From 1967 to the present, no other writer has so systematically thought through the history and effects of artistic temporality. This accomplishment necessarily binds together his art criticism and his art history, and it allows us to see another layer of significance to the legacy of “Art and Objecthood” fifty years after its publication.
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.
In footnote number 6, however, he directly addresses Greenberg’s axiom, and the specific condition of painting. There is a sense in it of an intuitive recognition that for the enterprise of modern painting, Greenberg had the cart before the horse. We know the horse is in front of the cart because the pulling function of the horse is attached to the steering mechanism of the carriage. Greenberg, in this instance, like Joshua Reynolds, seemed more concerned with the status of the carriage, that is, painting as an Art, than with its use-function. What we can glean from Fried is that flatness and the delimitation of flatness is a functional mechanism of the art of painting, and was, at the time, steering the direction that painting was going in.
What am I looking or hoping for from a studio visit? A clear-eyed view of the sculpture that tells me the piece is not working or is working. Then, with luck, an explanation or theory about how it is doing what it is doing. OK, but there are visitors and there are visitors. As is true of any of Michael’s criticism, his understanding of how a work of art gets made comes first.
No one likes to be taken seriously when they are speaking lightly. And nobody likes to be told they are not serious when they believe they are. But the encounters staged around the various remarks quoted in “Art and Objecthood” are not exactly either of these: the question of seriousness is not being raised by Fried in the face of what the artists have said but is presented as already there in what they say—and as unheard there by them.
The real problem here is not the gap between intent and reaction, but rather with the simple fact that whether or not a building is actually used in the way the architect wishes, it is always made for a user. One could of course build structures exclusively for friends or for oneself but that feels more like an exemplification of the problem than a solution to it. There is no real possibility of fictionally or on any other level of not acknowledging the beholder/user, they are present at the conception and the realization of the work.
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.
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.