Clark: The Social

In the early to mid-20th century, Socialism permeated many aspects of society and study, including the study of art history. What is the social significance of a work of art? To what degree are artists influenced by society? T.J. Clark, Professor of Modern Art at the University of California Berkeley from 1988-2010, looked closely at Realism in 19th-century painting, specifically Gustave Courbet’s Burial at Ornans (1849-1850), analyzing the social value of a work of art and what it means for art to be considered “avant-garde.”


Gustave Courbet
Burial at Ornans
Oil on canvas
Musee d’Orsay, Paris

Clark’s methods have their roots in Nietzsche’s argument: “there are no facts, only interpretations.” Whether we read into our historical sources or take them at face value, all discussions of the subject are imbued with a slight tweak of our individual perspective. There is no pure truth. Clark further denounced traditional labels such as “avant-garde.” It was not that such terms were meaningless in his mind, but they were in need of constant re-evaluation. Only if we demote them and criticize them can we arrive at an understanding of what it means for a work of art to be avant-garde. Clark identified a serious need a multiplicity of perspectives within art history.

Although he was not the first art historian to suggest that art history is inseparable from other kinds of history, Clark introduced an important distinction between relating to and reflecting was entirely new. He argued that history should not serve as a mere background to a work of art – “as something which is essentially absent from the work of art and its production, but which occasionally makes an appearance” – but an integral part of the work’s creation. Furthermore, history or social being is not transmitted to the artist on some kind of “fixed route.” Rather, artists respond to the values and ideas of the artistic community, which in turn are altered by changed in the general values and ideas of society, which in turn are determined by historical conditions.” According to Clark, it is the art historian’s job to explore all of these possible influences and look at a work of art through as many different lenses as possible.

All quotes in this post were pulled from T.J. Clark’s essay “On the Social History of Art,” in Image of the People, pp. 9-21.


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