Art & Ideology: Clark, Courbet & Althusser – Josh Mcloughlin

 

Josh Mcloughlin is co-founder and editor at Sonder.

A lot of Marxist cultural and critical theory stresses the need to view the relationship between cultural texts (artworks, literature etc) and historical process as mutually productive. This is in opposition to a ‘reflective’ theory which sees cultural texts as mere passive reflections of their historical contexts. One of the leading scholars who championed this more nuanced Marxist approach to art historical analysis was T.J. Clark. In this post, I bring together Clark and another of the twentieth-century’s most influential Marxist thinkers , Louis Althusser, to try to get to grips with the exact nature of the relationship between art and ideology by examining 2 key works by Gustave Courbet.

‘On the Social History of Art’[1] sets out T.J Clark’s account of pictorial representation. This essay will examine Clark’s argument and method, before arguing that Clark treats The Burial at Ornans and The Stonebreakers as interrogative of the way in which visibility and representation is produced by a given symbolic or ideological system. I suggest that symbolic systems function ideologically, and that Clark’s treatment of Courbet can placed in dialogue with Louis Althusser’s essays ‘Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses’[2] and ‘A Letter on Art’[3] in order to argue that Clark’s account of pictorial representation is compatible with Althusserian conceptions of the relationship between art and ideology.

Clark: Argument and Method

T.J. Clark, Marxist art historian b.1943
T.J. Clark, Marxist art historian b.1943

For Clark, artworks should not be seen as simply ‘reflecting’[4] a historical moment, but he nevertheless insists that historical specificity is indispensable to a full understanding of the production and legibility of an artwork. B. Aulinger gives a definition of social art history as identifying ‘the social factors relevant to the production and full understanding of a given artistic phenomenon’.[5] This definition, though useful, overlooks Clark’s emphasis of the importance of the ‘specific constellation’ of historical factors relevant to the artwork.[6]  Social art history is not a mere knowledge of ‘social factors’[7] but an understanding of the nature of the relationship between these factors, and between these factors and the art work – it is the examination of the ‘coalescence’, not just the existence, of historical events.[8] Clark’s method parallels the literary critical practice of New Historicism, examining the ‘mutual permeability of the literary and the historical’.[9] Clark uses eyewitness accounts (p.16), novels (p.96), poems (p.84), almanacs (p.92-3), songs (p.93) and quotes (p.86), to prescribe a ‘multiplicity of perspectives’,[10] with the aim of ‘ultimately’ identifying ‘what kind of visibility a certain symbolic system [makes] possible’.[11] As we shall see, this concern with the production of visibility is vital to understanding Clark’s account of pictorial representation.

Clark & Althusser: Art & Ideology

althusser
Structural marxist Louis Althusser (1918-1990)

Clark’s social history of art rejects the ‘orthodox’ Marxist notion that ‘art […] [is] part of a superstructure which is determined by the economic base’.[12]  Clark ‘is not interested in the notion of works of art ‘reflecting’ ideologies,’ or a conception of history as ‘background, […] something which essentially absent from the work of art and its production’[13].Clark defines ideologies as ‘bodies of knowledge: orders of knowing’, and ‘a set of permitted modes of seeing and saying’[14], echoing Michel Foucault’s definition of discourse as a certain ‘way of speaking’.[15] Although Althusser has written that ‘art does not give us a knowledge in the strict sense’[16], whereas Clark insists on the mutual utility of both art and history for a broader understanding of both the historical and the aesthetic, the two have a shared conception of the relationship between art and ideology. Clark writes that ‘a work of art may have ideology as its material […] but it works that material; it gives it a new form and at certain moments that form is itself a subversion of ideology’,[17] echoing Althusser’s assertion that ‘every work of art is born of a project both aesthetic and ideological’.[18] For both Althusser and Clark, the ‘ideological effect’[19] of art is more complex than the ‘mechanical image of reflection (invoked in orthodox Marxist accounts)’.[20]

Given that they ‘make possible’ certain ‘kind[s] of visibility’, ‘symbolic systems’[21] can be considered ideological – ‘a set of permitted modes of seeing and saying’.[22] Therefore the way in which artworks use or work symbolic systems of representation constitutes a use, or working, of ideology. By examining his treatment of Courbet, we will see that the productive effect of ideology on both vision and representation – the way in which visibility and representation is delimited by a given symbolic system – is central to Clark’s account of pictorial representation. For Althusser, ‘the specific function of the work of art is to make visible (donner à voir ), by establishing a distance from it, the reality of the existing ideology’.[23] Clark’s account of form and arrangement in the Burial at Ornans, and the depiction of rural subjectivity in The Stonebreakers can be said to examine how Courbet foregrounds (‘make[s] visible’) and interrogates ‘the kinds of visibility a certain symbolic system [makes] possible’.[24]

Clark & Courbet

Gustave Courbet, Burial at Ornans, 1849
Gustave Courbet, Burial at Ornans, 1849

Clark’s treatment of the Burial at Ornans (pictured above) shows Courbet to be interrogating visibility and challenging ideologically ‘given and imposed structures of meaning’,[25] which have their origin in symbolic systems.  Courbet invokes the history painting, yet the image, Clark writes, communicates ‘a frozen fixity of expression’,[26] which is at odds with the epic scale and nobility of the form. Further, the utilisation of ‘repetitive forms of popular art’ foregrounds a specific mode of representation, but Courbet’s ‘re-organiz[ation]’[27] of these elements ensures the image ‘deliberately avoids emotional organisation […] [and] the orchestration of forms to mimic and underlie the emotional connotations of the subject’, resulting in ‘no single focus of attention’.[28] The very arrangement of the figures at the Burial displays a concern with vision: Clark notes that ‘hardly a single face […] is turned towards the priest’.[29] The result is what Catherine Belsey calls a ‘text ordered in such a way that the discursive sequence fails to fulfil the expectations it generates’.[30] This dialectical image invokes ‘given […] structures of meaning’ through its form and arrangement, but interrogates the ‘imposed’ visibility of these ‘symbolic systems’ by ‘fail[ing] to fulfil the expectations it generates’. Insofar as ideologies ‘deny […] their very structure[s] and procedures’[31] in order to present a certain way of seeing as natural and inevitable, to articulate and foreground such structures constitutes an interrogation. Therefore, through what might be understood as discontinuity of signification resulting from an interrogation of given modes of representation, the Burial ‘make[s] visible […] the reality of the existing (aesthetic) ideology’ [brackets mine].[32] Thus, Clark’s treatment of Courbet supports Althusser’s assertion that ‘every work of art is born of a project both aesthetic and ideological’.[33]

Gustave Courbet, The Stone Breakers, 1849-50
Gustave Courbet, The Stone Breakers, 1849-50

If the Burial at Ornans foregrounds and interrogates visibility through confrontation with aesthetic ideology, in The Stonebreakers (pictured above) Courbet both represents and interrogates the way in which rural subjects are interpellated in both (bourgeois) ideology and symbolic systems of representation. Ideological structures interpellate individuals by ‘hailing’[34], (addressing) and defining them in certain ways, which become naturalized, obvious. Like ideology, symbolic systems ‘constitut[e] concrete individuals as subjects’,[35]  given that they function as a ‘set of permitted modes of seeing and saying’, and therefore determine what Catherine Belsey calls the ‘nature of subjectivity’.[36] As in the Burial at Ornans, The Stonebreakers ‘make[s] visible’ and challenges the ideological and symbolic interpellation – in other words the visibility and representation – of rural subjectivity.

Terry Smith writes that ‘the two men are presented to the gaze of the spectator, who is not […] a fellow worker, and who may, perhaps, be passing, in a cart or carriage’.[37] If the spectator’s gaze is from a ‘cart or carriage’, the suggestion is that Courbet presents a bourgeois visibility (or gaze) in which the two men are defined by their labour: their faces and identities are hidden in an image of constructed subjectivity, not individuality. Nameless, the men are carefully represented by Courbet as they are in ideology, and the image foregrounds the ‘kind of visibility’ which interpellates rural individuals and therefore defines the ‘nature of [their] subjectivity’.[38] The physicality of labour is represented in ‘the pressure of a bending back’. However, as Clark notes, Courbet ‘set[s] down with utmost care […] ‘not the back’s posture […] but the back itself’.[39] The men are not merely adopting the ‘posture’ of labour, instead, ‘the nature of [their] subjectivity’ is wholly defined by it. However, in the same way that the Burial ‘make[s] visible […] the reality of the existing ideology’,[40] in order to interrogate it, The Stonebreakers employs contradiction and discontinuity to challenge the visibility – or interpellation – of the rural subject.Clark writes that Courbet paints ‘poses which are active, yet constricted; effort which is somehow insubstantial in this world of substances’. Further, the ‘force of their actions is implied […] but also half-concealed’.[41] Courbet represents a particular way of seeing – addressing or interpellating – the rural individual, but deliberately employs ‘contradiction’[42] to interrogate this subjectivity. Courbet presents the subjectivity of the men as nothing more than an image of labour, but as Clark notes, it is ‘an image of labour gone to waste’.[43] Once more, the foregrounding of this ideological and visually symbolic interpellation constitutes a challenge insofar as ideologies (and, I have suggested, symbolic systems) ‘deny […] their very structure[s] and procedures’in order to present a certain way of seeing as natural and inevitable.[44] Thus, The Stonebreakers foregrounds (‘make[s] visible’) and challenges the ‘kind of visibility a certain symbolic (or ideological) system make[s] possible’ [brackets mine].

Conclusion

Clark’s treatment of Courbet has been shown to explore the Althusserian notion that ‘every work of art is born of a project both aesthetic and ideological’.[45] Form and arrangement in the Burial at Ornans is employed to foreground the imposition of meanings by given symbolic systems, but these same factors are used to challenge these given meanings – these certain kinds of visibility. The Stonebreakers ‘make[s] visible’ the ideological and symbolic interpellation – or visibility – of rural subjectivity, and challenges an imposed ‘nature of subjectivity’ through contradiction. I have suggested that symbolic systems function ideologically insofar as they delimit representation and constitute ‘a set of permitted modes of seeing and saying’.[46] In both instances Clark’s treatment can be said to examine how Courbet foregrounds (‘make[s] visible’) and interrogates ‘the kinds of visibility (or representation) a certain symbolic (or ideological) system makes possible’ [brackets mine].[47] More generally, I conclude that Clark’s social art history displays a predominant concern with the productive effect of ideological and symbolic structures on pictorial representation.

References

[1]T.J. Clark, ‘On the Social History of Art’ in Images of the People: Gustave Courbet and the 1848 Revolution (London: Thames and Hudson, 1973),  pp. 9-20.

[2] Louis Althusser, ‘Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses’ in Lenin and Philosophy and other essays, (trans.)  Ben Brewster, (London: New Left Books, 1971).

[3] Louis Althusser, ‘A Letter on Art’, in Lenin and Philosophy and other essays, (trans.) Ben Brewster (London: New Left Books, 1971).

[4] Clark, Images of the People, p.10.

[5] B. Aulinger, ‘Social History of Art’ in Jane Turner (eds.) Macmillan Dictionary of Art (London: Macmillan 1996),  p.915.

[6] Clark, Images of the People, p.17.

[7] B.Aulinger, ‘Social History of Art’, p.915.

[8] Clark, Images of the People, p.17.

[9] Stephen Greenblatt, The Greenblatt Reader (Hoboken: Wiley-Blackwell, 2005), pp.1-3.

[10] Clark, Images of the People, p.19.

[11] Clark, Images of the People, p.16-17.

[12] Michael Hatt and Charlotte Klonk, Art History: A Critical Introduction to its Methods

 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2006), p.120.

[13] Clark, Images of the People, p.10.

[14] T.J. Clark, The Painting of Modern Life (London: Thames & Hudson, 1985), p.8.

[15] Michel Foucault, The Archaeology of Knowledge, trans. A.M Smith (London: Tavistock, 1972), p.193.

[16] Althusser, ‘A Letter on Art’,p.222.

[17] Clark, Images of the People, p.13.

[18] Althusser, ‘A Letter on Art’, p.241.

[19] Althusser, ‘A Letter on Art’, p.242.

[20] Clark, Images of the People, p.12.

[21] Clark, Images of the People,p.16-17.

[22] Clark,The Painting of Modern Life, p.8.

[23] Althusser, ‘A Letter on Art’, p.242.

[24] Clark, Images of the People, p.16-17.

[25] Clark, Images of the People, p.13.

[26] Clark, Images of the People, p.81.

[27] Clark, Images of the People, p.82.

[28] Clark, Images of the People, p.83.

[29] Clark, Images of the People, p.83.

[30] Catherine Belsey, Critical Practice (London: Meuthen, 1980), p.31.

[31] Clark, The Painting of Modern Life, p.8.

[32] Althusser, ‘A Letter on Art’, p.242.

[33] Althusser, ‘A Letter on Art’, p.241.

[34] Althusser, ‘Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses’, p.174.

[35] Althusser, ‘Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses’, p.171.

[36] Catherine Belsey, The Subject of Tragedy (London: Routledge, 1985), p.5.

[37] Terry Smith, ‘Production’ in Robert Nelson (ed.), Critical Terms for Art History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003), pp.361-381, p.373.

[38] Catherine Belsey, The Subject of Tragedy, (London: Routledge, 1985), p.5.

[39] Clark, Images of the People, p.79.

[40] Althusser, ‘A Letter on Art’, p.242.

[41] Clark, Images of the People, p.79-80.

[42] Clark, Images of the People, p.79.

[43] Clark, Images of the People, p.80.

[44] Clark, The Painting of Modern Life, p.8.

[45] Althusser, ‘A Letter on Art’, p.241.

[46] Clark, The Painting of Modern Life, p.8.

[47] Clark, Images of the People, p.16-17.

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