Wednesday, December 17, 2014

A Festival of Fried, Part III: One Foot in the Grave

Michael Fried gives us a vision of personified animals in his poem “Care,” which he dedicates to Allen Grossman, one of the leading interpreters of his poetic work. As in poems such as “The Hilltop” with its Aesop-like speaking fox, eagle and rabbit (NBR 58), “Care” imagines a badger who has amassed a collection of art but is concerned that it will be squandered or destroyed, implicitly after his death. While the image of the nervous keeper of a horde of treasure is interesting enough, the badger’s subterranean habit and its way of digging in the earth particularly caught my attention. For, the motif of digging is one that occurs frequently across Fried’s oeuvre. His poem “Cézanne” finds the narrator collapsing after “a day spent looking at paintings / I’m as exhausted / as I would be if I had dug a trench.” (NBR 12) If this equation of looking and trench-digging sounds a bit rich from someone who has probably never dug a trench in his life, Fried also then turns the equation around to imagine a reciprocal exhaustion on the part of the painter. The labor of making the painting figures as “a day spent digging trenches.” (NBR 12)

Understanding acts of looking at and making pictures qua digging also finds instructive resonance in Fried’s art historical writing. In “Painter into Painting” from 1982, Fried takes the bent bodies of Gustave Courbet’s Stonebreakers (at left), who painfully smash and heft bits of earth, as allegories of the hands of the artist painting the figures: “The old stonebreaker and his young counterpart may be seen as representing the painter-beholder’s right and left hands respectively: the one wielding a shafted implement that bears a distant analogy to a paintbrush or palette knife, the other supporting a roundish object that might be likened to the (admittedly much lighter) burden of a palette.” (PP, 641-2) Just as the poet’s labor of looking at paintings is equivalent to the trench-digging work of the artist who makes them, so both actions register in Courbet’s simultaneous identity as painter and first beholder of his own work (PP, 634). These actions then get transcribed—or better, personified—as markers of Courbet’s own identity (see PP, 642-3) as he fulfills what Fried sees as his ambition to “transpose himself as if corporeally into the painting on which he was working” (PP, 634) as a way to overcome the theatricality felt in his position in front of the canvas.

There is another way in which digging and “earth-work” figures significantly in Fried’s reading of Courbet, however. In an article from 1983, Fried approaches Burial at Ornans through Courbet’s landscapes of the late 1840s, teasing out the role of central, serpentine forms often occupied by images of rivers. These river motifs serve to guide the eye into and through the landscape, but their resulting hollows and declivities follow from a Kunstwollen directed at carving out a deeper kind of ground-work: “a desire for excavation and filling in, a desire that ... receives its most direct and in a sense its most capacious expression precisely in the Burial.” (SB, 654) What is driving this desire, Fried will argue, is Courbet’s aim to undermine his own separation from the painted worlds he is creating with the effect that “the bottom of the picture is subjected to extraordinary pressure in Courbet’s art.” (SB, 663) So, whereas the chiasmic labors of Cézanne and his viewer make for parallel but discrete trenches, Courbet’s split identity and simultaneous occupation with seeing and painting makes earthwork central to his project. Of the foregrounded grave in the Burial, Fried writes: “We might say that both the location and the treatment of the grave bear witness to a resolve to cut the ground out from under the feet of the beholder and by so doing to leave him nowhere to stand outside the Burial itself. Part of the tool by which that labor presumably was accomplished can be made out just to the left of the grave: the blade of a shovel, crusted with dirt and, like the grave, abbreviated by the bottom framing edge. This is suggestive ... much as if the fictive activity of excavating the grave (of excavating this grave precisely here) and the actual activity of painting the Burial were in crucial respects analogous.” (SB, 666)

All of these effects, we need to remember, follow from the central thrust of Courbet’s project: “the painter-beholder’s ‘fantasmatic’ insertion of himself into the painting” or, again, “the heavy urgency of the painter-beholder’s determination to achieve union with the painting before him.” (SB, 676) Given the ancient gendering of the cold, wet earth as feminine, Fried can hardly escape from the sexual address of this urgent drive for insertion through the bottom or “from the rear” (PP, 638); indeed, in his Courbet book, Fried will take on these questions directly. But, reading his poetry, what struck me particularly was Fried’s return to these metaphors of excavation and passage into the earth, as it were, in reverse. In a poem called “The Tunnel,” the narrator describes his father made fluid—dying “of a cirrhotic liver / caused by poisoned blood / flushed through him one winter dawn / to fight a bleeding ulcer” (NBR, 7)—penetrating a stony portal: “He found a stone wall / with, at its base, a tunnel / just too narrow to admit / a man. Undaunted he crawled though / hand over hand/ to the other side.” (NBR, 7) Unlike the hands-made-into-bodies as the artist passes into Stonebreakers and out of theatricality, the broken body of the leaking father passes out of life through a stone portal, a grave.

This brings us back to the worried badger. This badger, Fried tells us, has a poet-friend who collects ancient pots, keeping them in an apartment “like a cave.” (NBR, 13) As with the entombment of the father, these pots are “of hard gray stone.” (NBR, 14) Yet, where the father himself had become fluid, these subterranean, stony vessels remain available for activation by artistic penetration. The badger’s friend is convinced that one of these newly-acquired pots “was a scribe’s inkwell. / When the time comes he will dip his pen in it / to write his gravest / songs.” (NBR, 14) Moving with the venerable alignment between power and penetration noted in the reading from Leo Bersani (IRG, 21), death is turned into life by this act of insertion, the cave-like setting and the material grave recouped into immortal, poetic gravity. “Care”, then, is not only the condition of Dasein to the world, but the kind of comportment one needs for reading and writing around the grave. So we saw in class two weeks ago, one of the most ingenious features of Fried’s writing on Courbet is the plotting of the reader like the mourners in the burial as “walking slowly, almost somnambulistically, in the ultimate direction of the open grave.” (SB, 647) Like Stanley Fish’s account of Paradise Lost where the reader endlessly performs the plot by falling—by failing to identify with the right party, by being tricked into Satanic rhetoric—we who fail to see the poetic jaws enfolding around us (if we miss this reference to the plotting of appreciation for the depiction of acts carried out “automatically, as if unconscious ... [with] almost somnabulistic character” [AMTFP, 144]) will end up occupying the grave, rather than sprung artistic from it.

So much for where we left off last time. Soon after class, I received an email from a colleague who shared this insight: “I had a little epiphany this morning: graphein = to dig, to carve, to write.” An excellent point. The etymology of the graphic—binding writing, drawing and digging—would certainly have been known to Fried as, among others, Svetlana Alpers talks about it at some length in The Art of Describing (1983), which he cites in various places. But, it also raises an interesting question about Fried’s account of Courbet—one of particular relevance to our readings for today. That is, if Courbet is moving around his signature in Stonebreakers from right to left; if he is making his central figures in that painting into isomorphs of his own initials, and—most critically—if he is operating with this conception of painting as digging/excavating, might we not also see him as sharing Eakins’s conflict between writing/drawing vs. painting, between the quasi-Wölfflinian graphic versus pictorial seeing? In other words, where Fried sails imperviously between Courbet’s drawings and paintings but sees those relations as problematic in Eakins, might the graphic not be seen to menace Courbet as well?

These questions are pertinent for us today as the figure of the excavation and the filling grave occur again in Fried’s writing on photography. Offering an extended account of photographer Jeff Wall’s laborious working process (based on their own, private email correspondence) as split between on-site shoots and digital reconstruction, Fried parenthetically observes that “as yet Wall has found no means of acknowledging in his art the prolonged and repetitive labor that goes into the making of a work like Morning Cleaning, though, perhaps the imagery of digging a well, a grave, or an anthropological site, as in The Well, The Flooded Grave [above], and Fieldwork may be viewed in that light.” (JWWE, 524) As presented here, Wall’s attention to sites of digging are privileged as they appear to answer to the modernist moral value of acknowledging the material conditions of their making without being reduced to them. Just as viewing and writing about pictures is like digging the graves that figure in Fried’s texts, shooting and digitally building photographs are like the earthy excavations Wall shows us.

But, might this gravitation toward the grave in Wall’s work not also help us to think about the morbidity of photography in recent discourse. Themes of death feature prominently in Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida (see BP, 558-561), a work central to Fried, Michaels and many others. Yet, how do metaphors of vulnerability and loss of control figure more broadly in conversations about photography? More to the point, what is at stake in these figures?

Works Cited

NBR: Michael Fried, The Next Bend in the Road. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004

PP: Michael Fried, “Painter into Painting: On Courbet’s After Dinner at Ornans and Stonebreakers,” Critical Inquiry 8, 4 (Summer, 1982): 619-649

SB: Michael Fried, “The Structure of Beholding in Courbet’s Burial at Ornans,” Critical Inquiry 9, 4 (Jun., 1983): 635-683

IRG: Bersani, Leo. "Is the Rectum a Grave?" October. 43 (1987): 197-222.

AMTFP: Michael Fried, “Absorption: a Master Theme in Eighteenth-Century French Painting and Criticism,” Eighteenth-century Studies 9, 2 (1975): 139-177

JWWE: Michael Fried, “Jeff Wall, Wittgenstein and the Everyday,” Critical Inquiry 33, 3 (Spring 2007): 495-526

BP: Michael Fried, “Barthes’s Punctum,” Critical Inquiry 31, 3 (Spring 2005): 539-574

A Festival of Fried, Part II: The Eighteenth Century

Let’s rejoin our story in the session we did with Emma Barker, who led us through a discussion of Fried’s intervention into eighteenth century French painting. Barker stressed that an abiding methodological lesson has been introduced into studies of the period through Fried’s insistence on taking historical art criticism seriously—in reading it holistically, treating it as an object to be explained, not simply cherry-picking for choice quotes that illustrate points in an anecdotal way. In this mood, Fried critiques historians who have dismissed the significance of the re-assertion of the hierarchy of genres and the central importance of history painting as operating under anachronistic prejudice (TSF, 545). He argues instead that these concerns were central to a historical revolt against the Rococo ca. 1750, led by philosophe Denis Diderot. (TSF, 551) What is crucial for Diderot in Fried’s reading is the concentration of energy and expression not only by a new-found insistence on unity within painting (TSF 559), but a commensurate demand for constraint within a single temporal instant of the narrative depicted. As he puts it: “The new emphasis on unity and instantaneousness was by its very nature an emphasis on the tableau, the portable and self-sufficient picture that could be taken in all at once as opposed to the ‘environmental,’ architecture-dependent, often episodic decorative project [favored by the Rococo] that could not.” (TSF 566) In this sense, the developments he traces in the essays that would culminate in Absorption and Theatricality (1980) are understood as anti-Rococo and particular to France. (A&T, 1-2)

This concentration on the tableau format also moved with a new kind of self-consciousness about the painter’s enterprise—a withering intolerance for signs of the painter’s meretricious catering to the beholder for whom the picture was made. So, at once, “a painting had to call to someone, bring him to a halt in front of itself, and hold him there as if spell bound and unable to move.” (TSF 570) Yet, to do so successfully, the painter had to accomplish “the supreme fiction that the beholder did not exist, that he was not really there, standing before the canvas.” (TSF, 581) Fried’s name for the privileged means of achieving Diderot’s mandate is, of course, “absorption,” which he defines as “the state or condition of rapt attention, of being completely occupied or engrossed or (as I prefer to say) absorbed in what he or she is doing, hearing, thinking, feeling.” (AMTFP, 143) Chardin is an important figure in Fried’s account of this absorptive aesthetic—which turns out to extend back to seventeenth century figures including Caravaggio, Poussin, Vermeer and Rembrandt (AMTFP, 165)—insofar as he was able to fulfill Diderot’s brief, as it were, naively. He depicts everyday scenes in which figures appeared so absorbed in their activities that they turn away from or simply ignore the beholder. “In Chardin’s canvases the persuasive representation of absorption appears to have been achieved, to have come about naturally, almost automatically, in and through the objective representation of ordinary absorptive states and activities.” (AMTFP, 172-3) Relations between this kind of aesthetic and the drive for “presentness” are certainly there for the taking. In Chardin:

The very stability and unchangingness of the painted image are perceived by the beholder not as material properties that could not be otherwise but as manifestations of an absorptive state—the image’s absorption in itself, so to speak that only happens to subsist. … [We see] a single moment … isolated in all its plenitude and density from an absorptive continuum the full extent of which the painting masterfully evokes. Images such as these are not of time wasted but of time filled (as a glass may be filled not just to the level of the rim but slightly above). (A&T, 50-1)

Pictures like these, Fried continues, visualize “an unofficial morality according to which absorption emerges as good in and of itself, without regard to its occasion; or perhaps it is simply that Chardin found in the absorption of his figures both a natural correlative for his own engrossment in the act of painting and a proleptic mirroring of what he trusted would be the absorption of the beholder before the finished work.” (A&T, 51)

Natural and automatic as his efforts appear to Fried, Chardin is also a transitional figure. In this way, it is Greuze—Chardin’s inferior successor, as typically judged by modern standards—who is actually more important to Fried’s story. For, where Chardin can simply, naively overcome the primordial theatricality of all painting simply by posing his depicted figures as turned away from or otherwise ignoring the beholder, Greuze has to achieve those effects and does so by initiating a program of visual drama. Only by contriving events of such heightened emotional and sentimental drama can Greuze achieve the unity demanded by Diderot whereby all figures will remain locked into the concerns proper to the painted world that they won’t be drawn out by the tractor beam of the beholder looking at them. From Greuze onward, “the dramatic representation of action and passion, and the causal and instantaneous mode of unity that came with it, provided the best available medium for establishing that fiction in the painting itself.” (TSF, 581) Although Fried is consistently hostile to the construal of modernism as reduction (see HMW, 221-2), he does cast the shift from Chardin to Greuze ca. 1750 this way: “The everyday as such was in an important sense lost to pictorial representation around that time. The latter was a momentous event, one of the first in the series of losses that together constitute the ontological basis of modern art.” (AMTFP, 174)

Now, a program of contriving pictorial unity and drama sufficiently powerful that it will stop a beholder dead in her tracks, but that has the effect of ignoring the beholder that the picture is designed to attract all traffics in what Fried variously calls “paradox.” (See TSF, 581; AMTFP, 174) In his critical writing on Diderot, literary theorist Jay Caplan usefully draws out the centrality of paradox to the philosophe’s thought and his preference for the literary form of the dialogue. (FN, 4) “Only in dialogue—in the shifting movements of conversation and dialogic confrontation,” as Caplan puts it, “could he find a sense of his own identity, as well as approach the fleeting object of his thought.” (FN, 7) One of the paradoxical operations that Caplan sees in Diderot’s thought turns around the structure of the tableau (considered here as a literary device, informed by the experience of eighteenth century painting), which so impresses a reader that she is compelled to recount the scene repetitively. In this sense, the reader “plays what is literally a part, a fragment; he aims to replace a part that the tableau has lost … as if by accumulating partial images, one could suggest that the tableau is and always has been whole.” (FN, 17-18) A fragment that stands in place of the recognition of difference, the tableau is thus construed as a fetish “in which the transitoriness of the real world is magically transformed into an ideal fixity.” (FN, 18) A reading like this has clear implication for Fried’s account of Chardin’s filled instances noted above.

Caplan, however, also introduces a second framework for understanding the tableau and its screening of difference. Noting the ways in which Diderot’s literary tableaux frequently take their poignancy from highlighting the loss of a family member, Caplan turns to a language of sacrifice to explain the dialectical chain-reaction these passages provoke:

These tableaux express a desire for reconciliation, a desire to make up for what the family has lost. However, that loss or absence is always implicitly replaced by a silent beholder who identifies with the suffering of the virtuous family members and must vicariously fill in for those who have departed. In this manner, what has been sacrificed in a now-fragmented family—the missing part—reappears outside the tableau in the figure of the beholder. When he sees the tableau … the beholder makes a sacrifice equivalent to the original one, to the ‘making sacred’ of a family member. (FN, 22)

So, as the reader/beholder of the tableau sacrifices himself with his own sympathetic sense of loss even as he thereby reconciles the wholeness of the represented situation, Caplan identifies a structural difference between Diderot’s literary works and the paintings analyzed by Fried.  He puts it this way: “The tableau is always minus one. Diderot’s written tableaux are therefore structured differently from the contemporary paintings that Michael Fried has so brilliantly analyzed. In the written tableau, a loss inside the tableau constitutes the beholder outside it.” (FN, 23)

Although I am not entirely convinced by Caplan’s reading, I think the introduction of sacrifice is highly productive for understanding the emotional drama of Greuze and for apprehending the broader stakes of Fried’s writings on eighteenth century French painting. In class, we used a catalyst from Georges Bataille, an excerpt from his short essay called “Sacrifice, the Festival and the Principles of the Sacred World.”[1] What is crucial to Bataille’s account of sacrifice is that the ritual violently pulls entities from the profane, utilitarian economies of production in an excessive act that releases them into sacred immanence. Sacrifice, then, is a lacerating rupture of individuation that restores the sacred order of community and its connections with the holy:

To sacrifice is not to kill but to relinquish and to give. ... What is important is to pass from a lasting order, in which all consumption of resources is subordinated to the need for duration, to the violence of an unconditional consumption; what is important is to leave a world of real things, whose reality derives from a long-term operation and never resides in the moment—a world that creates and preserves (that creates for the benefit of a lasting reality). [...] Sacrifice is made of objects that could have been spirits, such as animals or plant substances, but that have become things and that need to be restored to the immanence whence they come, to the vague sphere of lost intimacy. (S, 213)

Remembering how he stresses that objects of sacrifice are conventionally utilitarian objects and not luxury goods, Bataille’s account is particularly illuminating when we turn back to Greuze. Emma Barker herself argues that Greuze’s pictures of young girls apparently mourning a loss of chastity and their implied paternal beholder (see below) need to be situated in relation to the “social practice of the exchange of women, as it has been theorized first by Claude Lévi-Strauss and subsequently by feminist scholars.” (RGG, 99) In the deeply patriarchal society of ancien régime France, Barker argues, “the deflowering of an unmarried girl was not so much a sin against her chastity … as an offence against the authority of her father.” (RGG, 99) Since women were regarded legally as objects to be negotiated on a marriage market, sexual activity constituted a crime against property, a violation of a utilitarian object.

Hence its drama. Per Bataille, the loss registered in the weeping of Greuze’s young girls marks the sacrifice of their economic function on a profane marriage market through a rupture of their commodity status, their objecthood. Yet, this kind of operation is precisely what Fried seems to have in mind with Diderot’s aesthetics and anti-theatrical painting writ large. The new insistence on the beholder in France ca. 1750, he argues:

directs attention to the problematic character not only of the painting-beholder relationship of something more fundamental—the object­-beholder (one is almost tempted to say object-subject) relationship which the painting-beholder relationship epitomizes. It suggests that by the middle of the eighteenth century in France the object-beholder relationship as such, the very condition of spectatordom, had emerged as theatrical, a medium of dislocation and estrangement rather than of access to truth and conviction. The essential task of the painter as construed by Diderot … was to undo that state of affairs, to de-theatricalize beholding and so make it once again a medium of absorption, sympathy and self-transcendence. (TSF, 581)

Transcending the individuated self, the false opposition of subjecthood and objecthood: surely these are goals reconcilable with Bataille’s notion of sacrifice. But, they are also deeply continuous with the religious fervor of “Art and Objecthood”—its opening appeal to the thought of fire-and-brimstone Puritan minister Jonathan Edwards (author of the famous sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”) and Fried’s revulsion at minimalist work that “makes the beholder a subject and the piece in question … an object” (A&O, 154), to say nothing of the concluding line, “Presentness is grace.” (A&O, 168) Indeed, one of the most productive observations made by Emma Barker in class was that we should take this capacity of bourgeois society for the sacred seriously since it helped to produce nothing less than the French Revolution.

By this account, then, what we see in Greuze’s supposedly melodramatic, saccharine and otherwise embarrassing excursions into sentimentalism are really mechanisms for restoring a sacred order through art, which had been made necessary by the advent of new techniques of the self. I think this is what Fried means when he concludes one of the preliminary essays towards A&T this way: “If one asks why beholding or spectatordom emerged as problematic and specifically theatrical in France around the middle of the eighteenth century, one cannot expect an answer in terms of painting alone. For what underlay that development was at once a new conscious of the self and a new experience of the role of beholding in the stabilizing (and undermining) of that consciousness. The ultimate sources of the theatricalization of beholding must be sought in the social, political, and economic reality of the age—in all that bears on the history of the self.” (TSF, 583)[2] This strikes me as one of the really productive sites for exploring Fried’s vision of the moral in modernism in relation to the thought of Michel Foucault and those who have built upon his work. But, I’ll save the elaboration on this point for another time.

[1] This was not entirely capricious on my part, as Caplan too references Bataille directly before the passages quote above, albeit in a different context; FN, 21.
[2] This, of course, is a fascinatingly different account from the dogmatism of A&T itself, where we read: “Nowhere in the pages that follow is an effort made to connect the art and criticism under discussion with the social, economic, and political reality of the age.” (A&T, 4)

Abbreviations for works cited:

TSF            Michael Fried, “Toward a Supreme Fiction: Genre and Beholder in the Art Criticism of Diderot and His Contemporaries,” New Literary History 6, 3 (1975): 543-585

AMTFP            Michael Fried, “Absorption: a Master Theme in Eighteenth-Century French Painting and Criticism,” Eighteenth-century Studies 9, 2 (1975): 139-177

A&T            Michael Fried, Absorption and Theatricality: Painting and Beholder in the Age of Diderot (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980)

HMW            Michael Fried, “How Modernism Works: A Response to T.J. Clark,” Critical Inquiry 9, 1 (Sept. 1982): 217-234

FN            Jay Caplan, Framed Narratives: Diderot’s Genealogy of the Beholder (Minnesota, 1985)

S            Georges Bataille, “Sacrifice, the Festival and the Principles of the Sacred World,” in The Bataille Reader, eds. Fred Botting, and Scott Wilson. Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 1997, 210-219

RGG            Emma Barker, “Reading the Greuze Girl: The Daughter’s Seduction,” Representations 117 (Winter 2012): 86-119

A&O            Michael Fried, “Art and Objecthood” [1967], in Art and Objecthood, 148-172

[1] This was not entirely capricious on my part, as Caplan too references Bataille directly before the passages quote above, albeit in a different context; FN, 21.
[2] This, of course, is a fascinatingly different account from the dogmatism of A&T itself, where we read: “Nowhere in the pages that follow is an effort made to connect the art and criticism under discussion with the social, economic, and political reality of the age.” (A&T, 4)

A Festival of Fried: Part I

This fall, I was so fortunate as to participate in a seminar on art critic/historian Michael Fried. Without adornment, here is a modest narrative of our proceedings. 

We began with a selection of writings by Clement Greenberg and his account of modernist art. By this narrative (originally Marxian in its historical conception), an avant-garde emerges in nineteenth century France, a historical novelty (AK 7) dialectically generated by and negating the urban, industrial bourgeois society to which it remains tied by an “umbilical cord of gold.” (AK 11) Since that bourgeois society and its Protestant leanings had encouraged a dominance of “literature” (where all arts aspire to the virtues of story-telling, to deleterious effect [TNL 24]), the avant-garde turns inward upon itself. It becomes an “imitation of imitating” (AK 10), fundamentally about its discrete mediums. (AK 9)

Courbet is an important origin figure in Greenberg’s genealogy of the avant-garde; with him, we see painting renouncing its literary desire to “have been breathed on air or formed out of plasma” (TNL 29) in favor of insisting on its composition from—and being in—paint. “Reducing his art to immediate sense data by painting only what the eye could see as a machine unaided by the mind” (TNL, 29), in Greenberg’s terms, Courbet’s art exhibits new formal characteristics: “A new flatness begins to appear … and equally a new attention to every inch of the canvas.” (TNL 29) Manet, like the Impressionists who followed, took this alienated, avant-gardist sensibility with its superior historical consciousness (AK 6-7) steps further in seeing “the problems of painting as first and foremost problems of the medium.” (TNL 30)

It is then through this medium specificity that the modernist arts constitute their autonomy, ferociously throwing off the mantle of literature and taking the purity of music (via theorists like Walter Pater) as model. (TNL 32-2) Medium, as Greenberg argues here, is thus nearly coextensive with materials. “For the visual arts,” he writes, “the medium is discovered to be physical; hence, pure painting and pure sculpture seek above all else to affect the spectator physically.” (TNL 32-3) The history of the modernist plastic arts thus reads as a series of renunciations of modeling, chiaroscuro, perspective and ultimately representation of visible entities themselves as painters increasingly find their subjects within and as the means of their métier:

Under the influence of the square share of the canvas, forms tend to become geometrical—and simplified, because simplification is also a part of the instinctive accommodation to the medium. But most important of all, the picture plane itself grows shallower and shallower, flattening out and pressing together the fictive planes of depth until they meet as one upon the real and material plane which is the actual surface of the canvas where they lie side by side or interlocked or transparently imposed upon each other. Where the painter still tries to indicate real objects their shapes flatten and spread in dense, two-dimensional atmosphere. A vibrating tension is set up as the objects struggle to maintain their volume against the tendency of the real picture plane to re-assert its material flatness and crush them to silhouettes. In a further stage realistic space cracks and splinters into flat planes which come forward, parallel to the plan surface. (TNL 35)

In later writings of the early 1960s, Greenberg (at left) associated this kind of medium specificity with a self-critical drive first announced by Kant. (MP 85) By this telling, the alienation and rationalist undermining of art’s religious justification forced artists to demonstrate that “the kind of experience they provided was valuable in its own right and not to be obtained from ay other kind of activity.” (MP 86) The autonomy of the modernist arts would be established by insisting upon the material means of making and problems revealed within them by ruthless self-criticism. (MP 86-7)

Not only, then, were the plastic arts struggling to overcome literature, but painting had to parse itself from sculpture to offer unique address to “pure optical experience.” (MP 89) Modernist painting, in this view, is utterly continuous with the past (MP 92), not at all the historical break as the earlier advent of the avant-garde had pledged (see AK 6-7). Further, the coming of “openness” in post-painterly abstraction from the closed forms of synthetic Cubism suggests that abstraction itself is but another iteration of the “cyclical alteration” (AAE 123) characteristic of art’s history as seen in Wölfflinian, formalist terms.

For early Fried, there is much to admire in this narrative and its attendant methods. Formalist criticism, he argues, is indeed most appropriate to the interpretation of modernist art for the simple reason that “modernist art in this century finished what society in the nineteenth century began: the alienation of the artist from general preoccupations of the culture in which he is embedded, and the prizing loose of art itself from the concerns, aims and ideals of that culture.” (MPFC 646) Since modern art is alienated from its social framework rendering appeal to social-historical factors (supposedly) moot as explanatory tools, “the fundamentally Hegelian conception of art history that is at work in the writings of Wölfflin and Greenberg” (MPFC 646) is best poised to interpret modernism’s problems. Appealing to the work of Lukacs and Merleau-Ponty, Fried identifies a non-teleological dialectic operative in modernism (MPFC 646) driven by painters’ own intensely self-critical understanding of their medium’s history, which they keep “not as an act of piety toward the past but as a source of value in the present and future.” (MPFC 647) Modernist art, then, is not gratuitous, but fundamentally moral insofar as its ongoing dialectic produces problems to which the self-critical painter (and critic) mist face up to. Both demand “a state of continuous intellectual and moral alertness.” (MPFC 648)

If this moral dimension is not entirely present in Greenberg, Fried makes a more explicit break with his mentor ca. 1966 around issues of materiality and medium. For example, in “Shape as Form,” Fried begins his exploration of Frank Stella’s shaped canvases by claiming that they treat “shape as a medium” (SF 77) (He’ll repeat this formulation in 1967 [A&O 151, 153] and, in ’69, extend a conception of medium to include “Frenchness” [MS 52, 57]). Shape and Frenchness imagine a far less material conception of medium than Greenberg had allowed, and this becomes crucial to Fried in the essays of 1966-7. First, the argument he runs via Stella is that the shape of the canvas support emerged as a crucial problem for modernist painting due to advances in post-painterly abstraction. Noland and Olitski had to “acknowledge” (SF 78) the shape of their canvas supports due to the presence of new kinds of purely optical illusion in their work, which had the effect of calling greater attention to the shape of the canvases on which they worked. (SF 78-81) Stella’s early striped aluminum paintings then took a reiteration of canvas shape by literal form to the brink. (SF 81) Noland responded by exaggerating the shape of his canvases, putting them into violent relationship with his painted forms “so that, while the physical limits of the support are assaulted by illusion, the (depicted) boundaries between the bands are the more acutely felt—as if absorbing the literalness or objecthood given up by the support.” (SF 83) Olitski, by contrast, did away with internal form (in favor of sprayed color) and combated objecthood by altering the rectangular proportions of his canvases. (SF 84-86) Yet, these were effectively “naïve” strategies, which left the literal canvas still “there to be felt.” (SF 87)

It is this feeling—and commensurate desire for nothing but the literal object—that Judd, Bell and other minimalists seized upon. This, however, was a serious misapprehension of the modernist project of which Greenberg too was guilty. For, Fried claims, it is wrong to say that the modernist painter aims at the “essence of all painting, but rather that which, at the present moment in painting’s history is capable of convincing him that it can stand comparison with painting of both the modernist and pre-modernist past whose quality seems to him beyond question.” (SF 99, n. 11) Literalism/Minimalism, thus, confuses the acknowledgment of modernist art’s material composition for a simple-minded exemplification of those materials. (SF 88) More than an epistemological act according to Cavell (K&A 263-4), acknowledging requires possessing knowledge and responding sympathetically to it. It is, in this sense, moral. That moral point is evident in Fried’s account of the importance of Stella’s later shaped paintings (pictured above), which at once register the urge and the pull of reductivist, materialist literalism and yet still resist in favor of a kind of illusion and play between shape and form. Objecthood is defeated … for the moment. (SF 95-6)

What, then, is a “medium” for Fried? Following on from his citation of Kuhn (SF 99 n. 11, see also MS], a working hypothesis is that we might see medium not as materials but as “paradigm”—as a rule-binding framework that generates crucial problems and makes work productive for those inside it. (SSR 23-4) Like a paradigm, a medium in this sense can also be undermined by a profusion of anomalies that resist resolution by the available theories and methods (SSR 84-5), and ultimately enacts a Gestalt shift—that creates “a different world” (SSR 111)—when one paradigm replaces another. In part, by misunderstanding medium as mere materiality—by taking ontology (essence) to inhere in literal, physical properties instead of paradigmatic concerns (see A&O 169 n. 6)—minimalist art perpetrates a travesty. By capitulating to objecthood rather than simply acknowledging it, the object inscribes the beholder in a false ontology. The characteristic distancing of the minimalist work “makes the beholder a subject and the piece in question … an object.” (A&O 154)

This conception of human being as mere subjectivity, deriving from the Cartesian cogito, flattens Dasein’s being-in-the-world in seemingly obvious, but highly detrimental ways, according to Heidegger: “For what is more obvious than that a ‘subject’ is related to an ‘object’ and vice versa? … While this presupposition is unimpeachable in its facticity, this makes it indeed a baleful one.” (B&T 86) Essentializing material presence, minimalist art also inscribes its subject in a false temporality—a (profane) duration of the intermingled arts of theater (A&O 153-4, 166-7) to which the (sacred) presentness and instantaneity of modernism stands opposed. (A&O 167-8) And the stakes are even more significant, Fried suggests, since “the more nearly assimilable to objects certain advanced paints had become, the more the entire history of painting since Manet could be understood … as consisting in the progressive … revelation of its essential objecthood.” (A&O 160) Of course, for Fried, this is a tragic misunderstanding.

In this light, it is not surprising that we next see Fried turning to a historical account of Manet—rewriting this history in his own terms. What certainly is surprising about “Manet’s Sources” is the nature of argument Fried makes. Rather than the haughty indifference or insistent flatness that Greenberg had foregrounded (TNL 30), Fried’s point of departure is the way in which Manet makes persistent references to art history in his paintings of the early 1860s. Stressing the importance of pictorial precedents by Antoine Watteau and Louis Le Nain in Manet’s Old Musicians (1862; at left) above the more obvious relations to Velazquez, he goes on to make a highly peculiar argument. Manet, Fried claims, is moving in an avant-gardist milieu far more aware of and open to 18th century painting than one might think. It took new interest in Watteau as a serious painter (MS 37); it used puppet theater to call for a return to 18th C. theatrical conventions. And while no less than Baudelaire shows up as a closet buff of the Rococo (MS 43), Manet moves in circles where rococo theatricality can be seen as “realist” insofar as it is “naïve.” (MS 48)

The leading idea in all this is that Manet has to be seen within a moment of formation of an art-historical infrastructure and consciousness in the mid-nineteenth century—one that took definitions of the “national school” and the quintessence of national traditions to be of the utmost import. (MS 48) Exemplified by his mustering of Watteau and Le Nain in the Old Musician, then, Manet needs to be seen as consolidating his own canon of distinctively French painting. (MS 50) This struggle to articulate a French canon not only provides the necessary context for a better apprehension of Manet’s so-called “eclecticism” (MS 50-1), but also explains how the painter then proceeds to embrace the art of other national traditions with this medium (i.e. paradigm) of Frenchness in pace: “His genius … enabled him to make Frenchness itself the medium through which Frenchness was transcended and access to the great paintings of other nations secured.” (MS 52)

Manet’s historicism, in this way, is inescapably related to his realism—the more familiar term, as Reff’s critique makes abundantly clear. No longer, Fried claims, is it possible to think of the influence of the past on Manet. Instead, we need to recognize how art from the past gives Manet “sanction” since “his problem was not how to overcome the power of the past to determine the present; but what to make of a past that had lost the power to do just that.” (MS 70 n. 47) Yet, once he had worked the medium of Frenchness out through his paradigmatic canvases of the early 1860s, Manet accomplished a revolution—an autonomous paradigm for modernist painting that resolved its relations to the Old Masters once and for all: “No painter since Manet has been faced with the need to secure the connectedness of his art to that of the distant past, to the enterprise of the Old Masters. With Manet’s paintings of the first half of the sixties, that simply and without notice disappeared as a problem for painting.” (MS 66) Alienated from society, modernist painting and its autonomy against the precedents of the past had been established.

But, given the highly pejorative reading of theatricality outlined in A & O, what are we to make of Fried’s repeated associations of Manet’s valorized art with theater? Further, given the critique of anthropomorphism and incessant unity leveled against the minimalist object, how do we make sense of the animism and embodiedness that Fried attributes to Manet’s paintings? Noting how Manet resolutely restrains more than one figure from gazing out of the picture, he claims:

Manet seems … to have felt that to have more than a single figure look directly at the beholder would in effect be to establish a number of individual, and so to speak merely psychological, relationships between the beholder on the one hand and the figures in question on the other. Whereas Manet seems to have wanted to establish a particular kind of relationship between the beholder and the painting as a whole, in its essential unity as a painting. In this sense it is as though the painting itself looks or gazes or stares at one—it is as though it confronts, fixes, even freezes one—… and as though this was an essential source of Manet’s conviction … that the pictures in question really were paintings. (MS 69 n. 27)

Authority as painting derives from an integrated totality that seems to look at the beholder, to “make the painting itself turn toward and face the beholder … It is as though the frontality, the problematic relationships and finally what has been seen as the flatness of Manet’s paintings are at bottom just this facingness, this turning-toward.” (MS 72 n. 97)

So, if Manet’s paintings take their authority from an ability to face the beholder, to turn toward us as single entities, why aren’t they simply theatrical? In part, the claim seems to be that what Manet reveals is the fundamental theatricality underpinning any act of depiction no matter how “straight” it seems: “In Manet’s art the very act of posing, or fact of being represented, was for the first time revealed as ineluctably theatrical—as inescapably, even when inadvertently, a performance.” (MS 70 n. 46) In this way, though, what looks like theatricality ends up being closer to the naivety and the realism of Watteau and Le Nain whose figures gaze out from the picture plane “innocently” because they do not yet take the beholder as a problem. (MS 79 n. 114) By squaring up to what Fried will come to call the primordial convention of painting that it is made to be seen and self-consciously building his autonomous project on the naïve tradition of the Old Masters, Manet is thus engaged in the fundamentally moral program of acknowledgment and sanction key to modernism.


AK: Clement Greenberg, “Avant-Garde and Kitsch” [1939], in Clement Greenberg: The Collected Essays and Criticism. Volume I. Perceptions and Judgments (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986), 5-22

TNL: Clement Greenberg, “Towards a Newer Laocöon” [1940], in Clement Greenberg: The Collected Essays and Criticism. Volume I. Perceptions and Judgments (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986), 23-37

MP: Clement Greenberg, “Modernist Painting” [1960], in Clement Greenberg: The Collected Essays and Criticism Vol. 4. Modernism with a Vengeance, 1957-1969, ed. J. O’Brian (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993), 85-93

AAE: “After Abstract Expressionism” [1962], in Clement Greenberg: The Collected Essays and Criticism Vol. 4. Modernism with a Vengeance, 1957-1969, ed. J. O’Brian (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993), 121-133

MPFC: Michael Fried, “Modernist Painting and Formal Criticism,” The American Scholar 33, 4 (1964): 642-648

SF: Michael Fried, “Shape as Form: Frank Stella’s Irregular Polygons” [1966], in Art and Objecthood: Essays and Reviews (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), 77-99

A&O: Michael Fried, “Art and Objecthood” [1967], in Art and Objecthood, 148-172

MS: Michael Fried, “Manet’s Sources: Aspects of his Art, 1859-1865,” Artforum 7 (March 1969): 28-82