September 28, 2006
A preliminary synopsis of Michael Fried’s influential and controversial essay, Art and Objecthood would outline these points:
1. The emergence of a new, “illusionary” visual mode in painting (Pollock, Newman, Louis) that acknowledged the literal character of the painting’s support, i.e. its flatness. Greenberg: “Optical illusionary as opposed to sculptural illusionary.”
2. Neutralization of that flatness by the literalness of the experience of pigment, foreign substances, etc.
3. The arrival of a new mode of pictorial structure based on the shape of the support (Stella, Noland), i.e., shape determines structure.
4. Primacy of the literal over the depicted; depicted shape became dependent on the literal shape.
Fried’s analysis takes us to around 1965 and is a workable study of the seemingly “positive” and “logical” progression of an admittedly limited handful of painters working in the United States. But the real nugget of this essay comes in the seventh and final section, wherein Fried says:
“At this point I want to make a claim that I cannot hope to prove or substantiate but that I believe nevertheless to be true: theater and theatricality are at war today, not simply with modernist painting (or modernist painting and sculpture), but with art as such . . . ”(1)
He then proceeds to break this “claim” down into “three propositions”:
1. The success, even the survival, of the arts has come increasingly to depend on their ability to defeat theater.
2. Art degenerates as it approaches the condition of theater.
And his final clincher:
3. The concepts of quality and value – and to the extent that these are central to art, the concept of art itself – are meaningful, or wholly meaningful, only within the individual arts. What lies between the arts is theater.(2)
If we return to section three of Fried’s essay, we can read his attack upon the work of Robert Morris, specifically with reference to the idea of a “literalist sensibility” which Fried considers to be “theatrical” because “it is concerned with the actual circumstances in which the beholder encounters literalist work.”(3)
Irregardless, Morris had already invoked gestalt theory as a hitherto uncharted “element” of artistic exploration. Essentially, Morris felt that once the “primary structure” was “recognized” and all information about it was exhausted (scale, surface, proportion, environs) then the viewer was free to consider the perceptual “experience” itself and other aspects of the object in relation to its fundamental unity:
“The better new work takes relationships out of the work and makes them a function of space, light, and the viewer’s field of vision. . . One is more aware than before that he himself is establishing relationships as he apprehends the object from various positions and under varying conditions of light and spatial context.”(4)
Perhaps one can forgive Fried’s obvious protectiveness of his mentor, Clement Greenberg, who wrote stridently throughout the 1940s and 1950s of the need for a “self-criticality” in painting and for painters to focus only on “medium specificity,” i.e., the specifics of what painting is capable of as medium. However, the fact remains that the consideration of “perception” would prove worthy of intense investigation by visual artists. (See Merleau-Ponty’s The Phenomenology of Perception.) Moreover, Fried’s characterization of minimal art as “degeneration” into “theatricality” is simply ironic, as we continue to realize today that the perceptual experience is truly one of “an object in a situation – one that virtually by definition, includes the beholder.”(5)
Readings for 4 October: Chapter 9 introduction, Language and Concepts; from Ch. 9: Douglas Huebler’s Untitled Statements and Joseph Kosuth’s
Art After Philosophy.
(available at http://www.ubu.com/papers/kosuth_philosophy.html)
1. Michael Fried, Art and Objecthood, Chicago, 1998, 163.
2. Ibid., 163-164.
3. Ibid., 153.
4. Ibid., 153.
5. Ibid., 153.