It’s important to note that the word “conviction,” Fried’s keyword for the effect produced by the successful painting, is an ambivalent term in his criticism. Sometimes the word refers to a judgment of value, or quality, defined loosely as the capacity of a given work to stand comparison with valued earlier masterpieces. But in “Art and Objecthood,” and at other key moments in his criticism—“Caro’s Abstractness,” for instance—“conviction” refers to the specific experience of the suspension of objecthood.
Both as intellectual and as literary history — as an account of the relation between the two in the mid-20th century and an attempt to reimagine the relation between the two in the early 21st century — Mark Greif’s The Age of the Crisis of Man: Thought and Fiction in America, 1933-1973 (Princeton University Press, 2015) is an important and original book. We asked a number of critics working in related areas to say what they thought about it, and Greif to respond.
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.
I don’t notice the sky on my way to work. I couldn’t say what colors my neighbors’ flowers are. In fact, I’m not even sure that they have flowers…But if, as Scarry argues, the flowers in books are in constant danger of dying for want of the solidity of real flowers, then what is killing the real flowers? And what is the medicine? The analysts of literary effects from Edmund Burke through Viktor Shklovsky, from Scarry to the latest cognitive critics, have been distracted by formal features, structures, and techniques. The sickness of literary flowers may be a problem for literary technique. The sickness of living flowers is a problem for philosophy. And this philosophy, as I will argue, has been the constant practice of a literature that doesn’t want to imitate life, but to transform it.
Bernhard can link a Bourdieu-style sociological critique of art to an anti-theatrical critique of art because both the sophisticated collector and the actor depend on the pretense that they are not doing what in fact they are doing: asking you to recognize them. People make judgments of taste in order to be recognized by others. Painters paint paintings, actors deliver lines, poets write poems in order to be recognized by others. The objects they create come into the world deformed by their attention-grabbing fineness of line, color, and phrase.