In the first and most persuasive of the five essays that make up his seventh book, TJ Clark reads the Joachim sequence as a piece of extended pictorial thinking about the boundaries and substance of human being on the threshold of the secularisation that the Renaissance helped to inaugurate: Joachim, sheltering bottom-right in the entrance of a hut, gathers his cloak about himself, giving ‘doubt – inwardness and mental reservation – indelible form’, shrouded against the unearthly presence that nonetheless relates itself to him, flying across the painting's diagonal. This grey, scrubby landscape is the setting for the ordinary luxury of Giotto's modelling, exercised in the folds of Joachim's cloak, the tongue of which juts out into the dust, like an image of painting's own excess, its power to create a whole illusory world. The painting lives out a complex dialectic in which its picturing of inwardness – precisely what can't be seen – occurs in a language of materiality and unemphatic ordinariness.

The book's wider argument, which plays out in its most tense and electric form here, is harder to sum up. And not only because of the famous difficulties of Clark's style, which combines a dense and allusive argument with a dependence on subtleties of tone and a tendency to leave his conclusions implicit. The local triumphs of Clark's essays, here and in the chapters on Pieter Bruegel the Elder's Land of Cockaigne (1567) and Veronese's Allegories of Love (1570-5), are hard to reconcile with its overall form, which is dominated by a vagueness and evasion only occasionally characteristic of previous work. He addresses, out of the vast tradition of Western religious painting, works that deal with ‘the idea that the world we inhabit might open onto another’ or ‘be raised to a higher power, “deified” by an energy that, though it may ultimately be a gift of God, is manifest here and now in a quickening, an intensifying, an overflowing, a supercharging of altogether human powers’. They inhabit and test the sense that everyday life – the world that Christianity, for most of its history, defined through scarcity, mortality, fallibility – meets, at its limits and interstices, an Other of different forms, capacities and pleasures.

Clark's title brings along a huge amount of baggage he studiously ignores. The vision of New Jerusalem that crowns the Book of Revelation – ‘And I saw a new heaven and a new earth: for the first heaven and the first earth were passed away’ – invigorated Christian mystics for centuries with the possibility of an end to hunger, toil and repression, breaking out in social experiments like the Münster Rebellion of 1534. The Reformation cults of the Free Spirit, as described in Norman Cohn's The Pursuit of the Millennium (1957), took the promise of ‘heaven on earth’ to issue in mass requisition of food, the end of sexual mores and the execution of bureaucrats and the nobility. Cockaigne, in its traditional form in medieval folk tales, engravings and poems, was a glutton's version of that vision: bread grew on trees, homes were made of pies and chickens flew, ready-roasted, into waiting mouths. Clark focuses on a rather more disillusioned vision of paradise. Bruegel, in his reading, turns this ‘vision of things transfigured’ into ‘the world as it would be if it became more fully itself, with its basic structures unaltered and above all its physicality, its orientation, intact.’ The world of Cockaigne is heavy, luxurious, its inhabitants pinned to the ground by a bodily gravity that seems to work differently here.

Clark is careful here to differentiate himself both from an art-history consensus ‘convinced that the artist's account of the human condition is at best pessimistic and comically condescending’ and from a flatly anti-utopian view: Cockaigne ‘is make-believe, not utopia . . . its controlled unseriousness is what allows it to think so deeply and humanely about what the material world consists of’. The way Clark's prose edges around and leaps over critical cliché to get at a picture's stranger mechanics is as fascinating here as ever. But the fatalism that underpins this fussing over positions becomes clear late in the essay, when he veers into a grim comparison between the pleasure of Bruegel's world – ‘dreaming a full identity with the world of things, swallowing them whole’ – and a contemporary world ruled by ‘carefully regulated doses of pleasure’, in which ‘the body sweating on the treadmill is turned away as decisively from its actual carnal experiences… as the coldest Weberian Puritan balancing his ethical and financial books’. The bacchanal of rave must have passed him by at Berkeley. The caricature here is truthful in its own way. But Clark uses it in service of what he sees as a Bruegelian ‘ethics’ that laughs at a life and world of horror it can't change. Politics becomes ontology. Contemporary political thought, meanwhile, becomes ‘a dead, generalized cynicism about “power” or a fatalism posing as hardheadedness’, a description that suggests he really needs to get out of the academy more.

His evasiveness and vagueness, then, is a refusal to acknowledge the trap he's fallen into. Clark is best known for a series of books in the 1970s and 80s that brought a direct and subtle Marxist methodology into art history, grounding modern painting firmly in its social history while exploring, in its fine and contradictory detail, the way art's form lived with and transformed its conditions. The works he examines here are almost all outside of his specialist area of nineteenth century and modernist art, which shows in the extremely thin accounts he gives of their historical surroundings. The chapter on Poussin marks the perplexing nadir of this. Clark's strange, bristling and melancholy monograph on the painter, The Sight of Death (2007) yielded some powerful insights into the relationship between the political quietism of Poussin's period in the 1640s and the ultra-mediated desert of the post-Iraq War era. His analysis here of the Sacrament of Marriage (1648), particularly of the cloaked female figure on the painting's left edge, by contrast, hinges on what he sees as the painting's account of some ahistorical human condition – ‘[Poussin's] sense of what makes the human body distinctive’, upright, eyes fixed on the cross of lighting at the composition's centre that symbolises death. His earlier account of what he calls Poussin's ‘anthropology’, the way that paintings like Landscape with a Man Killed by a Snake (1648) dramatise how human beings are never quite at home in the world, dissolves into a tautological mysticism of ‘[u]ltimate questions… about the nature of our human contact with the world we belong to’. Painting's relationship to the materiality of the world becomes a disavowed religious acceptance, as Clark sentimentally comments that ‘Poussin's paintings . . . give me such a place’ in the rituals of the faithful.

The opposite pole to his extraordinary account of the tension in Giotto, in which a whole variety of lived states and processes – pain, despair, shelter, exposure, sleep, vigilance, the abasement of wealth and the strange abiding of nature beyond the reach of human thought – are captured, historically, in the frozen moment of painting's space and representational means, is the final section, 'For a Left with No Future'. Previously published in New Left Review in 2012, the essay has already met a whole stream of critical responses in the intervening years, none of which Clark seems to have taken on board. Its perverse and bewildering argument, made with all the plentiful knowledge and rhetorical weaponry at his disposal, is that the left needs to abandon any project to radically transform the societies of ‘the capitalist heartland’ in favour of ‘the most modest, most moderate, of materialisms’. Purloining Nietzsche, he argues that their project should instead be to ‘assemble the “material for a society”’ that capital's victory under neoliberalism has atomised and deracinated, building on ‘a full recognition of the human propensity to violence – to blood-soaked conformity’, as supposedly expressed in the political genocides of the 20th century.

Clark relates this position, in the introduction, back not only to ‘renewed wars of religion’ – a bizarre and untimely claim when ISIS, his main bugbear, is near defeat in Syria and the least religious American president is wiping McDonalds special sauce on the Declaration of Independence – but to Marxism itself. ‘Could there ever be’, he asks, ‘a thinking and acting directed at changing the world – at truly transforming or revolutionizing it – that did not result in 'paradise for a sect' (meaning hell for everyone else)?’ Clark was briefly a member of the Situationist International (before Guy Debord expelled the entire English section in 1967), who saw Stalinism in the same critical light as monopoly capitalism, so his unremarked equivalence between Soviet and other forms of state terror isn't unprecedented. But his equations here come uncomfortably close to the post-9/11 obsessions of leftists-turned-neocons, like Christopher Hitchens and Andrew Anthony, with the supposed ‘irrationality’ of political Islam and the global anti-war movement alike.

It would be one thing if Clark had arrived by hard experience and writing at the sort of neo-Cold War rhetoric beloved of the most empty-headed morons in the Anglo-American press. The problem is that he uses it as a kitsch replacement for thought, drawing false equivalences and unevidenced causal claims to hurry his argument to the same place of fatalism. Dialectics dissolve into tautology: the political theory, which Clark claims underpins his readings of the paintings, appears instead as a bad-faith extrapolation from their least salutary aspects. Painting becomes, for Clark, a matter of moderation and negotiation: the other mode of confrontation with metaphysics to that of Land of Cockaigne appears in Bruegel's The Triumph of Death (1562), a vision of fanaticism unleashed he identifies with ISIS's abortive caliphate. Art's imaging of transformation becomes an excuse for only the most minimal change, including in thinking and writing itself, which settles, in 'For a Left with No Future', into rattling cliches in service of provocation. If there is a tension in Heaven On Earth, it isn't that of dialectical thought but between the true and deeply false aspects of the position Clark has drifted into, which the longed-for figures of new life in these paintings can't reconcile.