Hegel believed that it was incumbent on anything that wanted to be taken seriously to “prove its object,” which is to say, to show itself to be the kind of thing that it in fact is. I am enough of a Hegelian (and a modernist) to feel that art must still “prove its object,” each work somehow making visible a claim for its existence as a work of art rather than some other sort of thing. I take it that what Fried has wanted to show us, not only in his early writings but throughout his art-historical career, is that such “objectivity” is at consequential odds with mere “objecthood,” and that both art and art history need to be clear about those stakes, at least if they hope to be taken seriously.
Let me be clear, the problems I raise do not stem from a dissatisfaction with the way October authors repeat a kind of party line. In fact, I envy the unity and consistency of the resolve and of course their massive impact on the discipline (what is there, politically speaking, besides anti-hierarchy in the humanities?). My point is that the basic set of claims shared by many of these authors is mistaken.
The combination of flatness, enframing, and the implied interchangeability of consumer goods that we see in Warhol’s Soup Cans is both characteristic and telling. In front of such works, I can only think of what the philosopher Martin Heidegger referred to as the “standing reserve.” Insofar as our present sense of reality is shaped by the technological age in which we live, we increasingly treat all entities, Heidegger claimed, as intrinsically meaningless “resources,” a “reserve” standing by merely to be optimized and ordered for maximally flexible use.
The works’ achievement—“triumph,” we might even say—resides precisely in their ability to make both things simultaneously apparent. Admission or acknowledgement alone would have amounted to mere acceptance, resulting in something simply, flatly decorative, and detached from any engagement with the world. Conversely, antipathy or avoidance on its own would have been tantamount to a denial of how much painting (and the world around it) had changed in the first decade or so of the twentieth century. It is finally this doubledness, I would argue—the works’ acknowledgement of loss and their stubborn refusal to be reconciled to it—that makes them the compelling, occasionally haunting, images they are.