July 17, 2017
“Art and Objecthood” Word by Word
By (Ohio State University)

1

I’ve spent now probably some forty-five years keeping close company with “Art and Objecthood” and a lot of that time with has been spent teaching it. While that can at times be an immensely revealing way to re-encounter a long-familiar text, all too often it becomes a way of getting habituated to shortcuts through it. Many of these “shortcuts” are perfectly serious and respectable in their way—one lifts out what seem particularly pointed passages or threads, points out various continuities with Michael Fried’s earlier and later criticism or with Greenberg’s writing, works through how that criticism relates to the art historical arguments that become fully explicit in Fried’s subsequent writings, shows how the essay appears in the context of Stanley Cavell’s work of the same period, and so on. These short-cuts are hardly acts of pedagogical desperation, and they are, in general, not betrayals of its argument. Their problem is simply that they settle too quickly or easily for making sense of it; the students get a grasp of Fried’s “position” without actually making peace with an essay they typically start off by intensely disliking and grossly misunderstanding—to the point that they are convinced of their deep disagreement with it well before they have any idea what they are agreeing or disagreeing with. Their difficulty, first off, is simply with reading the essay—something they rapidly find themselves either unable or deeply unwilling to do, and clarifying Fried’s “position” does nothing to address this resistance: it simply relieves them of the burden while leaving the animus in place.

My own initial relationship to “Art and Objecthood” was above all readerly: what took me from the first, and continues to sustain my engagement with it, is above all its writing—my overwhelming sense of how it, sentence by sentence, section by section, holds itself together. It has often seemed to me—and I have no idea of how Fried may in fact have struggled with it—that it must have been immensely satisfying in the actual writing. The image that has come to me over and over again is of laying in a parquet floor, seeing each board slot into place as the overall pattern comes ever more sharply and completely into view until it is done, complete, perfectly sized to its self and circumstance. And yet the essay has at least equally often seemed to me almost entirely out of control—as if, no matter how clear the finished pattern might be, the underlying structure of tongue and groove, pegs and holes, beams and subflooring and bitumen, everything that supports and locks the surface pattern into place, that lets it sustain a load and gives its whatever spring it has, remains mysterious and might remain so even to its author. There is in this tension room for the essay to quarrel with itself, and those quarrels—that openness to rereading—are what keep “Art and Objecthood” interesting, keep some of us caught up in it.  This is the essay I want to be teaching and too often slide off of one way or another.

2

One of the most difficult features of “Art and Objecthood”’s writing is its abundant use of quotations. Students typically do not see any special problem here: Fried appears to them to be in no way at odds with the artists he quotes, and that seems right enough. What puzzles them is how the essay then turns, as it seems to them, so arbitrarily against that agreement, so their question tends to be how he can get the art right and the judgment so wrong; their difficulties here go deep enough that some of them wind up confused even about what that judgment actually is.1 The underlying expectation here—notably fueled by a certain training in “good” academic writing—is that a quotation should figure as a piece of evidence in an argument that will draw a conclusion in keeping with it. Since Fried seems to be in agreement with the artists he quotes, every year I find myself faced with at least a couple of students who come to class having simply missed the actual tenor of the thing altogether.

This mistake is understandable, at least to the extent that Fried is indeed doing something funny with these quotations. He is, let’s say, not exactly taking them as they are offered—as if, in insisting on the artists’ words he is also somehow taking them away from their speakers, turning their words against them. While many first-time readers don’t see this clearly enough to ask about it directly, they do tend to register it, and they tend to register it as “rhetorical,” underhanded, a violation of some etiquette. Friendlier readers may be equally inexplicit about what Fried is doing here and to simply accept the quotations as something like proof of or support for Fried’s own descriptions of the work. If challenged about this, they will tend to say that Fried is simply taking the artists seriously—but here the hostile readers certainly have the edge: they see that “seriousness” is precisely what is in question. That’s what they mean, more or less, when they say Fried is doing something “rhetorical.”

No one likes to be taken seriously when they are speaking lightly. And nobody likes to be told they are not serious when they believe they are. But the encounters staged around the various remarks quoted in “Art and Objecthood” are not exactly either of these: the question of seriousness is not being raised by Fried in the face of what the artists have said but is presented as already there in what they say—and as unheard there by them. That’s the point of all the quotation—to have those words, those sentences, in front of us so that we can hear in them what they seal themselves against, and that means we are to hear in them also their way of closing against themselves.

Certainly a pivotal passage from this point of view is the discussion of Tony Smith’s drive on the unfinished Jersey Turnpike, the longest of “Art and Objecthood”’s quotations and the one Fried treats most directly and at greatest length. I’ll excerpt just one sentence from Smith’s account and then Fried’s commentary on it:

Smith: “There is no way you can frame it, you just have to experience it.”

Fried: “There was, he seems to have felt, no way to ‘frame’ his experience on the road, no way to make sense of it in terms of art, to make art of it, at least as art then was. Rather, ‘you just have to experience it’—as it happens, as it merely is. (The experience alone is what matters.)  There is no suggestion this is problematic in any way. The experience is clearly regarded by Smith as wholly accessible to everyone, not just in principle, but in fact, and the question of whether or not one has really had it does not arise.”2

That’s rather a lot of commentary for a short, highly idiomatic, and finally very ordinary sentence—one I imagine most of us can easily think ourselves to have said at one time or another.3 At the risk of infinitely spiraling commentary, I’ll simply note that Fried does not focus on the “frame” and “art” bits but on the invocation of “experience” and particularly on the implicit idea that “an experience” is some sort of simple bare thing that can, as it were, befall one and in that befalling is somehow directly self-certifying—“the question of whether or not one has really had it does not arise.” As an objection to Smith’s account this is, or should be, obscure: Is Fried suggesting Smith made the whole thing up? Clearly not, but equally clearly he does want to say that Smith has in fact not had his experience, and so he must then mean that the sentence he is worrying at just is Smith’s way of not having his experience. But it is also, of course, and much more obviously, Smith’s way of having that experience—of “framing” it. The problem then is that this way of framing it consists precisely in the denial of any such framing, so the experience is lost in its very framing —the sentence is the active losing of it.4

Fried’s procedure here only makes sense if he takes it that experience does not exist outside its framing or articulation—to have an experience is to articulate it. Smith wants not to believe this, so is obliged to understand his own sentence as at once excessive and unnecessary; it is intended, like Smith’s work itself, as the guardian of that experience in its ineffability and withdrawal. But this means that he does not and cannot take his words (his work) seriously; Fried wants his reader see the seriousness of that failure. The reader is to hear Smith’s words as Smith himself evidently cannot. One might imagine the commentary could be short-circuited by simply reading the sentence aloud so as to hear it hollowing itself out.

This is the general work of quotation throughout the essay: it asks the reader to attend to the artists’ various comments in ways many readers evidently find difficult—not as descriptions of the work or as reports on an intention or as evidence for a view of or theory about art, but as expressions—voicings, unfoldings, word by word—of their work and experience.5 The job is to make palpable a certain self-baffling vicissitude of expression that is at once excessive and evasive, simultaneously asserting and withholding the experience it cannot claim and so fails to express. This failure is not “descriptive”—that is, not something to be measured against the experience—but internal to the experience itself (our experience can be lost in us; in doing so, it does not simply fall away).

In seeing how quotation functions in the essay, we are of course also already caught up in the larger work—say, argument—of the essay: we are already prepared to see how minimalist work participates in and continues—monumentalizes—a complex failure of experience that is, equally, inseparably, and above all, a failure of expression. Because experience and its expression are internally bound in this way, this failure cannot be pointed to from, as it were, the outside. Criticism has to work itself out, find its voice, from within that failure.

3

If we now turn toward what we might call Fried’s own language in the essay, the first thing we are likely to notice is its reliance on a number of what I am tempted to call crucial hapax legomena. I’m obviously making extended use of this term, but it seems to me a good enough way to capture the peculiarity of terms like “literalism,” “theatricality,” and, somewhat differently, “objecthood” that clearly play a central role in the essay and that do so in the notable absence of any clear definition of the kind one normally expects (and that is often, like a certain practice of quotation, presented as a hallmark of good academic writing). We are not, with these terms, at the apparent dead-end a real hapax legomenon marks: “literalism” and “theatricality” are repeated throughout the essay, and they are in fact perfectly normal pieces of English, widely available outside of “Art and Objecthood”—as is “objecthood,” although it comes across in the essay as more nearly a coinage and so perhaps a purer instance. But all are notably resistant to our usual ways of glossing such terms: there is, as nearly as I can tell, no good response to a student’s asking what Fried means by “literalism,” although one can more or less demonstrate how the various things he might mean all, as it were, conspire in the roughly same direction (and certainly one thing we should hear in it at this point is a certain closure against expressivity).

“Theatricality” is no doubt a more important and complex case. If one approaches it by trying to work through the various contexts and ways in which we might ordinarily use the word “theatricality,” almost all of them touch down one place or another along the way, but no one of those usages appears to offer any simple guide to the word as it appears throughout the essay, and any sense general enough to subsume all those uses is too abstract to be any help. Contextual appeals don’t get very far either: Cavell uses the word on occasion in The Claim of Reason and much more extensively and centrally in “The Avoidance of Love,” where it clearly figures as a complex response to and extension of Fried’s introduction of it, but one so closely bound up in Cavell’s reading of King Lear as to be of little direct use in relation to “Art and Objecthood.”6 Cavell’s use of the term “fraudulence,” in “Music Discomposed” and “A Matter of Meaning It” is clearly related to Fried’s “theatricality,” but it doesn’t offer a lot of help in understanding Fried’s choice of his different word. If we look for some kind of contextual ground in the New York artworld of 1967, “theatricality” is a word that could easily find a place in the complex crossings of gay culture and art, could for example be used as a barely coded term of condemnation in relation to Warhol’s work—but that’s precisely not the terrain “Art and Objecthood” works.

I’ve often been tempted to link it to Austin’s translation, in How to Do Things with Words, of Hippolytus’s misunderstanding of his own promise: “My tongue swore to, but my heart (or mind or other backstage artiste) did not.”7 “Backstage artiste” feels like good, idiomatic, if also somewhat distinctively British, English, and yet I am unable to make out what “backstage artiste” actually means here—and, on the evidence of the footnote, neither can Austin, who writes, “But I do not mean to rule out all the offstage performers—the lights men, the stage manager, or even the prompter; I am objecting only to certain officious understudies, who would duplicate the play.” What is that, “an officious understudy, who would duplicate the play?” I have no idea.8 I can see—I think I can see—that if Austin’s figure made sense, the sense it made would be close to at least some of the sense Fried wants. But since I can’t make sense of the Austin, it brings me no closer to understanding why “theatricality” should be the bearer of that sense in “Art and Objecthood.” “Theatricality,” it appears, means “theatricality,” and the reader is left with what a hapax always leaves its reader: the best sense the word can assume within a text whose sense it also partially constitutes—and of course our exploration of how quotation works in “Art and Objecthood” has gone a good ways already toward making out how the word “theatricality” can figure the way it does.

The word means what it means in sentences that have to be read and so are radically exposed to misreading, misinterpretation. I take it this is not just a problem for the reader, but necessarily a problem for Fried as well—an essay whose key words work this way is set against interpretation, at least as we most often construe it, and insists that its sense be made out some other way. Its words and sentences imagine no meaning intendable apart from them; they express something, and we do not grasp them apart from grasping what they are an expression of. Fried’s writing means in this way to make good on the job the work itself fails.

If we do not make these connections between the writing of “Art and Objecthood” and its argument, we will always be tempted to see Fried giving voice to nothing more than his opinion—which is to say that our reading itself remains necessarily exposed to the very failure the essay means to diagnose (we are all literalists most or all of our lives).

4

In its writing “Art and Objecthood” is deeply responsive to, and actively enforces, a demand for absolute expressivity notably intolerant of any form of withdrawal or avoidance as well as of the various forms of excess and concealment that they may sketch in counterpart. In this, it appears more or less continuous with, for example, Stanley Cavell’s claim that “modern art, if and where it exists, forces the issue of sincerity, depriving the artist and his audience of every measure except absolute attention to one’s experience and absolutely honesty in expressing it” (Must We Mean, 211).

This demand, as it is at work in “Art and Objecthood,” appears both aesthetic and ethical, with this relation kept more or less continuously in view by the web of analogies, references, and points of focus the essay weaves into its fabric. Needless to say, this is, in both artistic and human registers, a hard—sometimes brutally hard—demand, and it will seem particularly hard where we believe we have good reason to be baffled in our selves or circumstances. Certainly, our sense of the constitutive depth of such bafflement and comparting—of our finitude—has only grown sharper over the course of “Art and Objecthood”’s fifty years (and I take an awareness of this to inform Fried’s worrying, in a footnote to “An Introduction to My Art Criticism,” over his early and continuing attraction to the phrase “explicit acknowledgment” [Art and Objecthood, 65n47]).

Making out the particular shape of this demand as it is set to work in “Art and Objecthood” can help to focus a more obscure tension at work in the essay. To the degree that the essay is aimed against the minimalist refusal of medium, it can be taken, well enough, as arguing that to claim to make work between mediums or in the absence of medium altogether is to lose touch with what it is to make work at all—as if to claim to speak between languages or in the absence of language altogether is simply to lose touch with what it is to speak. And this implicitly takes it that medium is itself something very like a language—something we are now prepared to further gloss as a medium’s being something like an exploration of the material conditions and limits of human expressivity. That’s an attempt to put in very short compass what I take to be the fundamental argument of Hegel’s Lectures on Fine Art: that art is where we work through a certain underlying difficulty with language, every shape or moment of art making out a shape of expressivity and, in effect, testing or measuring itself in part against the speaking it enables.9 Not everything can be said at every moment or in every form—sculpture cannot speak our individuality just as painting cannot gather us in our collectivity. Medium is a working of difference in art and thus a continuous testing of critical voice and expression. “Absolute expression” is reserved, more or less, to the philosophic prose that is art’s Hegelian outcome (I say “more or less” because I take it that such prose is not a simple passage beyond the conditions discovered in art’s history).

It may then seem interesting that despite its framing references to “modernist painting and sculpture,” in the opening sections of “Art and Objecthood” painting repeatedly takes the lead, particularly when Fried turns directly toward the specific claims of minimalism and most explicitly at the end of section 2 where he repeatedly underlines his writing from “the perspective of recent modernist painting.” And then it may equally seem surprising that the exemplary counterpart to Tony Smith’s work is found in the sculpture of Anthony Caro; it may be still more surprising that this then extends into an argument about what Fried sees as Jules Olitski’s apparent success in establishing “surface—the surface, so to speak, of painting—as a medium of sculpture” (Art and Objecthood, 163).

There’s nothing, exactly, to argue with here, but there is a certain uneasiness in this transition that allows room to wonder what difference it would have made if painting had stayed in the lead throughout—if, say, the argument had, at this point, returned to Stella. Is there a difference between writing from the perspective of recent modernist painting and writing from the perspective of recent modernist sculpture? How would one grasp such a difference as writing?

Hegel poses a certain absolute expressivity at the defining center of art—classical Greek sculpture is, for Hegel, art if anything is. The privilege or achievement of classical Greek sculpture so understood lies in its complete exteriority: what it expresses is wholly and exhaustively given in that expression, which thus allows no appeal to any imaginable interiority of which it would be merely the outward expression. It does so, on Hegel’s account, because that’s just what the gods and heroes that supply its content actually are: beings wholly given in and as their expression, beings who are not finite, not baffled, the way we are. In all of this, Hegel, quite strikingly, takes classical sculpture to fully embody the Kantian criterion of “beauty at once free and necessary” (Hegel’s Aesthetics, 718).

This looks to me—not in all respects but perhaps crucially—a lot like the center of Fried’s thought, the place from which or in which he writes. It is, of course, a problem for Hegel—and so perhaps for Fried as well—that art does not stop with the Greek sculptural achievement. Indeed, in a strong sense it has not yet begun there: it is ultimately inadequate to the modernity in which art finds its historical sense and unfolding—a modernity given over to the distinctly finite forms of painting, poetry, and music. We write our criticism from within this dispersion and can only take the measure of our writing from it.

5

I’ve framed this essay in terms of a teaching life with “Art and Objecthood,” so I’ll end with just one quick remark about that. “Art and Objecthood” operates a long way from the protocols of good academic writing so largely responsible for the difficulty my students (and so many others, students or not) find in actually reading it.  In following its workings, we find ourselves in the end at least equally far from the imaginations of knowledge, evidence, objectivity, and so on that govern those norms. Where we do not, in teaching “Art and Objecthood,” make these matters explicit—and this is the cost of the eminently sensible pedagogical shortcuts I take far too often (I do not imagine I am alone in this)—we do not give those we claim to teach any means of arguing with or about such imaginations, do not give them any means of thinking a discipline that might, in both fact and prospect, make its sense differently. And this means, in a way it has not always meant, that we leave them helpless in the face of the contemporary university.

Notes

1. The view that Fried’s “description” is fine but that he draws the wrong conclusion from it is hardly confined to students; indeed it is probably the dominant way “Art and Objecthood” is read in both the academy and the artworld.

2. Michael Fried, Art and Objecthood: Essays and Reviews (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), 158.
3. I suspect that what we will in fact have said is more nearly, “There’s no way I can describe it, you just have to experience it,” and that is a very different sentence, confessing a failure rather than claiming an impossibility.
4. That the word “framing” has a distinct pictorial weight in this context is presumably obvious to everyone involved. What exactly this weight amounts to is harder to make out, and it’s perhaps enough to say that while Smith sees framing as an essentially arbitrary and “merely conventional” act, Fried is centrally concerned—both in the early formulation of “deductive structure” and the subsequent revision worked out in “Art and Objecthood”’s pendant essay, “Shape as Form”—with how frames and edges are essential to painting, and in particular to the painting that most closely approaches (can be most easily mistaken for) minimalism.
5. Fried is explicit about this in an essay that appeared as I was putting the final touches on these remarks. See Michael Fried, “No Problem,” Representations 135 (Summer 2016): 140-149.
6. See Stanley Cavell, Must We Mean What We Say? A Book of Essays (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969).
7. See J. L. Austin, How to Do Things with Words, J. O. Urmson and Marina Sbisà, eds., (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1962), 9-10.
8. The only candidate I can see would be the director, and that can’t be right, can it?
9. G. W. F. Hegel, Hegel’s Aesthetics: Lectures on Fine Art, trans. T. M. Knox (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975).
About the Author

Stephen Melville is Professor Emeritus of the History of Art at The Ohio State University and has most recently been Visiting Professor of Philosophy at Bard College. His publications include Philosophy Beside Itself: On Deconstruction and Modernism (1986), Seams: Art as a Philosophical Context (1996), As Painting: Division and Displacement, with Philip Armstrong and Laura Lisbon (2001), and Writing Art History; Disciplinary Departures, with Margaret Iversen (2010). He is currently at work on a book on Hegel and recent art.


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