How does T. J. Clark interpret Baudelaire's concept of "modernity" and his idea of "the painter of modern life" in The Painting of Modern Life?

T. J. Clark interprets Charles Baudelaire’s idea of modernity in The Painting of Modern Life in several ways. With his discussion on Édouard Manet's Olympia, Clark shows us how the painting of the prostitute links to the kind of "mire" that Baudelaire encouraged artists to "seize." When Clark writes that modernists were characterized by "transgression," we can see that defiance in Baudelaire's poems about corpses, prostitutes, gambling, and other activities and identities that might offend the more obedient bourgeoisie.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Charles Baudelaire is a crucial Western poet and T. J. Clark is one of the more well-known art critics. In The Painting of Modern Life, Clark appropriates the title of Baudelaire's well-known essay "The Painter of Modern Life" and addresses many of Baudelaire's ideas about modernity and modernism.

Remember, when we are talking about modernity, we're talking about artists, painters, and thinkers who are moving away from romanticized perfection and overly-exotic representation. When it comes to modernity, we're dealing with people concerned with the underbelly of society.

Think about some of the paintings that Clark mentions in his study. One painting that comes to our mind is Édouard Manet's Olympia.

For Clark, Olympia is "also a picture of a prostitute." The prostitute is a favored image of modernists as it contains a "hopeless, disabused nobility."

Indeed, in "The Painter of Modern Life," Baudelaire writes, "If only the sculptor of today had the courage and the wit to seize hold of nobility everywhere, even in the mire."

One key link between Clark's modernity and Baudelaire's modernity is the drive to create art about that which is considered dirty. Concerning Olympia, Clark quotes an art critic who refers to the subject’s “flesh tone” as "dirty."

Clark writes that modernists were

no longer characterized by a system of classification and control but, rather, by mixture, transgression, and ambiguity in the general conduct of life.

We see that transgression in Olympia. We also see it in Baudelaire's poems. What are his poems about? Some are about gambling, skeletons, prostitutes, and an array of other activities and identities that link him to Clark’s—and modernity's—interest in the “mire" of life.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team