By Cynthia Houng
Truism: All histories are subjective.
Truism: All historical narratives are the products of a series of choices and decisions–of evidence and argument, of style, emplotment, tone.
Truism: All narratives are representations.
Douglas Crimp’s Before Pictures (University of Chicago Press, 2016) is obviously a work of memoir. It is–less obviously–also a work of history. Less obvious, because Before Pictures is so clearly grounded in the experience–in the mind and body–of a single person, Douglas Crimp, and so the work’s claims to truth and to knowledge remain, at least in our more conventional (or academic) ways of thinking about history, too narrow, too personal, too subjective. How do we leap from this single data point to broader deductions about a society and an age? Here we have one experience, one voice, one point of data — but can it be serialized, integrated into ever broader series of documents, or data points, until finally we come to a bird’s-eye view of the situation?
Crimp’s answer: maybe we do not. Maybe that leap is impossible–and undesirable. Maybe we acknowledge the limits of our ability to know.
Since 1999’s Farewell to an Idea, T.J.Clark has grown increasingly increasingly skeptical of conventional art history, which Clark finds, on the one hand, hopelessly positivistic, shackled to dreams of objectivity and universalism, and on the other, excessively logocentric, more interested in text and context than in the artwork itself. The Sight of Death (Yale University Press, 2008), Clark’s diaristic account of his encounter with two Poussin paintings at the Getty, marked a decisive turn toward a different mode of writing, one that emphasizes the experiential, subjective nature of all writing on art.
The practice of art history proceeds along two axes–the critical and the historical. The critical component occurs in the present tense–it is bound up with the historian’s experience of the work, and it harkens back to art history’s roots in connoisseurship, which emphasized that beholder’s critical judgment of a work’s quality. This turn (or return) to the subject and to experience is only partially a consequence of postmodernism. It carries with it a degree of faith in the integrity of both subject and experience, an insistence that by grounding narrative and argument in the personal, the private, the contingent–we can come up against something both material and real. Doubt must end somewhere. It ends with the touch of flesh and blood.
In that sense, in their recourse to the personal, the subjective, to the first-person experience, neither Clark nor Crimp are decisively breaking with the art historical tradition. Neither the insistence on the primacy of the object nor the turn towards a transparently subjective mode of writing are new. What, then, is new? The answer lies in the logic behind this emphasis on the subject’s relationship to the object, and the insistence that we–both writer and audience–remember that this relationship occurs in the present tense. Ontologically speaking, it is the only tense possible, as one material being confronts another — object to object, one might say, existing in the same temporal plane.
These two books, though very different in their interests and investments, share a certain common ethical and political grounding: they refuse transcendence. They take immanence as a basic condition of experience. There can be — there will be — no God’s eye dream of meta-vision, no fantasy of transcending the boundaries of space/time or of this material world. This commitment–to remaining immanent in this time, this world, fully contained and bounded by its material constraints–is both political and ethical. It grounds the writer in the present, and so the writer must remain both agent and participant in the now. Transcendence can also be a mode of escape, a turning away from the exigencies of the moment, a refusal of responsibilities, even of agency.
This refusal of transcendence has different resonances for Clark and Crimp. For Crimp, it represents a kind of freedom, or liberation, from the burden of history–but of a specific kind of history. Before Pictures is ostensibly a memoir of Crimp’s life before “Pictures,” the 1977 Artists Space exhibition that launched Crimp’s career and also gave name to the “Pictures Generation.” In that sense, it is a personal bildungsroman (and closely follows the conventions of that genre). Before Pictures is also an intellectual history, an account of how Crimp moved away from the practice of conventional academic art history towards something more personal. And here, “Pictures” is not the inflection point. The “change of direction” is precipitated by his 1989 essay, “Mourning and Militancy.” This essay, “the final essay I published in October during my thirteen-year stint as an editor there,” was also “the first in which a personal experience formed the germ of the argument.” In an interview with Jarrett Earnest, Crimp described the two dialectical poles in Before Pictures as “autobiographical and critical.” This is the moment when the autobiographical and the critical come together. And it is also, in a way that would become important to the subsequent shape of Crimp’s career, the moment when Crimp’s two worlds–the gay world and the art world–are no longer separated. One self need not be alienated from the other self. It is also a re-imagining of the subject position of the writer, as both critic and historian. That subject is no longer imagined as one that conforms to the ideal subject of the liberal/capitalist regime, that of a heteronormative, white, bourgeois male.
“One thing I can say for certain,” Crimp wrote, in the final paragraph (echoing the denouement of Joan Didion’s Play it as it Lays), “When I wrote the Pictures catalogue essay, and even more when I rewrote it for October, I was convinced that with sufficient insight a critic could–even should–determine what was historically significant at a given moment and explain why. That conviction was a result of my intellectual formation as an art historian and aspiring art critic. Moreover, it was possible to believe such a thing then: the art scene as I experienced it from 1967 to 1977 was small enough to seem fully comprehensible. That, of course, no longer holds true. And because it is so clearly not true now, it seems unlikely that it could really have been true then. In the meantime, coming to the understanding that my knowledge of art can never be anything but partial has been liberating. It has allowed me to write about what attracts me, challenges me, or simply gives me pleasure without having to make a grand historical claim for it. No doubt that is why I respond to the reception of Pictures with ambivalence. It historicizes me.”
Note the final word here, the choice of the verb form, to historicize, over the noun. Note the resonance with historicism. Note Crimp’s ambivalence about submitting to this process, with all of its overtones of pastness, of being finished, of belonging to the past–and therefore being shut out of both present and future).
To be historicized is to become historical — and it comes with its own sense of triumph, as well as sadness. (For Crimp, who would become very involved in AIDS activism in the 1980s, this is a melancholic victory, won by virtue of having survived.) It also means submitting to historical representation, finding one’s self shorn of its particularities and slotted into a narrative–submitting, in other words, to being shaped, edited, and represented by another.
And this carries the danger of being re-inserted into tradition, being made to carry the burden of that grand history, when the point was to work oneself loose from it.
“I am with Walter Benjamin in thinking the pretense of the historian to enter the lost mental world of a long-ago maker a hopeless fantasy,” Clark declared in a 2017 lecture on “Joachim’s Dream,” one of the episodes in Giotto’s fresco cycle for the Scrovegni (Arena) Chapel in Padua. “In front of Joachim’s Dream, I don’t believe it can ever be me who time travels to the Trecento, on the contrary, it’s this stubborn fragment of an utterly unknowable past that brings, or refuses to bring, its now with it, into my present, putting my picture of pastness and continuity in doubt. I either own up to my naive claim on the work, the way the work answers or resists that claim, the way it suspends my usual pragmatic sense of history, or I settle for that far flight of historicist fancy called looking with a period eye.”
Crimp shares, with Clark, a radically constrained sense of the possibilities of making knowledge via conventional academic historical approaches. What any individual can really, truly know–what one can deduce from historical evidence–is narrow, straitened, far from the promise of universal history. While neither Clark nor Crimp is quite as radically skeptical as, say, Hayden White–who came to hold an unfavorable view of the relationship between professional historians/historiography and state ideologies and apparatuses–they share a sense of discontentment with the status quo of institutional historical practice. They share a discomfort with the profession’s conventions and structures, and Clark, at least, is also uncertain of its value (even while continuing to practice as an academic art historian, a disjunction between theory and practice highlighted by James A. van Dyke in his review of The Sight of Death).
Clark closed The Sight of Death with a gloss on a Hugh MacDiarmid verse: “The present may be theirs,/but a’ the past and future’s oors.” MacDiarmid’s “bluster,” Clark argues, “at least has the virtue of pointing to what an antithesis to modern life will now have to be made from.”
And this is where Clark diverges from Crimp. For Clark sees, in the past, the tools for making the future–and poignantly, perhaps, for making the future revolution. Let me finish, then, with Clark’s own words. The antithesis to modern life “will have to live in the past–retrieving the second term in MacDiarmid’s last line will mean (will depend on) retrieving the first. It is never the present that dreams the future, for the present has no past life with which to to make the non-existent real.”
Featured Image: Opening Reception, Pictures, Artists Space, September 23, 1977. Photo courtesy of Artist’s Space.