Marina Warner x T.J. Clark

The writers sat down to discuss the meaning of art in a secular society, the relationship between words and images, and the promise of utopia in a secular society

By ArtReview

Paolo Veronese, Unfaithfulness, ca. 1575, oil on canvas, 190 × 190 cm. Courtesy National Gallery, London Titian, Assumption of the Virgin, 1516–18, oil on panel, 690 × 360 cm. Courtesy Basilica di Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, Venice Rachel Kneebone, The Dance Project, 2018, performance at Touchstones Rochdale. Photo: Len Grant. Courtesy the artist and Touchstones Rochdale Paolo Veronese, Respect, ca. 1575, oil on canvas, 186 × 194 cm. Courtesy National Gallery, London Jonas Dahlberg, Invisible Cities (still), 2004, single-channel installation, HD video, colour, silent, 47 min 22 sec (loop). Courtesy the artist Mika Rottenberg, Squeeze, 2010, single-channel video installation, 20 min, dimensions variable. © the artist. Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth, New York Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Land of Cockaigne, 1567, oil on panel, 52 × 78 cm. Courtesy Alte Pinakothek, Munich

Marina Warner is a writer of cultural history and fiction. In her most recent book, Forms of Enchantment: Writings on Art and Artists, she reflects on the interactions between art, religion and the imagination since the Renaissance. Art historian and professor emeritus at the University of California, Berkley, T.J. Clark is a self-professed ‘realist at heart’. His latest book Heaven on Earth: Painting and the Life to Come looks at how artists such as Bruegel and Veronese have imagined the world transformed, and argues that their vision of a down-to-earth utopia still has much to teach us.

ArtReview listened in on a conversation between the two writers – who had never sat down together to discuss their work previously – which took place in Warner’s North London sitting room.

Marina Warner Your recent book Heaven on Earth and my own preoccupations converge on the questions, what are people seeing in works of art and, if something is being shown in them, what is it? I’m interested in myths: deconstructing and demythologising them because, as a Catholic, I was brought up by the language that paintings or holy images were carrying. I rebelled against those messages, but their beauty remained.

It’s important to find that space where one is free from the moral didacticism of images, so that something like Titian’s Assumption of the Virgin (1515–18) is no longer, as it were, telling the twelve-year-old me that I am ‘impure’, ‘sinful’ and ‘inferior’ because there’s only one woman who ever achieved sublimity: the Virgin Mary. To prise that painting loose from propaganda is very hard.

T.J. Clark Titian is a wonderful example because, as you say, the dogmatic framework for the Assumption couldn’t be clearer: it has behind it a set of beliefs and instructions which are quite chilling. John Ruskin worried about this work because he understood that. As a culture he loved Venice – Veronese, Titian, Tintoretto, that cluster of artists – but he knew that their paintings speak to a range of human experiences which is hardly contained by the dogmas that they supposedly illustrate.

Trying to work out the relationship of visual art to the stories, truths and established beliefs of religion goes along with trying to think about visual art in relation to the stories of politics: the various instituted and powerful, but also dangerous, belief systems within which we all operate. I stake an enormous amount on the belief that depictions enable us to work with those beliefs. Art isn’t a parallel universe, and you’re able to detect within an artist’s visual discourse all the resources of language and tradition – but they are ‘resources’ not ‘givens’, and they’re being altered and questioned as well as being called on, depended on.

MW On the one hand, there’s the way the artist fulfils a public contract, for a painting in a church or a patron’s commission for a palace: there is a patent design upon the audience. And on the other hand, there are latent things: when you’re looking at a Manet, as you have done so memorably with his Olympia (1863), it’s not the same as looking at a Renaissance commission. Those latent things are triangulated from many different areas of reception and creation, and it’s in that area that we can find the freedom to move.

It’s very important, if you’re interested in how art can exist in the world, that we believe in that space, that we believe that art can break free of ideology. Roland Barthes in Mythologies (1957) didn’t really believe that. He believed you couldn’t get out of the frame of the imposed ideological meanings. Being alert and alive critically – and trying to pass that on to students – does make it possible to open that space.

TJC I agree that Barthes did believe there was no way out of the ideological frame, but then in Camera Lucida (1980) he comes up with the idea of the punctum, of which there are so many interpretations. He seems to be on the verge of saying that there’s something that’s striking you from the image, occurring to you directly: so is it really ideologically prepared and framed? The word punctum doesn’t necessarily sum it all up for me, but there are dimensions to the visual imagining of a scene which the artist can lose hold of in the act of putting them all together. The artist begins to question what is happening – to accept that ‘losing hold’ is indispensable to imagining in full. 

MW I do think the idea of the punctum is too much anchored to the idea of a detail. But it’s interesting in two respects: one is that this sharp point – the detonation – happens in time. The punctum also gestures towards something that Barthes writes about very beautifully in A Lover’s Discourse (1977), which is emotion: the punctum transforms your metabolism, it’s physical. That is very important in terms of this promise that you could call beauty, which you outline in Heaven on Earth. How do we imagine politics here? And aesthetic politics, too?

TJC Returning to the Assumption for a moment: to some extent, thinking of yourself in critical relation to the dogmas of the Catholic church, you came to Titian’s picture prepared to dissent.

MW If you’re a Catholic child, you’re surrounded by such images. I could feel them telling me moral precepts that were particularly coded for women. It was all to do with why we menstruated and why we should sleep with our hands on the covers. It was this idea that, since Eve and the apple, we – women – are impure. In the essay on Hans Baldung Grien I try to express the power of this story of the Fall over time, and my fury, when I was young, that paintings of the Madonna, Eve’s opposite, had the power to move me at all, that the Titian was so magnificent, sublime and beautiful. And I began to want to know how we rescue the aesthetic for what we do want to foster and make possible. When you were growing up, what was your relationship to imagery?

TJC I am a confirmed member of the Church of England! But I lost my faith round the age of sixteen, and was never tempted back, so that kind of relationship never even crystallised for me. I had a lower middle-class upbringing in south Lancashire and the suburbs of Bristol and our churches were not ‘high’ – they were so dull visually and architecturally. I do remember one dreadful stained glass window in our parish church in Bristol where the kings were casting down their golden crowns around a glassy sea. I loved the idea – the idea in the image. And that’s the side of religion I still value: its investment in vision, in the icon.

MW That’s interesting because I think aniconism is coming back quite strongly, partly because the world of representations and images is so polluted by advertising’s claims on our attention, as well as by pornography and other things. Obviously artists are responding now to this aspect as well, through figurative critiques. But there is an interest in non-figuration as a place of safety from this problem of what the art is saying and what designs it has on you. But then aniconism also has a lot of ideology!

TJC Yes a lot, and of the worst kind! You said it’s nice not to hear so much of ‘impurity’ now, but one of the things I go on wanting to work with in our inheritance of the religious attitude is the idea of imperfection. It drives me mad that in our present ideological world, which of course is fundamentally irreligious, the imperfections of man are not faced, not really allowed into the realm of representation.

MW Plath’s lines are brilliant: ‘Perfection is terrible/it cannot have children.’ There’s a further countervailing movement in contemporary art – towards abolishing the hierarchical distinctions between humans, living creatures and even inorganic materials as a statement of interest in humility, equality of species and coexistence. You see this in the work of Joan Jonas and Kiki Smith, for instance. The ecological movement is committed to a similar project. Also, artists are expressing strong resistance to current policies against immigration, and against racists who think of society as diluted or corrupted by people who are not the same.

Visual arts escape language. It’s a wonderful freedom to be in a place that’s really hard to put into language. Yet it is partly the business of people writing about art, like ourselves, to do just that! To put it into language. And still it escapes.

TJC We’re in a situation where so many of the established truths of our society have to be resisted and argued against, and I hear you saying that you are more and more interested in artists raising political and social issues directly. Artists who produce works of art in which the sheer strangeness of this culture’s past, and what it has repressed of that past, is given form, and thought about in complex ways.

MW I would never really propose that an artist should be an overt activist. I’m not against it, but I don’t think that’s how it happens. I think it’s much more inadvertent. There’s a parallel with writing: I don’t think writers, novelists or poets should necessarily set out to be chroniclers of their times, but some of the greatest are. The artist can suggest another angle from which to look at things. Like Cristina Iglesias and her three fountains in Toledo (Tres Aguas, 2014), which suggest the three-cornered lost traditions in that city’s culture – Christianity, Islam and Judaism. By digging down into the ground she implies that that past is now coming to the surface.

TJC This digging down speaks to your belief in art as a form of archaeology. You often like art that includes acts of retrieval.

MW But the way you look at art is reparatory, or invites redress. I never liked Veronese’s Allegories of Love in the National Gallery, London (ca. 1570), and I’m astonished by your essay [on the subject, in Heaven on Earth] because it’s made me see them very differently. I didn’t like them for some of the reasons you do: the raked angles and bizarre relationships, the looming, almost trompe l’oeil effect – I found them theatrical and forced. But in performing an act of redress on the pictures as paintings, you’ve brought out a different meaning in the works. I particularly like what you say about the Disinganno, which you translate as ‘disabused’ [it has more traditionally been translated as ‘scorn’], which is, in a sense, what one is trying to do. To disabuse of assumptions, conventions and prejudice. 

TJC Working on Heaven on Earth, I began to realise that in the back of my mind were two aphorisms. One of them is in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1793) by William Blake: ‘Eternity is in love with the productions of time.’ But then there’s Arthur Rimbaud: ‘True life is elsewhere’ [La vraie vie est ailleurs]. It’s the tension between those two things that tells us we must go on thinking life differently: there must be a real life that we haven’t got to, or that we’ve lost. It’s just an indelible human aspiration, suspicion, regret… ‘Eternity’ or ‘real life’ or ‘heaven’ is always going to be in love with the productions of time, it’s always going to be a reforming of the world that we have. That’s where I put my trust in visual art. That it continually recalls us to the this-thereness, the presence and substance of the world.

Paolo Veronese, Respect, ca. 1575. AR April 2019 Feature
Paolo Veronese, Respect, ca. 1575, oil on canvas, 186 × 194 cm. Courtesy National Gallery, London

MW I think that’s why Tate Modern, for instance, draws such crowds. In the world of representations, to be in contact with the phenomenal – to have a relation with something made in that moment – has become very important to people. It might explain the popularity of performance art, which happens in one moment and will never happen again that way. Take Marina Abramović and The Artist is Present (2010). She just sat in a chair for hours and hours [at MoMA, New York], and attracted crowds of people because it was like watching time itself. She was present as a piece out of time in real time. I had problems with the work as we were made to collude with an appalling physical ordeal – as in Kafka’s ‘The Hunger Artist’ – but it showed that a new relationship to temporality is something people want from art.

TJC I’m sure that one main power of art is that it stops the flow of experience, or slows it down. Some of the best video work is premised not on bringing things to a halt, obviously, but having them linger and dilate, giving reality a different pace – in a society governed by total continual flow. I also agree that performance art can collude with the idea of ‘force of personality’. When I register that it’s a personality being performed, not a person, I tend to switch off.

MW There are two points I’d like to pick up on: one is the point about ideology and allegory. I resisted the Allegories, but you show in your account of those paintings how much isn’t part of some ideological scheme that tells us what love is. This takes us to something important, which is that visual arts escape language. It’s a wonderful freedom to be in a place that’s really hard to put into language. Yet it is partly the business of people writing about art, like ourselves, to do just that! To put it into language. And still it escapes.

TJC Somebody asked me a few weeks ago why, if I felt this way about the ineffability of the visual, did I write about it all the time? It was a perfectly fair question. But pictures anticipate the world of words of which they are going to be part – certain artists have dreamt of a wordless world, but they are rare, and fool themselves. And it’s an entirely ordinary human activity, to find words for things seen. We do it all the time. That’s why I am so fascinated by Ruskin. With all the problematic and pathetic aspects of him, he’s still a giant in terms of thinking about ways in which language can invite one to look

MW His amazing power of expression – the richness of his vocabulary, the intricacy of his syntax – corresponds to his belief in craftsmanship. That idea of virtuosity, of technical competence, is another place where the power of art gathers. Of course it’s not quite the case now in contemporary art, because the flipside is that we value work that, being awkward rather than slick, seems to have escaped the condition of the commodity.

TJC That goes way back, to a point which is central to Modernism. The idea of a seemingly unskilled directness ­–

MW Childlike, spontaneous, getting away from the superb power of commodity in our times – 

TJC Right – unfinished.

MW But this non-commodification still has a relationship to the market, which sets conditions you can’t escape. One example would be Rose Wylie, who is seemingly very spontaneous and unsophisticated, and deliberately so. But she’s become valuable. And the new interest in Art Brut or Outsider Art – artists like Henry Darger – outliers who haven’t come through the system, who have worked perhaps in their basements or in their institutions, whether hospitals, prisons, asylums, refugee camps or detention centres, have made their works highly prized. They may be already dead when they’re discovered, and I’m not against them making money (especially when they are still alive!), but the art world is always looking for ways to validate itself by finding sources of transcendence beyond the current mainstream, which it can pull in to purify itself.

TJC In Outliers and American Vanguard Art at LACMA [2018–19, having travelled from the National Gallery of Art, Washington] I remember looking at these astonishing, profound works of James Castle, who attended a school for the deaf and blind and made work from his own spittle. He’s using the most rudimentary materials, but as you tune into what he’s doing, you realise it’s a specific complex idiom: it’s a set of materials he knows intimately. He’s pushing it towards a certain vision of what the world’s like, and it’s not like any vision anyone else knows, but it has an intensity and a will to form that is quite ruthless. 

MW Because they’re often reclusive or not seen, or because of their institutional circumstances, such artists don’t have a conscious intention to communicate something to the outer world. Because they don’t actually wish to act upon us, although it seems like it, their work has an effect that we consent to. We feel that their originality, intricacy and craftsmanship are imbued with this true power of artistry for itself alone.

To put this in a theoretical context, I’m very persuaded by [anthropologist] Alfred Gell’s theory of art and agency. He made the case that the greater the degree of virtuosic technology, the more enchanting power the artefact has. He did his fieldwork in New Zealand and Papua New Guinea, so he took for his example the Maori war canoe, which has a prow of immense dimensions with masses of intricate scrolling which is impossible to reproduce – impossible to commit to memory, impossible to photograph in your mind. And that makes it strictly unique – irreproducible. In the Maori worldview, such unique complexity constitutes a powerful charm to stun and frighten and repel enemies. Gell says we should think of objects of anthropological interest in the same way as we think of art in the West. We should submit the same critical approaches we have towards artefacts to art. A religious icon, for example, is attempting to mobilise the same kinds of invisible powers, to act upon believers and adversaries.

TJC I would dissent just a little from this: I’m not sure that Gell’s approach speaks to the strange moment we’re in, where we’re not quite clear whether art has agency or not. This might even be a way in which you and I differ. You look much more intensely at contemporary art than I do. I look at contemporary art in a somewhat random way and, to be honest, I’m always prepared to be disappointed. The title of your book – Forms of Enchantment – suggests a powerful idea, that some of the artists you admire the most are in some sense trying to re-enchant the world, or at least to retrieve those aspects of the world that once gave it fluidity, depth, strangeness. They’re trying to get back into a world of myths, stories and magic.

What sticks in my mind about the artists I mentioned is that they seem to be trying for a Realism that’s not denunciatory – that deliberately holds back from adopting an ‘attitude’ to what is depicted. I guess I should confess: I still look around me for forms of ‘contemporary realism’

MW I saw a very strange and moving piece at Rachel Kneebone’s recent exhibition The Dance Project at Touchstones in Rochdale. In collaboration with a choreographer and dancers, she worked with local women ­– including refugees and women who had suffered domestic abuse – who, dressed in white like vestal virgins, danced in response to her porcelain sculptures and to the accompaniment of a cello. It was moving, resistant and powerful, a real example of contemporary art as a secular ritual. Nothing was invoked, no gods, no supernatural. It was these women in their solid flesh expressing sympathy with one another and sensuality in relation to these sculptures, affirming their own corporeality and its possibilities. And although I don’t think art should be socially useful or set out to be a therapy, you could say that this created a moment of re-enchantment.

Rachel Kneebone, The Dance Project, 2018. AR April 2019 Feature
Rachel Kneebone, The Dance Project, 2018, performance at Touchstones Rochdale. Photo: Len Grant. Courtesy the artist and Touchstones Rochdale

TJC I think you’ll agree that we’ve had enough high claims for art as a form of reinvesting the world with religious aura or significance. I’ll never forget seeing Magiciens de la Terre [at the Centre Pompidou, 1989]. I thought it was dreadful! It was dominated by the word ‘shamanism’; everyone was a ‘shaman’. I thought, by contrast, that the moment in your book where you talk about shamanism did really address the special character of magic as a practice, and you seemed to me to be telling us that magic is an extraordinarily important part of the human, the history and the continuing reality of the human; and that as such it is both wonderful and dangerous. And those artists you care about are working with this dimension in a way that understands it’s dangerous too.

MW The trouble is that we’ve had an important period where people sought to resist magic. Magic is about the relationship of language to reality, of course. Language is both off-kilter from reality and at the same time formative of it, so that it keeps on shaping reality. We’re seeing two forms of word magic swirling in this country and in Trump’s America. The Mexico wall is a perfect example of language turning into materiality and causing chaos. And I’d add that destroying images, pulling down statues to change the story of the past is another. 

TJC It occurred to me as I was thinking about Forms of Enchantment that I once wrote a book called Farewell to an Idea, which circled around this wonderful phrase that Max Weber borrowed from Schiller: ‘Modernity is the disenchantment of the world.’ I was thinking about the moment when, in 1915, Kazimir Malevich put his Black Square up in the corner of the room in the place normally reserved for the icon. What’s he doing there? Saying that the Black Square is a substitute for, or continuation of, the numinous? Or that it is the annihilation of the numinous? That’s an unresolvable question, and he knew it would be. 

MW That suspension, that contrariness, is important. Only a limited rationalist would wish it to be one or the other, but unless Malevich is in the room telling you his intention – and even if he told you his intention – your response to it might be different.

TJC It comes right back to the relation between the word and the image. I am very fond of a remark Nicholas Poussin made at the end of a letter to one of his patrons: ‘Well, I’ve said enough, it’s time for me to go back to devoting myself to choses plus apparentes que les paroles [things more apparent than words].’ And I think that is Malevich’s motto as well. The Black Square is something more apparent than words, and words will always try to touch it, to contain it, to give it meaning, but it’s never going to be captured. 

My response to contemporary art is patchy, as I’ve said, but there are a few things I return to. Gerhard Richter’s Baader-Meinhof series (October 18, 1977, 1988), for instance, and Jonas Dahlberg’s video Invisible Cities (2004), in which he moves through a profoundly ‘nowhere’ set of suburban spaces in the world’s endless unknown big cities. These are examples of artists who are truly trying to represent the space and pace of our world, it seems to me. What they choose to show us is bleak, for sure. In some sense it’s a New Realism.

Jonas Dahlberg, Invisible Cities (still), 2004. AR April 2019 Feature
Jonas Dahlberg, Invisible Cities (still), 2004, single-channel installation, HD video, colour, silent, 47 min 22 sec (loop). Courtesy the artist

MW Mika Rottenberg presents a similarly dystopic view of contemporary urban life. She shows the terrifying underworlds that lie behind, for example, the beauty industry. She mixes real and shot footage, and it all looks real but is heightened through digital media into a terrifying, consumerist Mondo Cane. It makes me shudder to remember some of her images of the women trafficked to become pedicurists in rich suburbs. It doesn’t look like agitprop – because it’s glossy and smooth and digital – but it is.

TJC Yes, but it doesn’t have to be polemical. What sticks in my mind about the artists I mentioned is that they seem to be trying for a Realism that’s not denunciatory – that deliberately holds back from adopting an ‘attitude’ to what is depicted. It is not a world of outright horror they’re showing, although you do realise that there’s something horrible, certainly unheimlich, about it. I guess I should confess: I still look around me for forms of ‘contemporary realism’. And there are aspects of modernity – many aspects – that seem to me still radically under-described.

MW Isn’t your ‘heavenly’ rather material and realist in some ways? Isn’t part of the argument that we make heaven on earth through the medium of art?

TJC Sometimes I’m tempted to think that imagining the world radically otherwise simply is our way of thinking hard about what the world is. At the heart of Heaven on Earth is Bruegel’s astonishing Land of Cockaigne (1567), which is a peasant myth of the afterlife as a place where you don’t have to work and are full of food. You could not have a more materialist idea of heaven. It’s not even ‘the world upside down’; it’s the world the same way up but only more so. So yes – I am a realist at heart.

MW To return to where we started, I don’t believe we should think in terms of art having a function, it implies too much intention and objective. I would hold out for saying that the freedom of art is also freedom from function.

TJC Suppose we restrict ourselves to visual depiction: from very early on with homo sapiens there seems to have been a tremendous social investment in depiction – on the walls of the caves, and so on – and it seems to have become a prestigious, specialised activity roughly at the same time that the language-function is accelerating and crystallising. So depiction and language seem to be two species-defining characteristics, and heaven knows what depiction was for, exactly. I resist the idea that it was all for fertility, or hunting success; though obviously it had something to do with the world of animals because they were the first main subjects, and depiction was clearly bound up with hunter-gatherer culture.

Did depiction offer some ‘other space’ to be human in? These are deep, intransigent questions about the very nature of the human, to which any answer can only be speculative, aware of its distance from the long-ago series of events. So I agree that to put the stress on function is wrong. Or, at least, we are wrong to pose the question of function in simplistic terms – as if we knew what ‘human’ priorities were at Chauvet and Altamira. And here’s my other thought: there’s a poignant moment in Ruskin’s great final volume of Modern Painters (1843–60) where he finds himself unsure not only about what art is, but about whether it has effects that he should approve of, because he has become more and more aware that art and luxury go together in human history. His misery at the nature of the nineteenth century gradually deepens over the course of his career. His disciple William Morris in the end said about himself: ‘I spend my life in ministering to the swinish luxury of the rich’. It’s an unsolvable problem.

MW But Morris was trying not to minister to the rich. He was trying to revive a more egalitarian craftsmanship. I want to turn it around because we are talking about artists who are skilled and how this skill becomes a luxury. But there is the other angle, which is the way children draw. Children simply enjoy drawing, even though they are driven away from it by the demand to be skilled.

TJC Yes, and you can see the ‘natural’ progression in the child, that the child at the beginning hardly sees the crayons, they are just pure instrumentality to get the dandelion on paper, but a few months later, the crayon and the touch and the mark is coming into being for the child. The child begins the dialectic between the mark-making and what the mark is of. 

MW We are a making species. It’s about knowledge. You can look at a dandelion and draw it, and you know the dandelion. That deepens your whole sense of being in the world.

Heaven on Earth: Painting and the Life to Come by T.J. Clark and Forms of Enchantment: Writing on Art and Artists by Marina Warner are both published by Thames & Hudson