Wednesday, December 17, 2014

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)

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