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Art and Surrogate Personhood

Fig. 1. 2001: A Space Odyssey, dir. Stanley Kubrick (MGM 1968)
Fig. 1. 2001: A Space Odyssey, dir. Stanley Kubrick (MGM 1968)

As critics have often noted, the last ten minutes of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), incorporate some striking, self-consciously artistic shots hard to account for in terms of the film’s other elements. Consider the image above, when astronaut Dave Bowman stares directly at the camera, a Rococo painting of absorptive bliss ignored on the wall behind him (fig. 1). Outfitted in a day-glo spacesuit, he evokes an alien stuck in a white box gallery. The floors are luminous and the room’s furniture and décor (busts and figurines) appear to date from eighteenth-century France. The embedded painting resembles a pastoral scene of François Boucher’s, as do others on the walls around him, but the film does not linger on or explain these details; the point is that Dave is staring, utterly transfixed, at something in front of the picture plane, where we as beholders would be.1 We can’t discern the object beyond the picture plane that rivets him, and the subsequent reaction shot doesn’t reveal it. But the dark, slightly distorted reflection in his helmet visor indicates that he might be seeing one of the reappearing black slabs, described in Arthur C. Clarke’s novel (written in collaboration with Kubrick) as follows: “The monolith was 11 feet high, and 1¼ by 5 feet in cross-section…. In its way, this passive yet almost arrogant display of geometrical perfection was as impressive as any of [its] other attributes.”2 Similar “passive yet almost arrogant” monoliths, sometimes reputed to have been inspired by the sculptures of John McCraken (fig. 2), crop up repeatedly and nearly inexplicably throughout the film.3

Fig. 2. John McCracken, Green Slab in Two Parts (1966)
Fig. 2. John McCracken, Green Slab in Two Parts (1966)

I want to argue that this shot of Dave and the painting—and 2001 more broadly—only makes sense if we unpack the idea of “surrogate personhood” in Michael Fried’s “Art and Objecthood,” an essay that helps us grapple with the myriad encroachments of surrogate personhood still functioning today. In making this claim, my aim is to counter some recent attempts at a 50th-anniversary hostile critique of “Art and Objecthood” (for old time’s sake), which have announced that whatever value modernist art might have possessed once upon a time, it can have no value in the new millennium. Because the world has devolved—or, pace Rosalind Krauss, “expanded”—into total theatricality, postmodern simulacra is all we’ve got, which means that, in Daniel Rubinstein’s words, “never before was simulacrum more important to the understanding of contemporary life.”4 Bracket the fact that such claims, while recapitulating most of the challenges to Fried’s essay from 1967 onward, entirely confirm the framework of his analysis. Also overlook that Rubinstein misunderstands “Art and Objecthood” from the first sentence to the monumental last two: “We are all literalists most or all of our lives,” Fried memorably wrote. “Presentness is grace.”5 For critics going with this type of takedown, our fully postmodern world requires neither presentness, nor grace, nor art, but more theater, albeit via an “immanent critique” (Hal Foster) or a “meta-narrative of truth” (Rubinstein) incorporated into the art object itself.6

We could point out that this fantasy of having it both ways—impossibly conjoining literalist theatricality with an art object aiming to do something else—had already appeared poetically, by the 1920s, in response to Marcel Duchamp’s work. Rather than grasping onto a dubious bit of critique/meta-truth within the literalist art object (Foster’s and Rubinstein’s aim), poet William Carlos Williams dreamed up the inverse, pulling more literality into art without, entirely, defeating objecthood.7 Or, we could observe that, by 1968, a fully-simulated, Hollywood-style kitsch—and a complete embrace of theatrical objecthood—was dominating culture. The above shot from 2001 succinctly encapsulates that phenomenon. Finally, we could point out that fifty years of accumulated simulacra and embraced theatricality has bequeathed us a fully theatrical, simulated President. A recent New York Times op-ed suggests such a view, noting that Trump’s actions make more sense when analyzed as the product of an artificial, publicity-driven neural network rather than stemming from a human being’s brain.8 So much for immanent critique.

Or we could vigorously oppose the pro-simulacra view another way. While ever more simulacra and theatricality surely do replicate our cultural world (just as they did in the 1960s), they do next to nothing to help us understand that world. To make this point, this essay explores the discursive history—in the writings of Stanley Cavell, Monroe Beardsley, and Fried—of an important and potentially misunderstood claim in “Art and Objecthood”: that literalist (or minimalist) art and theory has a hidden anthropomorphism. As Fried brilliantly recognized, an art object like Tony Smith’s Die (1962), in its statue-like aspect, functions towards the beholder as a “surrogate person,” even appearing to possess “an inner, ever secret, life” (AO, 156). Similar claims could be made for works such as McCracken’s Green Slab in Two Parts (1966) (fig. 2) or proto-minimalist Anne Truitt’s Platte (1962) (fig. 3).9 The problem with both the “meaning and, equally, the hiddenness of [literalist works’] anthropomorphism” is that they “are incurably theatrical” (AO, 157). I examine this particular connection, in which minimalism’s surrogate persons entail modernist art’s imperative to “defeat or suspend theater” (AO, 160), to show how the focus on surrogate personhood opens up readings otherwise obscured—in this case, of Kurbrick’s and Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (film and novel, respectively).

Fig. 3. Anne Truitt, Platte (1962)
Fig. 3. Anne Truitt, Platte (1962)

To think through the genealogy of Fried’s surrogate person, first consider a very different, almost diametrically opposed form of personhood. It emerges in Stanley Cavell’s “Music Discomposed,” rightly linked to Fried’s essay and written at a moment when the two were in frequent conversation.10 Condensed, evocative, and daunting to summarize, Cavell’s essay takes on “the oblique and shifting relations between an art, and its criticism, and philosophy.”11 Post-Webern non-tonal (twelve-tone) music, he suggests, reveals that “the dangers of fraudulence, and of trust, are essential to the experience of art,” especially but not limited to modern art, for “modernism only makes explicit and bare what has always been true of art” (MWM, 189). Cavell expands on this point in a sentence that his symposium interlocutors, Joseph Margolis and Monroe Beardsley, will assail:

In emphasizing the experiences of fraudulence and trust as essential to the experience of art, I am in effect claiming that the answer to the question “What is art?” will in part be an answer which explains why it is we treat certain objects, or how we can treat certain objects, in ways normally reserved for treating persons. (MWM, 189)

What could Cavell mean by claiming that we treat art as persons in the contexts of questions of fraudulence and trust? Or, more skeptically, what positive outcome could possibly result from personifying art objects, from imagining, say, “the literary text as if it bore significant characteristics of persons?”12 I will tackle versions of these objections shortly. But we might begin by noting that personification is not Cavell’s aspiration with this sentence. Instead of a straightforward personifying of art objects, he is saying that there is something intriguing, and philosophically relevant, that when we engage with art we act in ways that resemble the personifying of art objects. Answering the question that modern art lays “bare,” as he puts it (by forcing a stark question such as, Is the art of Krenek/Robbe-Grillet/Warhol fraudulent?), helps us understand why art-personifying feels so necessary.

Part of what Cavell is bringing out is that these concerns about fraudulence and trust cannot be answered by interrogating the artist or the composer, but interrogating the work itself. Suspected fraudulence requires a formal analysis of the work to either confirm it or rule it out. The critic, in turn, has an important mediating role conveying the non-fraudulent “conviction” such objects inspire, the way these objects are “known by feeling, or in feeling” (MWM, 192). A few pages later, Cavell again returns to a personhood framework to underscore this point: “We are not merely involved with [art objects], but concerned with them, and care about them; we treat them in special ways, invest them with a value which normal people otherwise reserve only for other people—and with the same kind of scorn and outrage” (MWM, 197-98). Becoming emotionally involved in art the way “normal people” are involved with one another is not a sign of insanity (maybe mild insanity), but a sign that critics have been here and done their work.

All of this is to say that, for Cavell, what it means when we treat and approach art objects in these “special ways” tells him something crucial about what art objects are: that they are not merely interesting, but that we feel they were made as intended by someone (MWM, 198). “The category of intention is as inescapable (. . . ) in speaking of objects of art as in speaking of what human beings say and do: without it, we would not understand what they are” (MWM, 198). That is why when in certain respects we treat art objects like people, we are not committing a category error, but affirming a categorical recognition. That category is intentionality. Just as assuming that someone intends to mean is a prerequisite for making sense of what a person means, assuming an intentional art object is also required to make sense of what that art object means. And the critic, who is “part detective, part lawyer, part judge, in a country in which crimes and deeds of glory look alike” (MWM, 191), has the socially foundational role of determining if crimes or deeds of glory have been committed and of convincing the public when or how it happened and why we should care.

Admittedly, Cavell is making difficult claims here. Accepting them, even provisionally, requires more clarifications and caveats. First, the kind of relation Cavell is envisioning is essentially speculative and metaphorical and must work in one direction only— treating art like we treat people, not treating people the way we treat art. The difference is critical. The former claim requires an imaginative, condoning action on the beholder’s part (our choosing to treat the art object in “special ways”), while the latter does not, entailing instead the art object acting on us. Secondly, we have to acknowledge that Cavell’s thinking here is more phenomenological than strictly ontological or metaphysical. We would not want to mistake him as claiming, for example, that with the advent of modernism people take on the characteristics of modern art objects. Instead, he is suggesting that knowing art objects is more like understanding persons than it is like understanding rocks. Thirdly, the kind of “person” being imagined and invoked in Cavell’s scenario is, admittedly, an impoverished or flawed version of personhood. His projected person is someone who cannot respond to the spectator in an evolving way, but must continuously instantiate themselves as their meaning.13 Likely, Cavell would defend this critique along the following lines: his metaphor is not attempting to identify a more accurate account of persons, but a better account of how and why art means. Finally, this list of conditions might simply be too long for his analogy to be fully convincing. I leave that as a possibility.

Beardsley, for one, was having none of it. Neither was Margolis, who seems more baffled than opposed, but we’ll focus on Beardsley since he attracted more of Cavell’s irritation in the follow-up essay, “A Matter of Meaning It.” Quoting that same Cavellian sentence cited above, Beardsley demurs: “I don’t find that I treat works of art in ways normally reserved for treating persons.”14 Furthermore, he reasons, if he’s going to trust or mistrust anyone, it will be the artist or writer, “rather than trying to treat the work itself as a person” (104). As Cavell point outs subsequently, this position is entirely consistent with Beardsley’s most famous essay, co-written with W. K. Wimsatt, “The Intentional Fallacy,” since to ask questions about intention or sincerity forces the critic outside the work (MWM, 227). Alternatively, write Wimsatt and Beardsley, had the poet “succeeded in doing” what he was trying to do, “then the poem itself shows what he was trying to do.”15 From Beardsley’s perspective, perceiving an urgency to question a work’s sincerity and intention can only portend that work’s failure, because the poem itself isn’t making those answers obvious to its reader. Having rejected the person of the poet as a source of evidence (and, in “The Affective Fallacy,” the person of the reader), it seems to Beardsley nonsensical to start accommodating the person of the poem itself. Or, as he puts it, “This surprises me” (“Comments,” 104).

Cavell’s response is eviscerating and entertaining. Reading “Music Discomposed” back to back with “A Matter of Meaning It,” and you can almost watch him evolving from disinterested professional respect towards New Criticism to a ferocious condemnation upon intuiting its flaws. He proceeds to decimate Beardsley’s theory of interpretation, exposing why Beardsley doesn’t just have a “bad picture of intention” but also “a bad picture of what a poem is” (MWM, 227). That bad picture amounts to a “picture of a poem as more or less like a physical object, whereas the first fact of works of art is that they are meant, meant to be understood” (MWM, 227-28). With modernist art, “the issue of the artist’s intention . . . has taken on a more naked role” (MWM, 228). The remaining third of the essay works through these ideas of meaning and intention, often echoing Elizabeth Anscombe’s seminal book on the topic, to show just how pointless it is to try and talk about art’s meaning without talking about intention.16 Although Cavell backs off the treating-art-as-person observation—a move which seems to capitulate in the face of the hostility his claim aroused—he does so only to double down on the inevitability of intention.

To sum up thus far: for Cavell, identifying and knowing “the intentionality of art objects” is both a subtle and a total process, because “works of art are objects of the sort that can only be known in sensing” (MWM, 191). Constrained by typical human limitations when dealing with art objects, our closest analogue to knowing and sensing art is our knowing and sensing other persons. But it’s worth underscoring the following point: Cavell is trying to solve a difficult problem in imperfect ways. Even though his analogy carries us disturbingly close to untenable notions of personification, such thinking provides an explanatory richness and a different kind of possibility—one that doesn’t involve merely conflating persons and art objects, or, alternatively, never using the personification metaphor at all. In a sense, what Cavell reveals is that we don’t have very good ways of thinking about art that do not slot work into the category of “object” or “individual romantic expression.” For him, the language of simulated personhood provides a strategy to better approach the way art really works with and on us. The critic helps us in that knowing, sensing work, recognizing the intentionality of these “persons” who are not persons that we might otherwise not recognize for who and what they are. But the preceding paragraphs make clear Cavell’s purpose about the way we engage with art-as-persons: it enables him to establish the inseparability of intention from a work’s meaning. Again, as Cavell puts it: “The category of intention is as inescapable (. . .) in speaking of objects of art as in speaking of what human beings say and do” (MWM, 198). The invocation of a potential other person in the gallery or concert hall helps us to recognize what an impoverished view of artistic intentionality we—versus an astute critic—probably have.

Seeing Cavell’s emphasis on art-as-persons as a revelation of intentionality clarifies the stakes of Fried’s “Art and Objecthood.” We see why it matters so much when the “person” in the gallery turns out not who you might expect to find there (a modernist art object) but something else entirely (a literalist object as surrogate person). Whereas Cavell’s modernist art is asking to engage in a personal relation or communion of some kind, and Cavell’s notion of fraudulent art (i.e., Krenek’s) cannot be aesthetically criticized but only philosophically defended or rejected as art (MWM, 196), literalist art on Fried’s account combines these two features as a treacherous amalgamation. The trappings of modernist art relations (a beholder’s communion with the art object) are highjacked to perform a theatrical confrontation with the beholder. Instead of asking the beholder to enter into a conversation, literalist art skips that entire process to issue commands: “I am a surrogate person in your space—deal with me.” Once the beholder is in the gallery, “the work refuses, obstinately, to let him alone—which is to say, it refuses to stop confronting him, distancing him, isolating him. (Such isolation is not solitude any more than such confrontation is communion)” (AO, 163-64). Its theatricality emerges here, in its surrogate-person-presence, because the beholder is not being invited to treat an art object in this way, or enjoined to contemplate it in solitude. When confronted, the beholder has little choice in the matter other than simply leaving the gallery and its presence.

All of this is to say that “Art and Objecthood” depicts the complicated phenomenological relation that begins as soon as we enter the gallery. In a sense, literalist art relies upon a certain kind of object-human parasitism for its effects. Such work “distances the beholder—not just physically but psychically;” like an arrogant overload, literalist art turns the beholder into the object’s subject (AO, 154). But this distance is far too close, for literalist art also “confront[s] the beholder” as if “placed not just in his space but in his way” (AO, 154). The beholder did not ask, or even consent, to participate in this dynamic, but is coerced into it: literalist art’s “presence” surpasses “obtrusiveness” or “even aggressiveness” because “of the special complicity” extorted from the beholder (AO, 155). Being recruited or manipulated by someone as an accomplice in wrongdoing, the beholder and her “special complicity” in this relation entails the violation not only of conventional norms but something closer to moral transgression.

Just to be clear, the point of Fried’s highly corporeal and metaphorical language of duress is to underscore the fundamental deception of the literalist object’s personhood ruse, and to explain that ploy’s mysterious success. All of these effects and tactics—psychic distance, intimidation, combativeness, coercion—work on us because the literalist object is relying on a situation and relation we know intimately. Namely, this feeling “of being distanced” by an art object succeeds because it “is not . . . entirely unlike being distanced, or crowded, by the silent presence of another person” (AO, 155). The feelings of disquiet and distance derive from these objects’ resemblance to a “surrogate person” (AO, 156). Like Cavell, Fried suggests that in part we experience these objects like persons because other persons are simply our closest analogue to daily encounters with “the nonrelational, the unitary, and the holistic” (AO, 156). Their “apparent hollowness” which “is almost blatantly anthropomorphic” leaves us with the impression that the literalist object before us possesses “an inner, even, secret, life” (AO, 156). But these literalist objects are not knowable in the way that persons are—they are more like what we might imagine aliens would be, or entities exhibiting selective artificial intelligence.

The problem of why they are not knowable as humans is in one way obvious (they’re not humans) and in another way a bit tricky to grasp. It comes back to modernist art’s crucial characteristic for both Cavell and Fried. Literalist art does tend to imitate human bodies without human souls (that’s the anthropomorphism of literalism), but even when it isn’t actively mimicking persons in that way, it is still somehow unknowable. The reason why turns out to be that such art performatively replicates the signifiers of human meaning without meaning anything at all. Or, more precisely, such art means to stage the replicated human signifiers as if for and by an alien race, for whom human signification can never be understood as intended. That is why Fried will insist upon literalist art’s divergence from Caro’s sculpture, which “essentialize[s] meaningfulness as such” (AO, 162). Caro’s modernist sculptures “defeat, or allay, objecthood by imitating, not gestures exactly, but the efficacy of gesture . . . they are possessed by the knowledge of the human body and how, in innumerable ways and moods, it makes meaning” (AO, 162).

Literalist art, on the other hand, does not possess this inherently human knowledge and so mimics signifiers of human meaning and intention to parasitize modern art effects. The dynamic works a little like Poe’s eponymous raven, repeatedly crowing “nevermore” to a paranoid listener who hears his evolving fears dramatized in the bird’s every utterance. Only an entire apparatus of conventions, theatrically performed and completed by the listener or beholder, can make anthropomorphic, parroted “speech” meaningful—that is, can make the literalist signifier become a sign. “Inasmuch as literalist work depends on the beholder, is incomplete without him, it has been waiting for him” (AO, 163). Tony Smith’s Die speaks like Poe’s raven—which is to say that the beholder, or listener, in her newly dramatic situation, completes the meaning of these “speaking” creatures.17

There’s an irony here: for all their righteous claims of radicalness, the literalist art object is relying not just on theatrical conventions, but on conservative social conventions. In its surrogate personhood, the literalist art object invokes longstanding customs of personal manners and civil reciprocity. When someone has been waiting around for you, it is only polite to attend to that person and apologize for the nuisance you’ve caused. Again, literalist art only calls up such conventions to abuse them. Once the beholder arrives in a room with that waiting object, “the work refuses, obstinately, to let him alone . . .” which is why, as Fried parenthetically notes, “such isolation is not solitude” (AO, 163-64).

This scenario also implies a complicated moral problem, although the ramifications are not entirely unpacked. The literalist art object demanding its presence be acknowledged resembles a moral imperative. If feels like this entity is asking to be recognized, attended to, and respected. Even if this person is a surrogate, what is being requested of us is a certain ethical attitude. If they are or resemble persons, we seem to owe it to them. But at least part of the threat here is that once objecthood becomes personhood—surrogate or real—modern art is placed in a bind, because even fraudulent persons would seem to trump real art.

Of course, Fried’s dazzling move is to expose surrogate personhood for what it really is: theatricality. Naming it as such exposes the game and the category errors it relies upon, revealing the set of rules and protocols that govern such relationships of object and beholder. The so-called moralism of minimalist or literalist art feeds off the rights, privileges, and respect that persons demand and deserve. It is ethical imperative without moral content, what Walter Benn Michaels has aptly labeled “ethical kitsch”: the “insistence on the right attitude” to the truth, necessarily performed repeatedly, rather than “the truth of what happened.”18 And, while it would be the subject of a different essay, unmasking such a counterfeit performance matters. Considering objects or non-persons as persons has consequences, whether in the domain of animal rights, cultural disputes (over the status of ancestral landmarks), or political disputes (over fetal or corporate personhood).19

In this final section of the essay, I want to tease out what some of those consequences looked like almost immediately after “Art and Objecthood” appeared. Recall again Clarke’s novelistic depiction of the slabs in 2001: “The monolith was 11 feet high, and 1¼ by 5 feet in cross-section.  . . .  In its way, this passive yet almost arrogant display of geometrical perfection was as impressive as any of [its] other attributes” (ASO, 167). Although the conception of the alien monoliths and literalist art objects diverge in various ways (notably, monoliths’ technology operates more consistently on its beholders), as a description of a minimalist art object Clarke’s account wouldn’t be out of place in Artforum, circa 1968. In both the novel and the film, embracing the coercive theatricality of minimalist-looking surrogate persons is the human race’s fate—starting with the fascinated hominids in the opening sequence (fig. 4). If Fried had announced modernist art declaring war on objecthood in 1967, then, by 1968, objecthood’s counterattack was already underway, as theatricality is deemed literally irresistible. Although this isn’t the place for a full analysis of the film and novel, a focus on the surrogate persons of “Art and Objecthood” reveals these influential works of science fiction as fully enmeshed in the dynamic Fried exposed.


Fig. 4. 2001. Prehistoric Objecthood
Fig. 4. 2001. Prehistoric Objecthood

2001’s plot isn’t much—it could almost be a video installation. Large black vertical slabs described as monoliths transiently appeared on earth over three million years ago, where they manipulated our hominid ancestors into using tools and thus catalyzing our precarious evolution into humans (the monolith’s coercive mechanics are far more explicit in the novel than in the film).20 In 2001, another monolith is dug up on the moon—the “passive yet almost arrogant” one—emitting a shriek when exposed to the sun. Later, after surviving an attempted mutiny by a HAL-9000 (the ship’s newly sentient and homicidal computer), astronaut Dave Bowman alone experiences a third, colossal monolith on a moon of Saturn (Jupiter in the film). This monolith turns out to be a portal: “The thing’s hollow—it goes on forever,” he reports in the novel before it sucks him in and rebirths him as an evolved “starchild” transcending human form (ASO, 191). During the last moment of his transformation, Dave experiences a fourth monolith in a simulated white box gallery space or hotel room, which also happens to be decorated with Rococo art and period furniture (fig. 5).

Fig. 5. 2001. A white box gallery as the future of human evolution
Fig. 5. 2001. A white box gallery as the future of human evolution

As in so much science fiction, 2001 is working through human relations with various types of surrogate persons: monolithic artifacts that retain their alien creators’ purpose, a sentient computer competing with humans to reach those artifacts, and a posthumous Dave evolving into a star-child.21 More surprising is that these issues emerge from a discourse marked by, of all things, painterly beholding. Even this brief description of the film and book resonates with the previous discussion of art and surrogate persons, and these resonances turn out not to be especially hidden. For example, almost immediately before HAL begins his homicidal machinations, Dave is shown sketching portraits of his hibernating crewmembers. Ever curious (always more so than Dave), HAL asks to “see” a drawing through one of his fish-eye camera lenses (Fig. 6). Observing the art, HAL praises Dave’s apparently improved rendering skills.

Fig. 6. 2001. HAL as beholder
Fig. 6. 2001. HAL as beholder

Although Dave is unperturbed by the interaction, in view of subsequent events he should have been apprehensive. Communing with Dave on a drawing turns out to be part of HAL’s attempt to evolve beyond his computer-limited personhood. He immediately asks a “personal question,” inquiring into Dave’s feelings about the mission in language both intimate and psychoanalytic: “perhaps I’m just projecting my own concern about it,” admits HAL. Although HAL had earlier claimed that “putting myself to the fullest possible use . . . is all I think that any conscious entity can ever hope to do,” the act of beholding Dave’s drawing sparks or correlates with his burgeoning, Kantian sense of his value not as usefulness but as an end in itself. Beholding art, which also means being moved by and becoming judgmental about art (even bad-to-middling drawings), is revealed as more than a marker of HAL’s budding consciousness. Rather, wanting to judge a drawing reveals his own version of purposiveness without a purpose, as well as his incipient, intended actions and gestural resolve. HAL’s viewing of Dave’s art thus leads to HAL’s creative and (from a human perspective) immoral, actions: killing astronaut Frank Poole by commandeering an anthropomorphic-looking space pod, after becoming convinced that the human astronauts are not as committed—as purposeful—about the mission (Fig. 7). But since HAL’s innovative gestures are incompatible with human existence and prompt his demise, the film implies that whatever personhood HAL acquires will not be tolerated. Human persons regard his personhood as a proxy, surrogate sort—and dangerous.

Fig. 7. 2001. HAL gesturing (and killing Frank Poole) via a space pod
Fig. 7. 2001. HAL gesturing (and killing Frank Poole) via a space pod

HAL’s creative gestures are one type of artistic action in the film. Call it AI performance art. Beholding the monoliths is another, and also represented as a distinctly art-like activity. Granted, in some nontrivial sense the monoliths are not intended to be art objects, and their aim of cultivating and accelerating human evolution means that, in Friedian terms, the purpose of their monolith shape is only functional, not formal.22 As John McCracken noted when discussing the resemblance of his sculptures such as Green Slab (fig. 1) to those in the film, the “[2001] monolith was essentially a technological instrument” (“Between Two Worlds”). Yet, while the alien sculptures are not modernist art objects as such, they are essentially literalist ones, in that their sole purpose is to transform the beholder in her situation. Seen from the long, scientific perspective, that purpose is also the “aim” of natural selection and evolution more generally. And it is a purpose that will not be accomplished until the beholder experiences the monolith and the monolith, in turn, works on the beholder. McCracken, in his very next utterance, essentially concedes the affinity: “But I sometimes think of my works as technological instruments, too” (“Between Two Worlds”).

More often than not, and in all sorts of ways, the McCraken-like monoliths in 2001 are portrayed as literalist objects in Fried’s terms. Like literalist sculpture, the initial response the monoliths elicit (whether from the prehistoric hominids, the moon scientists, or the astronauts) is suspect naturalism. The ape-men lick it, testing its nutritive value. While the monoliths seem distant and statue-like, in their “passive yet almost arrogant display of geometric perfection” they also seem to possess human characteristics that they do not fully reveal: a hidden secret life. Moreover, just as literalist art seems to be “waiting for” the beholder to complete it (AO, 163), the monolith “was still waiting” for its beholders to experience it (ASO, 24). Indeed, the whole point of the monoliths is to exist for nearly infinite lengths of time waiting for humans to take their next evolutionary step, and if necessary to facilitate that eventual happening. Finally, being in the presence of the monolith means being coerced into a psychic, bodily situation so fully simulated and theatrical that Dave experiences a “feeling that he was inside a movie set [as] almost literally true” (ASO, 214).

Fried demonstrates how, the more fully the theatrical setting is established, “the more superfluous the works themselves become” (AO, 160). Likewise, both 2001s, the movie and the novel, end with the transformation of the theatrical experience of the monolith into an experience of framelessness, “beyond the infinite” (as an intertitle proclaims), or “the ultimate trip,” as one of the film’s official posters put it, blatantly acknowledging that drug-enhanced screenings of the film had fueled its popularity. (fig. 8). As Fried describes, Tony Smith’s description of his ultimate trip on the unfinished New Jersey turnpike (“There is no way you can frame it, you just have to experience it”) makes the theatricality of literalist art manifest. In the place of the object “is above all the endlessness, or objectlessness, of the approach or onrush of perspective” (AO, 159).

Fig. 8. Official poster, 1969 rerelease of 2001: A Space Odyssey. “The ultimate trip” or the unfinished NJ Turnpike
Fig. 8. Official poster, 1969 rerelease of 2001: A Space Odyssey. “The ultimate trip” or the unfinished NJ Turnpike

In the novel 2001, Dave’s trip into the surprisingly hollow monolith is depicted nearly identically. He experiences the universe evading the frame of typical human consciousness:

Only the stars moved, at first so slowly that it was some time before he realized that they were escaping out of the frame that held them. But in a little while it was obvious that the star field was expanding, as if it was rushing toward him at an inconceivable speed. . . . eventually they all veered aside, and streaked over the edge of their rectangular frame. (italics added) (ASO, 195-96)

It’s almost a perfect analogue to literalist art on Fried’s account: inexhaustible “not because of any fullness . . . but because there is nothing there to exhaust” (AO, 166). Clarke makes the metaphor explicit. If there is anything that is pretty much by definition inexhaustible, it is outer space.

What we are seeing is that 2001’s alien monoliths expose the surrogate personhood hiding in literalist art objects. Without Fried’s analysis to assist us, literalist objects might mask such surrogacy more successfully. It is surrogate personhood, because it is operating with an intention, even if that intention is simply forcing human beings to evolve. And it is a particularly surrogate personhood because its aim is neither human, nor alien, nor communicative, just as the huge monolith Dave is sucked into at the end is neither evasive nor inscrutable but vacuous: “The Star Gate made no reply; it had nothing to say” (ASO, 187). These monoliths never attempt to have conversations or even real interactions, but to commandeer people’s actions or their entire bodies, turning them into pliant objects. The novel is very explicit that the entire process is ruthlessly coercive, beginning with the ape-man who, when entranced by the monolith, “seemed to be a thing possessed, struggling against some spirit or demon who had taken over control of his body” (ASO, 22)

Consider once again the shot with which I began, of Dave staring theatrically at the beholder with the après-Boucher instantiating absorption behind him (fig. 9). Now we can see it more clearly for what it is: an allegorical rendering of objecthood and theatricality defeating absorption, in the Diderotian paradigm Fried depicted. 2001 (the film particularly) retells “Art and Objecthood” with the objects triumphant, and without a representation of modernist art, although there is plenty of modernist kitsch, in the form of knock-off furniture, clothing, and design.23 Meanwhile, at least in this shot the theatrical object—in the form of a black, McCrackian monolith—is off-screen but reflected, its presence felt. The final scene of Dave in the gallery space/hotel room merely pares down “Art and Objecthood’s” drama to its basic elements.

Fig. 1. 2001: A Space Odyssey, dir. Stanley Kubrick (MGM 1968)
Fig. 9. 2001: A Space Odyssey, dir. Stanley Kubrick (MGM 1968)

Whereas, on Fried’s account, such theatricality and coercion by objects is a scenario to avoid, both 2001 film and novel presume the inevitability of spectacle and objecthood. They embrace the theatrical condition of their 1968-modernity as their 2001-future. It might even be the case that Kubrick was attempting to turn the entirety of his film into the experience of a minimalist object in a manner entirely congruent with Fried’s account. Although the film is most typically seen as a modernist work, as when film scholar James Naremore argues that the film’s production “was fully in keeping with the modernist project of fusing art and technology,” calling it a minimalist project seems more germane. The film’s overwhelming commitment to visual experience over narrative, with the echo of the alien monoliths in the long horizontal cinemascope frame, suggests that the film screen too was approaching a kind of hollow, rectangular object.24

If one type of surrogate personhood is rejected (the kind that HAL represents), then another is revered: that of the monoliths. And, to be clear, whatever personhood the monoliths possess is likely counterfeit. Dave expects to meet their alien creators somewhere near Jupiter, but upon diving into the monolithic object he, like the filmgoer, experiences more and more spectacle (“the ultimate trip”). In the novel, after his transformation into the starchild, he imagines that he might be perceiving shapes that resemble conscious entities, but he doesn’t know if “they have free will or not . . .  whether it was a movement of mindless, cosmic beasts driven across space by some lemming-like urge, or a vast concourse of intelligent entities, he would probably never know” (ASO, 207). Whether they approach personhood or have the capacity to intend is uncertain at best. What is definitely present is the endless ramping up of theatricality, another version of the increasing terror induced by a raven repeatedly crowing a meaningless “nevermore.” Like the monoliths, there “the Raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting,” in 2017 as in 1967.




1. The painting on the wall appears to have been created for the film, but the composition mirrors the figures in Gabriel Huquier’s “Pastorale” engraving (, loosely adapted from a François Boucher painting. The same engraving was also adapted by Charles Dominique Joseph Eisen for Berger et bergère (Musée des Beaux-Arts de Bordeaux) in the 18th century. See Katie Scott, “Reproduction and Reputation: ‘Francois Boucher’ and the Formation of Artistic Identities,” in Rethinking Boucher, ed. Melissa Hyde and Mark Ledbury (Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute, 2006), 91-132.
2. Arthur C. Clarke, 2001: A Space Odyssey (New York: Signet, 1968; 2008), 167. Hereafter referred to as ASO in the text.
3. Frances Colpitt, “Between Two Worlds: John McCracken” [interview] Art in America (1 April 1998).
Peter Krämer notes that Kubrick’s final decision to make the alien artifacts tall rectilinear slabs occurred some time in 1966; 2001: A Space Odyssey (London: BFI, 2010), 53.
4. Daniel Rubinstein, “Failure to Engage: Art Criticism in the Age of Simulacrum,” journal of visual culture 16.1 (2017), 54; Rosalind Krauss, “Sculpture in the Expanded Field,” October 8 (Spring 1979), 30-44.
5. Michael Fried, “Art and Objecthood,” in Art and Objecthood: Essays and Reviews (Chicago: U of Chicago Press, 1998), 168. Hereafter cited in the text as AO.
6. Hal Foster, “The Crux of Minimalism,” in Individuals: A Selected History of Contemporary Art, 1945-1986, ed. Howard Singerman (New York: Abbeville Press, 1986), 177; Rubinstein, 54. For Fried’s response to Foster, see “An Introduction to My Art Criticism” (AO, 43-44).
7. Williams’s poetic attempts to grapple with Marcel Duchamp’s “window” works aimed to incorporate the experience of the world into a poem while simultaneously limiting that experiencing by drawing some kind of frame around it. (See Siraganian, “Breaking Glass to Save the Frame: William Carlos Williams and Company,” in Modernism’s Other Work: The Art Object’s Political Life [New York: Oxford University Press, 2012], 79-109.)
8. Perhaps “Trump doesn’t operate within conventional human cognitive constraints, but rather is a new life form, a rudimentary artificial intelligence-based learning machine”
(Robert Burton, “Donald Trump, Our A.I. President,” New York Times 22 May 2017.
9. “Between Two Worlds.” Fried discusses Greenberg’s account of Truitt’s art and presence (AO, 151-52).
10. Stanley Cavell, “Music Discomposed,” in Must We Mean What We Say: A Book of Essays. Updated edition (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2002), 180-212. Hereafter cited in the text as MWM. Critics have followed on Fried citation to it in the original essay (AO, 168-69). See Stephen Melville, “Art and Objecthood, Philosophy,” journal of visual culture 16, no. 1 (2017), 12-19; Diarmuid Costello, “On the Very Idea of a ‘Specific’ Medium: Michael Fried and Stanley Cavell on Painting and Philosophy as Arts,” Critical Inquiry 34, no. 2 (Jan 2008), 274-312.
11. This description is Cavell’s own in the companion essay, “A Matter of Meaning It” (MWM, 223).
12. Amy Hungerford, Holocaust of Texts: Genocide, Literature, and Personification (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2003), 4. As Hungerford notes, contemporary criticism and literary theory have tended to do this despite the resistance from New Criticism and deconstruction.
13. Compare this account of the art object to Steven Knapp’s critique of Robert Nozick’s account of retribution and identity that would “mean thinking of the agent as presently—if not eternally—performing the act he once performed; in what other way could the performing of the act (and not simply its having been performed) remain a continuously significant feature of the agent’s identity?” Literary Interest: The Limits of Anti-Formalism (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1993), 123.
14. Monroe Beardlsey, “Comments” in Art, Mind, and Religion, ed. W. H. Capitan and D. D. Merrill (Pittsburgh, Penn.: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1965), 103-9, 104.
15. W. K. Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley, “The Intentional Fallacy,” in W. K. Wimsatt, The Verbal Icon (Lexington, Ky.: University of Kentucky Press, 1967), 4.
16. See Walter Benn Michaels, “‘I Do What Happens’: Anscombe and Winogrand,” (3 May 2016).
17. The sense of the waiting art object, requiring the beholder for completion, is invoked in the last stanza of Edgar Allan Poe’s poem, “The Raven”: “And the Raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting/ On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door.” In the last line of the poem, the speaker adopts the Raven’s meaningless utterance as his own meaningful one, finally completing the poetic art object:  “And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor/ Shall be lifted—nevermore!”
18. Walter Benn Michaels, The Beauty of a Social Problem: Photography, Autonomy, Economy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015), 163.
19. On the interrelations between these different claims, see Meir Dan-Cohen, Normative Subjects: Self and Collectivity in Morality and Law (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016).
20. Generally, the novel’s plot resembles the film, although there are differences particularly when it comes to offering explanations for events, an effect apparently intended by both Clarke and Kubrick (Krämer, 47-48). A more substantial reading of the novel and film would need to account for these differences and how they impact the interpretation of each. Here, I merely point them out when they seem pertinent.
21. Another sort of entity might be alluded to the in the film’s many corporate invocations: PanAmerican, IBM, Hilton. In the film, these names function to familiarize the strange (the space station, odd décor, spacecraft, grip shoes for zero gravity), but they also imply that corporate entities will live on in a future we cannot know.
22. Michael Fried, “Shape as Form: Frank Stella’s Irregular Polygons (1966)” (AO, 77-99).
23. In the novel, by contrast, Dave’s room is decorated with post-Impressionist and regionalist paintings—a Van Gogh and a Wyeth—suggesting that the novel might be working through literalist art’s relation to modern art differently than the film. See also Volker Fischer, who suggests that the film’s aesthetic projected Corbusier and Bauhaus modernism into the future; “Designing the Future: On Pragmatic Forecasting in 2001: A Space Odyssey” in Stanley Kubrick, eds. Hans-Peter Reichmann and Ingeborg Flagge (Frankfurt am Main: Deutsches Filmmuseum, 2004), 103-19.
24. James Naremore, On Kubrick (London: BFI, 2007), 137.