November 1, 2017
Art and Objecthood
Fried against Fried

Michael Fried’s “Art and Objecthood,” published 50 years ago this year, is an inaugural text. It has a status very few writings on art have, being virtually continuously cited, discussed and disputed since its original date of publication. But in what exactly does its “inaugural” status lie, and although we do not directly address this question what quality does it share with other inaugural texts, not only in art history but in other disciplines? We suggest here, to put it briefly and in its most polemical form, because it is a pure invention. Because, to paraphrase Nietzsche, it “breaks the world in two.” Because things are not the same after it as before it. But this is not quite right. In a way, we cannot objectively explain its effect because now there is nothing before it. With the result that, although it is tempting to say that “Art and Objecthood” changed everything, we cannot say this because one of the effects of this change is there is nothing outside of it to compare it to, or there is something outside of it but only because of it. Perhaps, indeed, one way of explaining the effect of “Art and Objecthood” is to say that it doubles things. After it, everything is the same and everything is different. Everything is the same, but only for a completely different reason. Put simply, “Art and Objecthood” introduces a gap between things and themselves, so that things are no longer what they seem.

Allow us to explain. In seeking to explain or understand, to contextualise or make disciplinary sense of, “Art and Objecthood,” it is often asked to what genre of art writing it belongs. Is it an example of “art history” or “art criticism”? And, certainly, serious readers of Fried have taken both sides of the divide over the years. The piece can appear as part of art history, referring to an art movement now over 50 years old and included in anthologies reprinting texts from the time, with its particular truth claims not as important as it being one of the range of responses between which the reader can presumably choose. Examples of this range from Gregory Battcock’s Minimal Art: A Critical Anthology in 1968 to James Meyer’s Minimalism in 2000.1 On the other hand, Fried regards “Art and Objecthood” as an example of art criticism, speaking of it in a collection bearing its name as coming out of a period in the 1960s and early 1970s when he wrote art criticism, before turning to art history in the mid-1970s.2 For Fried, the distinction between art history and art criticism is that art history deals with the art of the past and seeks to understand the issues surrounding the work in as much detail as possible while art criticism deals with the art of the present and necessarily makes a judgment about the work. In art history, we might say, the historian does not judge even though they have the basis to, whereas in art criticism the critic does judge even though they cannot be certain of the basis on which they do so (50-1).

We, however, do not make the same distinction here with regard to “Art and Objecthood.” In fact, for us the essay lies outside or better at the foundation of art history and art criticism, making them possible. But how exactly might it be understood to lie at the origin of both Fried’s art history and art criticism, or even more strongly at the origin of art history and art criticism themselves? Of course, “Art and Objecthood” is best known for introducing the terms—or rather the distinction between—“art” and “objecthood” into critical discourse. These are aligned respectively with the categories or perhaps qualities of “conviction” and “theatre” (which we will call “scepticism” here).3 Art stands for “conviction” as opposed to the “scepticism” of objecthood, in that in art there is an attempt to uphold and keep alive the conventions of various art forms and in objecthood there is a refusal to do or a lack of interest in doing so (and, importantly for Fried, a lack of interest is the same as refusal). In Fried’s words from the essay: “For Judd, as for literalist sensibility generally, all that maters is whether or not a given work is able to elicit and sustain (his) interest. Whereas with the modernist artist nothing short of conviction… matters.”4 But, importantly, as part of that history of “modernism” that Fried sees the art he is writing about as part of (which, as we will see, is also that modernism inaugurated by him), these terms are not finally separable from each other. By contrast with the pre-modern, in which conviction is not at stake, insofar as the artist can unquestioningly follow tradition, in modernism conviction is necessary because it is always a question of overthrowing a prior scepticism. By the time “Art and Objecthood” was written, that scepticism posed by Minimalism had already happened—Fried does not deny the challenge posed by Minimalism and therefore its fundamental importance—so that any art he is arguing for can only be understood to arise in response to that. And this—this is what Fried wants the then-contemporary situation to reveal to us—has always been the case, at least since the advent of modernism. Again, as Fried writes in “Art and Objecthood”: “The more nearly assimilable to objects certain advanced painting had come to seem,… the more urgent became the need for modernist painting to make explicit its conventional—specifically its pictorial—essence by defeating or suspending its own objecthood” (160).

But, conversely—and this is perhaps the overlooked aspect of Fried’s essay—this scepticism itself would not be possible outside of conviction. That is to say, it can seem from some readings of “Art and Objecthood” that scepticism in the form of Minimalism appears as a new development, an unprecedented threat never seen before and after which everything hangs in the balance. It is one that only by a great effort of conviction—of the kind Fried precisely urges in his essay—is able to be overcome. This is Fried’s heightened, exhortatory, almost Puritan diction by which he calls upon us to rise to the challenge, as evidenced most evidently in the series of numbered injunctions towards the end of the essay, for example, “The success, even the survival, of the arts has come increasingly to depend on their ability to defeat theater” (163). But, in fact, two things might be pointed out about this. The first is that, despite the unprecedented situation Fried invokes, his suggestion that art is under threat as never before, even in arguably its inaugural statement there is an acknowledgement that there is a certain history of scepticism, that this situation and its overcoming have happened before. And, second, the difficult but nevertheless correct insight that Fried would not ever be able to characterise this scepticism unless from a perspective of conviction, that its very designation as scepticism is its overcoming by conviction, indeed would not be possible unless it was already overcome by conviction.

The “modernism” Fried argues for in “Art and Objecthood”—the modernism that involves the defeat of scepticism—is understood to have been a historical event. It occurs at a particular time—hence the possibility of an art historian writing about it—and is associated with a particular form of art—hence the possibility of an art critic responding to it. It can be situated and contextualised historically. It can be affirmed and argued for critically. And Fried has done this, moving this struggle between “art” and “objecthood” from the 1960s back to 1750s France and even back to late 16th- and early 17th-century Italy. The struggle concerns not only such artists as Frank Stella, Anthony Caro and Jules Olitski in the 1960s but Joseph Marioni, Thomas Demand and Douglas Gordon in the present. In all of this—although this subject could only be treated properly by a much longer account than this one—it follows the posing of a similar kind of scepticism associated with modernism by Fried’s friend and interlocutor, American “ordinary language” philosopher Stanley Cavell. We might consider here just two passages from Cavell’s early writings, which have openly been acknowledged by Fried, in which we can see a similar argument to Fried about the association of modernism with the overcoming of scepticism, and which attempt to locate historically that break introduced by modernism (which, intriguingly, does not occur at the same time as that given by Fried). First, in the essay “Music Discomposed” Cavell puts together modernism and scepticism, arguing that with the arrival of modernism we can no longer be sure whether the artist means it or not, or more decisively even the artist cannot be sure whether they mean it, with a distance opening up between the work of art and the artist, or between the artwork and itself: “What [music periodicals] suggest is that the possibility of fraudulence, and the experience of fraudulence, is endemic in the experience of contemporary music.”5 Second, in the essay “The Avoidance of Love: A Reading of King Lear,” in a more historical mode, Cavell locates the beginning of modernism at both the moment of radical “doubt” in Descartes, which raises the problem of whether the world exists, and the tragedies of Shakespeare, which go to the question of what any such knowledge of the world might mean: “What scepticism suggests is that since we cannot know the world exists, its presentness to us cannot be a function of knowing. The world is to be accepted; as the presentness of other minds is not to be known, but acknowledged.”6

However, we want to say here that, for all of Cavell’s efforts to locate the advent of scepticism historically, to situate it in time and provide it as it were with cultural examples—to narrate it and to explain it through analogy—it is not like this at all. It is in fact telling that Cavell introduces Descartes as a harbinger of scepticism because we would argue that the whole problematic of scepticism and its overcoming—and this will apply to Fried too, as we will see—is philosophical. Recall that moment in Descartes’ Meditations when he becomes aware of the possibility of radical doubt: “I see so manifestly that there are no certain indications by which we may clearly distinguish wakefulness from sleep that I am lost in astonishment.”7 There is no empirical evidence by which we may distinguish the two states. Things are just as they always have been, and this dream hypothesis is not partial or incremental, taking place slowly, but total and immediate, with nothing outside of it. But—and this is, of course, the famous paradox of Descartes’ Cogito—this doubt could only be complete and all-encompassing because it has already been overcome and exists in retrospect. This doubt not only leads to its eventual overcoming by the Cogito, but is possible from the beginning only because of the Cogito. Descartes’ “scepticism” is sceptical in exactly the sense Cavell requires it to be: it incites its own overcoming. What we can know is only the overcoming of, only to stand in for, only the naming of, a “prior” scepticism (which is also, as we have seen, only the retrospective effect of its own overcoming). In other words—and this, needless to say, has been suggested before—doubt and the overcoming of doubt are inseparable in Descartes. Indeed, their relationship is entirely circular. What Descartes produces—this is the true creativity of his philosophy, the event or creation that is philosophy—is something out of nothing. Where before there was nothing—although, again, after Descartes this is exactly what we cannot say—we now have doubt and the overcoming of doubt. We have “certainty” because of doubt and doubt is able to be remarked only from the position of “certainty.” We can write a kind of “history” or, as Descartes calls it in his Meditations, a “method of treatment” (119), of an initial doubt followed by its overcoming, but only insofar as “certainty” was present from the beginning. We can write a kind of “criticism”—a certainty overcoming doubt—but it would be a certainty conscious of itself (and therefore possible only because of) doubt.

So, to return to the question we began by asking, if we are looking for the term to describe what is at stake in “Art and Objecthood,” it is neither art history nor art criticism—these arise only in retrospect or are assumed in advance—but philosophy. It is philosophy in the sense of creation, invention, the doubling of what is, the positing of a new “transcendental” condition for things, at once outside or above what is and only able to be seen through it. It is this break—a leaving behind of previous conditions, which can now never be seen except through what takes their place—that is the true modernity in both Fried and Cavell, and it unleashes in the end not any meaningful sequence or development, anything like the recognisable chronology or stylistic progression of art history, but only a series of circular reversals or recursions, in which conviction is shown to be possible only because of doubt and doubt only because of conviction. (Or—and we will come back to this—this “progression” would consist only in the clearer and clearer realisation of this aporia, the inescapability of this logic. Or, in short—although this is not the usual sense in which this expression is used—it would consist in art approaching the condition of philosophy. We can perhaps see this in Fried’s own trajectory, in that early in his career, in something like “Art and Objecthood,” it was thought a matter of definitively defeating theater, whereas in his later writing he increasingly acknowledges that conviction is possible only through theater, comes about only through the attempt to defeat theater, and thus is never entirely able to do so.)

That is to say, if there is a history or progression in Fried’s work, which is to say if there is a history or progression of Fried’s work, it is the gradual realisation of this circularity, the underlying logic driving it, and nothing to do with the history of art or the development of critical taste or discrimination (or, more exactly, it is not that these are not at stake in Fried’s work, but that they are the outcome or expression of this logic, and as Fried’s work progresses this equivalence becomes more and more obvious.) Take, for example, Fried’s explanation of how conviction keeps on having to be re-established in the chapter “Approaching Courbet” of Courbet’s Realism, as though this strictly logical substitution had to be mediated by something like “taste,” which itself has to be accounted for by intricate historical research and the recreation of artistic context (undoubtedly accounting for the enormous intellectual dignity and grandeur of the book). It is as though there necessarily has to be a whole gradual, mediated, almost embodied—Fried’s term for it in “Art and Objecthood” is “natural history” (148-49)—shift of taste that at once makes what was convincing theatrical and involves a renewed mobilisation of artistic resources to make what is now theatrical again convincing: “So that Millet’s figures seemed to [a number of critics of the time] not in fact absorbed in their labors and hence unaware of being beheld, but merely pretending to be both—which is to say they found his paintings egregiously, unbearably, theatrical.”8 Compare this to the procedure played out later in Fried’s career, although this particular account is written not by Fried but rather is a presumed paraphrase of his work by Fried’s close colleague and supporter Walter Benn Michaels (it might perhaps more properly be considered a later moment in the reception of Fried). Michaels is commenting in the course of an essay, “Photographs and Fossils,” on Fried’s brilliant reading of Barthes’ notion of the punctum in Camera Lucida, which is argued by Fried to be inherently anti-theatrical, insofar as it is not a matter of the photographer putting it there to be recognised by the spectator. And yet, as Michaels suggests, Fried is no sooner able to say this, that is, that the punctum can be understood as non-theatrical, than it turns theatrical again: “What I have just described as the radicalization of absorption… turns out in Barthes to be dialectical: it turns the antitheatrical into pure theatricality; it turns what Fried called absorption into what was supposed to be its opposite: literalism.”9

That is to say, in Michaels’ reading of Fried, absorption is no sooner recognised as such (exactly as what is not meant to be recognised) than it would immediately be shown to be theatrical. And here it is not a matter of the slow shifting of taste, but rather the outcome of a certain self-contradictory logic: that the very recovery of absorption, the using of it as an artistic technique or even noting its artistic effectiveness, is enough to do away with it. Absorption exists only in retrospect. As something that once was because we could no sooner state it than it is done away with. Fried, in fact, in the book that includes the original essay on Bathes as a chapter, Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before, respectfully resists Michaels’ analysis, arguing that it is a little too sudden or peremptory, not properly historicizing in seeing the inevitable failure to sustain absorption as merely a logical failure. As he writes there: “Michaels is undoubtedly correct, but I nevertheless want to resist identifying Barthes’ position in Camera Lucida as literalist or theatrical tout court.10 And, indeed, in that way we have tried to explain, the very brilliance of Fried, his identity as both an art historian and an art critic is—despite what we said a moment ago—a product of his “repressing” or at least “slowing down” this circularity, the manner in which it is presented as an effect of history or a critical task to be taken up. This is the deepest economy of Fried’s work—all that we mean by the richness and texture of its history, the courage and anti-orthodoxy of its critical judgments—but it needs to be understood that this is underwritten, made possible, by a prior philosophical logic that is purely prescriptive or even what logicians call abductive, the entirely original invention of a system that at its deepest level is not empirical or even ethical but rather undemonstrable and irrefutable.

But all of this means that in a fascinating—although, again, largely unremarked upon—way Fried’s chief (indeed, perhaps only real) argument is with himself. There is a not terribly amusing review of Why Photography Matters by the English novelist Geoff Dyer that begins by counting the number of times Fried refers to himself in the book.11 Dyer is trying, we presume, to make a misplaced point about Fried’s “narcissism,” but there is nevertheless a grain of truth to what he says. It is that Fried—along the lines of Michaels’ observation concerning the theatrically anti-theatrical nature of the punctum—is no sooner able to state an absorptive solution or conviction than it turns theatrical or sceptical. (And perhaps even the gradual shift of Fried’s vocabulary away from the terms absorption and theatricality is a tacit admission of this.) In a sense, each of Fried’s successive historical case studies—from Absorption and Theaticality, to Courbet, to Manet, to Menzel—is driven by a dissatisfaction with his own prior solution. In a way, it is his own dissatisfaction with the convincingness of his conviction as soon as it is stated that drives his narrative forward. (We would rather say then, contra Dwyer, that the real motivation of Fried’s constant references to himself is if anything anti-narcissist.) This dissatisfaction arises because, as we insist, it is not merely that scepticism can be stated only from a position of conviction (this is the way art criticism understands it), but because the “solution,” as soon as it is stated, is revealed to be inadequate, precisely the scepticism on which conviction is based or that allows conviction to become conscious of itself. (This is the path art history takes.)

And so Fried’s narrative moves on, very much like the Courbet who follows Millet, but with the particular instances of art in many ways the embodiment of the internal logic driving his argument. Why, however, we might ask, the late turn to Caravaggio after the statement of the “inaugural” moment of modernism in Absorption and Theatricality? Why go backwards rather than forwards in time? Perhaps because, as the necessary correlate to the re-establishment of conviction after a prior scepticism, a conviction that is retrospectively seen to have made that scepticism possible, it is also true that it is conviction that precedes scepticism, allowing it to be seen for the first time. It is to suggest that, if the problem of scepticism is first seen to arise in 1750 in Absorption and Theatricality, what is thereby opened up—here again the internal logic of Fried as opposed to the external history of art—is the necessity for a conviction before this. As Fried writes in Caravaggio’s Moment, speaking of the way that we can find absorptive motifs in Caravaggio’s work before the countervailing problematic of scepticism or theatricality: “During the period with which the present book is concerned, a pejorative notion of theatricality had no purchase on the practice and evaluation of painting.”12 That is, at one end of Fried’s work there is a priority of conviction that allows us to see scepticism, but which is no sooner stated than it falls into scepticism, and at the other end we can no sooner suggest scepticism than we realise that this is possible only because of a prior conviction. If the “modernist” aporia at the heart of Fried’s work rolls forward—so that the “same” essential problem keeps on taking different forms in successive generations of artists—so it also moves back, with the “same” problem keeping on being located further and further back in history.

The greatness of Fried, his uniqueness, we might say, is that he has created—at least within the discourses of art—a proper “system” in the philosophical sense. For all of the art-historical and even art-critical scaffolding, he has brought about something from nothing, something that has not existed before. And we mean it when we say something from nothing, for the effect of Fried’s work is that something that was once immediate and direct, let us call it “tradition”—although this is exactly what we cannot say—is henceforth the overcoming of scepticism, a scepticism that is only a hypothesis, can never be seen as such or at least cannot be spoken of at the same time as it is experienced. After it, what is is only the covering over of something else. Appearance is no longer mere appearance, but doubled, divided, withholding something—and doubled, divided constantly, so that we cannot see what it stands in for without this being revealed as yet another appearance. In other words, Fried invents appearance. It is just this split that Fried introduces into the world, and after which there is no going back because no matter how far back we go there is always the same doubling (this is part of the meaning of the Caravaggio book, which sees the problematic of absorption in a period notionally before modernism) and no outside (because even indifference is now only an attempt to overcome a prior scepticism, that is, an effort at absorption). All this is exactly that willed indifference that Fried evokes through Diderot in Absorption and Theatricality, in which painting must seek the “superior fiction” of not being beheld, just as the actor must ignore the audience in front of them (and this effect of will applies in Diderot—this is the important point—whether there is an actual audience or not):

The criticism and theory we have been considering expressed an implicit apprehension of the beholder’s alienation from objects of his beholding (and, therefore, in a manner of speaking, from himself)…. [and] insisted on the need for painters to overcome that alienation in their work if painting was to be restored to its former status as a major art (104-05).

In fact, if we want to suggest what Fried introduces into art-historical discourse, it is something like a symbolic order. Art enters the Symbolic in the sense that “it isn’t constituted bit by bit. As soon as the symbol arrives, there is a universe of symbols.”13 Or, in Lacan’s well-known formulation, we henceforth have the lie in the form of the truth and truth in the form of the lie. For let us go back to that shocking moment of “modernism” in Fried, after which nothing is the same and we can never go back to the way things were before. It is the irrevocable realization that we are in the Symbolic that is that fall into “scepticism”: that things mean other than they appear to, that things potentially deceive, that things are not immediately themselves but only signify and can only be accessed through signification. And in which ignorance or indifference—whatever we might imagine coming before—can only be understood as feigned or put on. Which is also to say that today we can argue against Fried only in his terms (which is to say as well, as we have seen, that Fried is always arguing against himself). In the symbolic order, as Lacan makes clear, there is no outside, but there is also no inside. Or, to put this another way, the symbolic is inaugurated on the basis that there is something real or some alternative outside of it—an immediate relation to the world, some momentary “grace” or “instantaneousness” in which everything could be seen—but this is now possible only through the “distance,” the “duration,” the “endlessness,” of the symbolic. Conviction, if it is possible at all, is no longer something Imaginary, outside of the Symbolic, but rather something Real, accessible only in its impossibility, within the Symbolic. It is at once what scepticism stops us from accessing and is only to be seen through the perpetual failure, which is to say the perpetual overcoming of, scepticism. As Slavoj Žižek writes of the Real, it is “simultaneously the Thing to which direct access is not possible and the obstacle which prevents this direct access; the Thing which eludes our grasp and the distorting screen which makes us miss the Thing.”14

Indeed, if were to think a precursor for the kind of “philosophical” system-building we find in Fried it would be Hegel. Hegel is until recently the underexplored element of Fried’s intellectual armory, hinted at throughout his work but nowhere explicitly acknowledged or elaborated in detail. But we get perhaps a sense of the closeness of Hegel to Fried when we look at Fried’s close colleague Robert Pippin’s After the Beautiful: Hegel and the Philosophy of Pictorial Modernism. For Pippin’s ultimate point is that the aim of Hegel too—indeed, the true meaning of a philosophical “system” that Hegel was perhaps the first to theorize—is to put forward a hypothesis that produces something out of nothing. In Hegel’s case, it is Geist or human “spirit.” However, importantly—and here we come close to an “archaeology” of that circularity between conviction and scepticism we have been examining—it is not a matter of objects in the world standing in for any underlying spirit, as in some recognisable form of Idealism. Rather, Geist is the very split between subject and object, in which each makes the other possible. As Pippin writes: “Hegel is not treating the German Idealist problem of the Absolute—the account of a possible subject-object identity, how subjects can also be objects—as a problem of some prior ground (of the original unity of both) to be recovered in some intellectual intuition or aesthetic experience… [On the contrary,] Geist is ‘a product of itself.’”15 And this is also Pippin’s point concerning Hegel on art, his attempt to reclaim art for modernism after Hegel’s infamous claim that art is a “thing of the past.” It is that, in a way Hegel did not live to see, modern art, like Geist, is its own originless self-creation. It introduces a split into being and it is (and in a way is not, insofar as it is) this split. Again, as Pippin writes: “[Modern] art does not double or imitate reality as in so many mimetic theories, but rather in art, Geist, some sort of achieved collective like-mindedness, doubles itself” (32).

To conclude, is not something like this Hegelian “doubling” first inaugurated in art history some 50 years ago by Fried in “Art and Objecthood” (or “Art and Objecthood” is the brilliant and unexpected rediscovery of Hegel’s Aesthetics in that way argued by Pippin)? It is a “dialectic” that, as we have tried to show, is at once what Fried repeats throughout his work and what is failed to be repeated throughout his work, what his work is the failure to repeat. To demonstrate this, let us go almost to the end of Fried’s career, to an essay he has written on the Scottish artist Douglas Gordon’s 2010 video k: 364: A Journey by Train, now reprinted in the collection Another Light: Jacques-Louis David to Thomas Demand. In Gordon’s video, we see two Israeli musicians travel by train through Poland in order to play Mozart’s sublime “Sinfonia Concertante” with the Polish National Chamber Orchestra. In the course of his recording of their performance, Gordon—who is known for a series of “real time” videos such as 24 Hour Psycho (1993), Alfred Hitchcock’s thriller Psycho slowed down so that it takes 24 hours to screen, and Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait (2006), which exclusively follows the famous footballer Zinedine Zidane and not the ball over the course of a match—shows close-ups of the two musicians’ faces and fingers apparently synchronously with the music as though they were actually playing it in the same present we are watching it. It is as though—the great and compelling illusion of all music-making—they were playing music that did not exist before them, as though the music and its performance were the same. It is as though, as we cut back and forth between the two performers, the conductor and the orchestra—and it is evident that footage from both the final performance and rehearsals has been used—the music takes place in a single unbroken time without it being certain in advance how it will go. The significance of this “continuous presentness”16 is made evident by contrasting Gordon’s video with another important musical performance in the history of art video: Korean artist Nam June Paik’s Concerto for TV, Cello and Video Tape (1971), in which we watch, amongst other footage, a video shot from opposite the cellist Charlotte Moorman of her seemingly playing the music we are hearing, replayed on small monitors stacked immediately in front of her on which she mimes bowing. Of course, the point of Paik’s video is that the images broadcast on the monitors of Moorman playing are ever so slightly delayed, so that the music we hear and the images we see are never entirely in sync. We do not see and hear at the same time, or put otherwise it looks like Moorman is merely performing—running through, almost in the sense of rehearsing—music that already exists. She is not caught inside the moment of making music, but instead stands outside of it, repeating or replaying what has been composed before her.

This is the moment—there is an equivalent in the history of performance strictly speaking with such works as Dan Graham’s Intention Intentionality Sequence (1972), in which a delay is introduced between what Graham says and what he sees—of the theatrical: breaking the illusion of the performance and introducing a distance between the audience and what takes place before them, as though the performance is not being undertaken in the present but is merely re-enacting what has already occurred. And thus we can understand—although this is not explicitly argued for in Fried’s essay—Gordon’s video as meaningfully coming after these earlier performances, made in the context of a generalised theatricality. The work’s intensity or “presentness,” the immersion of the performers—the coming together of the performers and their performance—is no longer immediate or to be taken for granted, but precisely the overcoming of a prior distance between them. (This can be seen in a number of aspects of k: 364: from the fact that the work is projected on two screens simultaneously, to the fact that we are evidently seeing footage not only of the final performance but edited together from different performances, to the “prelude” to the performance, showing the two musicians journeying through the haunted landscape of Poland, reminding us of the terrible background against which their performance takes place and which must be understood as somehow “sublimated” or “overcome” by their performance.) The point that Fried makes about Gordon’s video is that we have neither the old-fashioned “classical” or even “romantic” direct identification with the music—taking place in the Imaginary register—nor what we might call the “post-modern” distance or alienation from the music—in the Symbolic register—but rather the surpassing or overcoming of performance through performance—the Real. It is neither authentic non-performance nor inauthentic performance but authenticity through performance. It is exactly this Real that we see in Diderot’s “The Paradox of Acting.” Diderot wants there neither actual crying in any direct identification with the person of the actor nor the mere signs of crying in an empty gesture that lets the audience know that the actor is not actually crying. Rather, the actor would cry at the intensity of their acting crying, their acting carrying them away to become Real (and reminding us that the Real is accessible only through such acting). As Diderot writes there:

People come not to see tears, but to hear speeches that draw tears; because this truth of nature is out of tune with the truth of convention. Let me explain myself: I mean that neither the dramatic system, nor the action, nor the poet’s speeches, would fit themselves to my stilted, broken, sobbing declamation. You see that it is not allowable to imitate Nature, even at her best, or Truth too closely; there are limits within which we must restrict ourselves.17

Do we not see this Real that Fried speaks of, or at least hints at in “Art and Objecthood” in all kinds of art today. Is it not that “play within the play” theorised by Cavell with regard to Beckett’s Endgame, where we have “happening vs acting”?18 Do we not see it in William Rothman on documentary, where he argues that it is not through any cinema-verité doing away with of the mediation of the director that the film-maker might capture the “real,” but only through their very intervention—this is the point of his ending his account with a discussion of D.A. Pennebaker’s Dylan documentary Don’t Look Back (1967), in which Dylan reveals his true self, much like the contestants on such TV shows as Big Brother, exactly by trying to put on a persona for the camera, that is, attempting to be “natural.”19 (In all of this, of course, a connection can be made to Rothman’s earlier book on Hitchcock, The Murderous Gaze, in which the turn from “theatre” to “film” takes place through the famous “mousetrap” in Hitchcock’s Murder! (1930), in which Sir John solves the crime by writing a scene in which Handel Fane must play the role of the murderer he is.)20 And, as if to confirm Fried’s, Cavell’s and Rothman’s predictions, we might recall such recent documentaries as Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing (2012), in which it is only through Suharto-era killer Anwar Congo’s “acting” for the camera that he for the first time realises the enormity of his crimes and breaks down in tears. The same thing can be seen in the confession of Robert Durst in the made-for-television documentary series The Jinx (2015), in which the serial murderer confesses to himself in front of the mirror in what he thinks is an off-camera bathroom while being interviewed about his actions. In all of these, we have precisely Diderot’s “speeches that draw tears.” And if in one way Fried’s work plays out as a certain unacknowledged, unrecognised and perhaps even unconscious aporia between scepticism and conviction—which accounts for its enormous symbolic power—at its centre as at once what makes it possible and what it is a defense against is the absolute coincidence of the two—the Real. This is perhaps the real “grace” evoked at the end of “Art and Objecthood”: not the momentary defeat of theatre or even its temporary suspension by conviction but an impossible holding together of the two—a scepticism that can be remarked only from the position of conviction and a conviction that can speak of itself only as this scepticism. In Fried’s own words, which speak at once the deepest truth and the absolute ambiguity of his project, for of course it is he who has better and longer than anyone embodied this literalist sensibility:

Literalist sensibility is, therefore, a response to the same developments that have largely compelled modernist painting to undo its objecthood—more precisely, the same developments seen differently, that is, in theatrical terms, by a sensibility already theatrical (160-1).

That is, Fried’s work is great because it first of all doubles and divides itself. And in so doing, it doubles and divides the world. Fried’s work will live on, we suggest, not primarily as art history or art criticism but as this “philosophical” doubling of the world.


1. Gregory Battcock, ed., Minimal Art; A Critical Anthology (New York: Dutton, 1968); James Meyer, Minimalism (New York: Phaidon, 2010).

2. See on this Michael Fried, “An Introduction to My Art Criticism” in Art and Objecthood: Essays and Reviews (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), 47.
3. We realise that the directness of this connection raises controversial and much-disputed interpretive issues, and has even been questioned by Fried on occasion. However, our claim is that the opposition between “conviction” and “scepticism” does effectively run throughout all of Fried’s work. Our more general point, of course, is that the only proper way to grasp Fried’s work is all at once. We can only hope that the results produced here justify such an approach.
4. Michael Fried, “Art and Objecthood” in Art and Objecthood, 165.
5. Stanley Cavell, “Music Discomposed” in Must We Mean What We Say? (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 188.
6. Stanley Cavell, “The Avoidance of Love: A Reading of King Lear” in Must We Mean What We Say?, 324.
7. René Descartes, Discourse on Method and Meditations, trans. Elizabeth S. Haldane and G.R.T. Ross (New York, Dover Books, 2003), 68.
8. In fact, this passage is from Manet’s Modernism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), 191. But Fried says the same thing in “Approaching Courbet”: “Further than [Millet’s] pictures in the direction of absorption while remaining within the framework of the dramatic conception it was impossible to go. Yet the critical response alone suggests that it wasn’t nearly far enough, or rather that, so long as that framework remained intact, the most extreme efforts to undo its effects ran a high risk of appearing not only theatrical but egregiously so” (Courbet’s Realism [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990], 45).
9. Walter Benn Michaels, “Photographs and Fossils” in Photography Theory, ed. James Elkins (New York: Routledge, 2006), 438; reprinted as part of “Formal Feelings,” chapter one of The Beauty of a Social Problem (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015), 16. To see this ambiguity in Fried himself, we would begin by taking up his discussion of the “dialectical” nature of Manet’s art and the “paradox” of both presupposing and denying the beholder in Absorption and Theatricality: Painting and Beholder in the Age of Diderot (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1980), 4, 69, 103-4, his characterisation of Millet’s art as “divided against itself” in Courbet’s Realism, 44, and his treatment of the “doubled” or divided” nature of beholding in Manet’s Modernism, 243-275; but also 21, 196, 407, 545, 600. Our point is that at these moments there is a “quickness” of reversibility between absorption and theatricality as opposed to the relative “slowness” of art history or even criticism.
10. Michael Fried, Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008), 345.
11. Geoff Dyer, ‘An Academic Author’s Unintentional Masterpiece’, New York Times, July 22 2011 (
12. Michael Fried, The Moment of Caravaggio (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2010), 122.
13. Jacques Lacan, The Seminar of Jacques Lacan: Book II: The Ego in Freud’s Theory and in the Technique of Psychoanalysis 1954-55 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 29.
14. Slavoj Žižek, In Defence of Lost Causes (London: Verso, 2009), 288.
15. Robert Pippin, After the Beautiful: Hegel and the Philosophy of Pictorial Modernism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014), 46, 47.
16. Michael Fried, ‘Douglas Gordon’s k: 364: A Journey by Train’, in Another Light: Jacques-Louis David to Thomas Demand (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014), 235.
17. Denis Diderot, The Paradox of Acting, trans. Walter Hernes Pollock (London: Chatto and Windus, 1883), 100.
18. Stanley Cavell, ‘Ending the Waiting Game’, in Must We Mean What We Say?, 154, 159.
19. William Rothman, Documentary Film Classics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997).
20. William Rothman, Hitchcock: The Murderous Gaze (Albany: State University of New York, 2012).
About the Author

Rex Butler is Professor of Art History at Monash University, Melbourne. He has written books on a number of theoretical (Baudrillard, Zizek, Deleuze) and literary (Borges) figures. He writes mainly about Australian art, and has recently completed a "non-national" history of Australian Art, tracing Australian art's connections with that of other countries and regions. He is currently working on a book, Stanley Cavell and the Arts, for Bloomsbury.

Category: Feature, Issue #22 | RSS 2.0 Responses are currently closed, but you can trackback from your own site. | | Print is an online, open access, peer-reviewed quarterly journal of scholarship in the arts and humanities. is affiliated with Emory College of Arts and Sciences.
© 2017 all rights reserved. ISSN 2164-1668