I've only read about half the book, so that's what I'm commenting on.
The basic premise, as far as I understood it, is this: modernism (as in the styles and trends that characterized the modern era, including modern art) was an attempt to retain something sacred or mythic in a world that was becoming more and more secular. Along with this, modernism also wanted to find a system of representation that would directly reflect and communicate with the reality that people were living in (as opposed to the idealized images of pre-modern times). However, these two wishes could not be reconciled. Using a number of very specific examples, art historian TJ Clark explores how these conflicting wishes of modernism crop up again and again in history during moments of extreme conflict and change. And through this, he tries to get at what modernity (the modern era) was really all about.
My personal favourite, out of the chapters I've read, is the chapter on Kasimir Malevich and the Black Square
. I have certainly developed a new understanding and appreciation for abstract art, and I know I will never be able look at a black square the same way ever again.
This is not a book for the casual reader. You really need a basic background in modern art history and preferably modern history as well to even begin to understand the things in this book. Clark does provide a lot of detailed background information on the society, history and politics surrounding each example but he never writes about it in any sort of easy-to-understand way, preferring to weave bits and pieces of information and references in and out of the text as he goes along. I had to do a lot of Googling and Wikipedia-ing as I read, although admittedly my knowledge of history was, and still is, quite limited. As much as I struggled with this book, I am very grateful to the professor (one of my faves!) who forced our class to read it. If you manage to get through even one chapter, I guarantee that it'll be very rewarding.