At The New Criterion, Michael J. Lewis quotes from The Sight of Death: An Experiment in Art Writing, by art historian T. J. Clark:
My art history has always been reactive. Its enemies have been the various ways in which visual imagining of the world has been robbed of its true humanity, and conceived of as something less than human, non-human, brilliantly (or dully) mechanical. In the beginning that meant that the argument was with certain modes of formalism, and the main effort in my writing went into making the painting fully part of a world of transactions, interests, disputes, beliefs, “politics.” But who now thinks it is not? The enemy now is not the old picture of visual imaging as pursued in a state of trance-like removal from human concerns, but the parody notion we have come to live with of its belonging to the world, its incorporation into it, its being “fully part” of a certain image regime. “Being fully part” means, it turns out in practice, being at any tawdry ideology’s service.
"But who now thinks it is not?" A better question: Who ever thought it was not? What formalist ever believed a work of art or literature was literally "brilliantly (or dully) mechanical," or, at least, that a proper response to art was one that regarded it as "something less than human, non-human"? Has anyone ever really confronted a work of art "in a state of trance-like removal from human concerns"? The very fact the a human being experiences a work created by another human being, both of whom presumably draw on very human attributes--creativity, attentiveness, for that matter even the ability to self-induce a "trance-like" state--would seem to make the transformation of the puerile metaphor of the "mechanical" response to art into something real, something to be contrasted with "human," manifestly preposterous. Yet this association of formalist criticism of all kinds with merely "mechanical" aesthetic appreciation and "engaged" political criticism with the fully "human" world of "transactions, interests, disputes, beliefs" has been an operational assumption of academic criticism for almost three decades now, producing such an endless stream of ideologically sodden "scholarship" that apparently even Clark has had enough.
It's good that T. J. Clark wants now to challenge the pseudo-analyses of "belonging to the world" and "image regimes," but maybe he should have realized that his own interpretation of formalism was itself a "parody notion," that he was exchanging one "mechanical" approach for what was inevitably to become its equally distorted mirror image. It now seems a fixed law of academic criticism that one generation will dismiss the previous generation's preferred critical method based on its least representative, most exaggerated characteristics, while going on to practice a new method that seems designed to provoke a similar reaction from the next (or in this case, from one of its own.)
I am loath to quote The New Criterion approvingly, but I agree with Lewis (although I'd change his "immeasurably" to "somewhat"):
. . .The tendency of Clark’s career, then, has been to dislodge the aesthetic object from its pedestal to set it back into the social, cultural, and political currents that brought it forth. Such an approach, wielded judiciously, can immeasurably enrich the understanding of an object. But, used indiscriminately, it can also impoverish that understanding, rendering the object into a mere historical document—like a bill of lading or a deed of transfer. And a mediocre work of art always speaks far more eloquently about the society that made it than a great one. In the end, an insight that aspired to widen the scope and relevance of art history demoted it to a subspecies of social history. And Clark, whatever one may think of his politics, is too good an art historian not to realize that this is a loss for everyone.