A video of Ellen Levy’s recent lecture “’The deep ludicrousness of lyric’: The Poet in T. J. Clark” is now available in the Visual & Critical Studies section of SVA’s iTunes U account. You can find it at this link, which leads to a web page from which you can open iTunes and choose to watch it as a streaming video, or download it to your computer. The page also contains links to videos of all of the other VCS-sponsored lectures and panel discussions posted on iTunes U to date (27 in all, for now).
Levy began her lecture with a question: why have poetry and literary fiction generally been ignored in art history, when English professors have written profusely on the influence the visual arts have had on modern literature? (She cited recent books on the importance of art to the works of Wallace Stevens, Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, and other poets, as well as a few general surveys on the relationship between Modernist abstraction and writing.)
While not answering this question definitively, Levy dug into the history of art criticism and brought forth information that casts a great deal of light onto it. She began with a discussion of The Sight of Death: An Experiment in Art Writing (2006), T. J. Clark’s close reading of two paintings by Nicolas Poussin carried out over a number of visits to the Getty Museum. According to Levy, the book is notable not only for its lack of Clark’s usual materialist analysis, but also for the inclusion of several strangely ambiguous poems that he wrote in response to Poussin’s works.
Levy then spoke about the historical relationship between poetry and Modernist painting. She cited Clement Greenberg’s gradual shift from (unpublished) poet to art critic, and his eventual proclamation that in the battle for the title of dominant art form, painting had not only won out over literature, but was historically bound to do so. Her analysis of Greenberg’s writings gradually led to Clark’s arguments that any presence of “the lyric” in painting is evidence of the artist’s vulgar, petty-bourgeois aspiration to aristocracy, which in turn destroys any possibility for painting to effectively oppose the status quo.
After considering Greenberg and Clark’s respective accounts of this idea, Levy brought poet and art critic Frank O’Hara into the conversation, presenting his wholehearted acceptance of the vulgar as an alternative to Clark’s morose distaste for it. Toward the end of the talk, she cited O’Hara’s poem Ode to Joy, with its ecstatic praise of “vulgar, materialistic laughter” and its poignant refrain: “no more dying.”
As usual, I’ve only been able to scratch the surface of this lecture, and have left out several rich tangents that Levy wove into it. It’s well worth a view, and I encourage anyone interested in the history of art criticism, abstract painting, or the relationship between literature and the visual arts to spend some time with it.