September 28, 2006

Minimalist Theater

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


1. Michael Fried, Art and Objecthood, Chicago, 1998, 163.

2. Ibid., 163-164.

3. Ibid., 153.

4. Ibid., 153.

5. Ibid., 153.


joyce said...

Regarding Joseph Kosuth's article "Art After Philosophy", where do those artists working in a traditional "language" fit in the world of art today? Since they sell so well with "the man in the street" they are still considered fine artists by the average person. I think today we have created a rank of artists which is interesting in itself. Conceptual artists (which Kosuth says is every artist after Duchamp) really look down to strictly formalist painters. Does anyone have thoughts how this affects the "artist community" that we've created.

Rebecca Jones said...

Maybe the reason why there's been such a problem with with an identification of contemporary art is because of all the ranking that the art world has been subjected to until now, and the pressure that comes with that. But I think that because "everything's been done" and art's been defined in every possible way now, that this should reopen the validity of formalist art. I mean today what is the difference between discussing the nature of art conceptually in a piece, when everythings already been questioned, and making art based soley on aesthetics?

Lile said...

"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."

The following is a related topic copied and pasted from my blog. I look forward to reading more of yours.

"In theatre, the audience is experiencing the performance as a person views a painting, viewing through a type of window. What challenges the viewer is when one's expectations of this window are thrown into chaos when an actor enters into that area from outside, usually from the audience's perspective."

M. Cameron Boyd said...

In furtherance of discourse. . .
Joyce: Although your comment is “early,” Kosuth’s theories rather obstinately suggest that those “artists working in a traditional language” are irrelevant to the course of art. Remember, commercial viability has absolutely no importance to the true discourse of art. Indeed, we have created a “rank of artists which is interesting in itself,” that is if you mean artists that are more involved with "art" than with fame or success. To clarify, Kosuth did not confer “conceptual” status on all artists post-Duchamp but famously insisted that “all art after Duchamp is conceptual (in nature).” He resolutely determined that artists must reconsider their role in art making, as Duchamp had defined art as now engaged with context and idea. I would say that this polarized the “artist community,” as traditionalists who make conventional commodities are making a living, while artists who “push the envelope” are under-recognized and still struggling.

Rebecca: First, let me emphatically state that I disagree with the position that "everything's been done" in art. This is magnificently disproved by artists who continually surprise us with new visions or valid continuance of previous concepts. Artists should not be re-visiting “older” models, i.e., formalist painting, because everything else has “been done” but, instead, because they believe they can extend a concept further. The difference between an art based on aesthetics and art on ideas is clear: the former is concerned with surfaces and formal concerns, while the latter can be conveyed in a variety of post-medium processes. “How” it was made (the aesthetics) has been supplanted by “what” is conveyed (ideas).

Anonymous said...

Ok i just wrote a blog that got erased I hate this. HEre are the highlights:
The art world is full of elite groups that pride themselves on their superior "communities". They make art that they know will sale becuase they are a part of the consumer machine. They amke hwat the world is interested in. Often I find the most popular and respected artists the most boring. They are pompuous and self indulgent and th pride themselves on their own genius. tHat is my very prejudice view on the main stream world of art. By lucky for art there are rebels. Well maybe not rebels but artists who aren't interested in fame or an elite status. They are outside the mainstream and have a fresh imaginative free depiction of what art can be. People who push the envelope and don't care if they burn brifdges on the way. They are the future of art.