John Berger, Michael Fried and Contemporary Art
John Berger and Michael Fried emerged as forceful critics alongside, and largely against, the new form of art that we now call “contemporary.” To fully appreciate what was and continues to be at stake in the distinction between their competing critical arguments at the time of Fried’s January 1962 review of Berger’s 1960 book Permanent Red, we need to understand all three of our terms—Berger, Fried and contemporary art—in relation to the ruins of modern art atop of which each staked its claim for the future.1 By considering each account of modern art’s failure as a different possible starting point for what art might have become—in Berger’s and Fried’s cases—and did become—in the case of contemporary art—we can develop a critical register of the contradictions that produced the art-historical present we now have and consider what sort of resolution to those contradictions we might want from art moving forward.
The common understanding about the cause of modern art’s failure that all three saw behind them, for the purposes of this comparison, is not the elitism that Berger reacted against, or the anti-intentionalism that Fried has targeted, or the chauvinism that contemporary art continues to forswear. Instead, what allows us to think Berger, Fried and contemporary art together as a historically significant triad is a failure of art to effectively address its place in the economy. As Fried put the challenge in his review, “if the relations obtaining between art and economics are vastly more complex than Berger appears to believe, that is all the more reason for critics who find his thought repugnant to study these relations” (MC 72). Our task here will be to do our best to rise to Fried’s challenge and make sense of that greater complexity.
The baseline issue that Berger and Fried agreed on, Fried said, was twofold: first, that “most people”—for convenience and to stick to the Marxist framing taken up in the review, let’s call them the working class—“feel thoroughly shut out by the best painting today”; and second, that the “increasingly direct interest taken in contemporary painting and sculpture by moneyed concerns of all kinds”—let’s call them the ruling class—was a problem that critics and artists should address (MC 72).
Contemporary art, on the whole, would agree with this framing even if it adopted a different approach.2 If modern art had carried the world on its shoulders with its always receding ideal of autonomous, universal, constructed, disalienating form and pitied itself the burden, contemporary art shrugged and made the shrug itself into its period style.3 In theory, the ruling class can be countered in one of two ways, it assumed: by redistributing its money or redistributing its cultural authority. Contemporary art chose the latter approach. The alternative narratives provided by Berger and Fried are of particular interest for us now because, with hindsight, we can see that the ruling class preempted contemporary art by having already abandoned the last remnants of any cultural authority that might realistically be called its own.
Three Failures of Modern Art
It’s not that the modern art that withered away with the onset of the Cold War was ever consistently socialistic, of course. Indeed, it was nothing if not entrepreneurial. For a foundational example, think of the clever business models developed by Jacques-Louis David for his 1790 Tennis Court Oath and 1799 Intervention of the Sabine Women. These stories are well known among art historians, but I’ll use Tony Halliday’s summary of the latter example for those who are unfamiliar, and as a reminder to those who are:
Under the Ancien Régime, major history paintings were usually undertaken in response to specific demand, often as the result of a public commission on behalf of Church or State. Uncommissioned and without destination, the Sabines was painted to be exhibited for money, a purpose that it fulfilled so successfully that David was able to buy a modest estate with the proceeds.4
As we have already suggested with our allusion to Atlas’s burden, the meaning of David’s art—like modern art generally—was also more than its defining turn to the market. The first critical question has always been about the substance of that “more” once the readymade transcendence that had come with church and state commissions was no longer available. What was the social basis for the presumption of artistic genius, for Art’s capital “A,” for the aesthetic as a category apart that would regularly stand in for the lost registers of religious experience and political participation that had come with the patronage of church and state?
The second critical question hovers in the background but is no less important: How did this new claim to transcendence piggyback on the capitalist entrepreneurialism that footed it economically, socially, philosophically and aesthetically? And one more as a corollary: what role did the new, modern idea of art that resulted play in displacing the wholesale social significance of church and state? How, in other words, did modern art not only reflect but also enact its new place in the economy?
Of course, nationalism and its associated principle of cultural hegemony would rise as conservative counter-ideals after the revolution and regularly seek to seduce art with the allegorical reduction of sociality into the likes of flags and rituals, unrooted theories and ideals, pseudo-sacred places and coded emblemata. Indeed, allegorical reduction would even delimit various communitarian or would-be socialisms leading to critical observations like this one from Marx: “M Proudhon personifies society; he turns it into a person, Society—a society which is not by any means a society of persons, since it has its laws apart, which have nothing in common with the persons of which society is composed, and its own ‘intelligence,’ which is not the intelligence of common men but an intelligence devoid of common sense.”5 Modern art would largely hold firm to its foundational search for an alternative transcendence of its own by shoring up the distinction between fine and popular art. For better or worse, that search for autonomy remained the basis for art’s always murky and often misleading association with a living left or anticapitalist politics until the modern period came to a close after the Second World War and contemporary art arose in its wake.
For our purposes, the root distinction that gave rise to modern art’s alternative notion of transcendence was most clearly articulated in 1771: “A History Painter paints man in general; a Portrait Painter, a particular man, and consequently a defective model,” Joshua Reynolds insisted, adding that “Present time” (that of portrait painting) “and future” (that of history painting) “may be considered as rivals.”6 Reynolds’s rival Thomas Gainsborough offered a third solution—nostalgic, peasant-speckled paintings of the English countryside as his longed-for alternative to his day job (the “curs’d face business,” he called it) painting honorific likenesses of those putting an end to the world he was nostalgic for through rapidly accelerating industrialization and dramatically expanding colonization.7 This leaves us with three competing categories for that which transcends and compensates for the market as the material foundation for modern art at the moment of its emergence: portraits, or the immanent present; history, or the teleological future; and landscape, or the nostalgic past.
We have already opted for David as the easiest illustration for our second category of history reaching for the future after 1789. Sticking to the most obvious examples from the canon of post-revolutionary art, we can point to Caspar David Friedrich’s aesthetic investment in landscape and the past to stand for our third category. If you haven’t already, think of the rückenfigürlich turn away from the social world of the beholder to the sublime landscape in his 1818 Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog.8
As Reynolds and Gainsborough both suggested, our first category—the “curs’d face business”—was not immediately available for the purposes of a new transcendence. Both of its aspects—portraiture and the immanent present—posed the same seemingly intractable problem for the birth of modern art: they did not allow for enough distance. Modern art was the child of the Enlightenment, of the age of critique, so it felt the need for critical separation from its aesthetic objects forcefully and housed its promise of transcendence there. Hegel came to call the production of that distance Entäusserung, or self-externalization, by which he meant abstracting oneself from the immediacy of embodied sense experience or, more colloquially, cultivating the capacity to see the forest for the trees.9
In other words, modern art needed the big picture of the future or the past, of teleology or etiology, and was repulsed at the thought of being diminished to the immediate here-and-now. Equally so, it needed social types or allegorical personifications, not the immediate flesh-and-blood personhood of the portraitist and his subject, in order to gain the necessary distance to express the critique of society that was the fountainhead and legacy of enlightenment. Even more, distance was the basis for the reach for a new kind of subject that artists would lead in formulating. In his 1841 dissertation, Marx would put words to this rudimentary Hegelian insight a bit more graphically than Hegel himself ever could: “Repulsion,” he said, “is the first form of self-consciousness.”10
Such repulsion is easy to feel in Friedrich’s Wanderer. As Hegel said about romanticism generally, “in order to preserve the purity of its heart, it flees from contact with the actual world,” “wastes itself in yearning and pines away in consumption.”11 This critique both confirmed the distance at issue and cast doubt about the meaningfulness of romanticism’s claim on transcendence by contracting the scope of its desire from social to individual experience and meaning from the material reality of the world to the critic’s fabulations about that reality.12 Marx would sum up this critique in 1852, saying simply that Romanticism had been “demolished philosophically by Hegel.”13
History painting would suffer a similar fall from grace as it moved more and more away from depicting Reynolds’s “man in general” in the structural, typological, sociodynamic manner that David had pioneered in the 1780s and 90s and moved towards the homogeneous, mythopoetic unity of allegoresis that was nationalism’s seduction. This turn effectively banished self-consciousness and the repulsion that gave rise to it by naturalizing teleology. Thomas Crow has usefully termed this process “classicism in crisis.” “In that she is a woman,” he writes of the allegorical figure of liberty in Eugène Delacroix’s 1830 Liberty Leading the People, she “completes the whole of humanity”; in that Liberty is nude, she represents a “natural condition of humankind,” and in that she embodies both, she stands for “the link between matter and understanding, the medium of passage from fact to meaning and back again.”14
The point of that link between matter and understanding, in all its positivistic self-certainty, Crow tells us, is that it is tenuous at best and stands first and foremost for the immediate threat of its own eventual dissolution: “If she were the least bit more idealized, more evidently a part of the order of symbol, the painting would revert to a curious juxtaposition of reportage with arbitrary allegorical accompaniment.”15 Instead of being repulsed by the allegorical excess of Liberty and thereby endowed with critical distance in Marx’s manner, in other words, we are seduced into guileless immediacy. Tenuous understanding gives way to meaningless matter, and the enlightened, transcendent relationship between self and world—and between the democracy that the revolution had introduced and the market that footed it—dissolves, leaving a radically reduced subjectivity and hence little more than the alienated condition of objecthood in its wake.
Thus, as the nineteenth century came into its own and modern art continued its search for a distinctive form of transcendence that could measure up to the old transcendence given by church and state, romanticism seemed increasingly to be the idiom of an ersatz church and history painting that of an ersatz state.16 More and more, neither seemed to offer art a voice of its own, a voice that owned up to the new, free-market, free-of-church-and-state condition rooted in its entrepreneurialism and marketplace patronage before working to bootstrap that condition into its own alternative transcendent beyond. Why yearn for purity of heart, critics like Friedrich Nietzsche came to ask, if there is no legitimating (and paying) church to recognize it with the principle of heavenly reward? Why “complete the whole of humanity” through the allegorization of the universal right to freedom, critics like Carl Schmitt asked, if there is no legitimating (and paying) state backing it up and recognizing it with the rule of law? No longer on the payroll of those in power, the artists coming to market with their wares increasingly came to seem less like the savvy courtiers of old or the principled revolutionaries that—for a fleeting moment—they had been and, increasingly, more like useful idiots for a rapidly secularizing and liberalizing bourgeoisie.
The emergent sense that the state’s future and the church’s past were no longer sufficiently available as bases for art’s claim to transcendence (and thus for its upmarket social value) opened up the way for the reemergence of our third category, portraiture’s present. Science, or really burgeoning positivism with its turn to the immediately evident, would provide the solution. Where the modern artist had needed the future or the past, the social type or the allegorical personification, utopia or myth, classicism or romanticism, to seat her critical judgment and develop a properly enlightened overarching perspective, the dawning post-enlightenment ethos would turn to immediacy and personhood or lived individual experience. Its reach for transcendence of its market bases would draw on a new posthistorical notion of time—that of the simple process of iteration.
Reynolds had called portraiture a “defective model” because it was too immanent, too much about presentness and thus incapable of seeing the forest for the trees. What he did not foresee, however, is that if you string together every immanent moment, one following the next and the next and the next, a new sense of time emerges. It is defined neither etiologically nor teleologically, not by the law of church or state, but instead by the experience of the always-already-there and never-ending flow of things past the individual’s sensory apparatus. This trick only works insofar as sense perception is bracketed or limited to the fleeting moment before it congeals into a structure or idea that allows for the conceptualization of causality. As such, the experience of time is reconstructed out of a sequence of precognitive—and, thus, pre-evaluative—sense perceptions. Similarly, if you string together every impression of a person, place or thing as one self-contained snapshot or vignette after another and another and another prior to—or in lieu of—any evaluation or status attribution, you can produce a kind of transcendence by serial iteration rather than the old forest-for-the-trees transcendence of church and state.
Halliday again provides a useful summary of how this develops art-historically. His focus in this case is on what he called “the nineteenth century’s outstanding specialist in the production of significant portraits of insignificant people”—Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres—and the project Ingres launched with his 1806 portrait Mademoiselle Caroline Rivière. Ingres’s “likeness of the daughter of an unknown official proclaims the success of the project,” Halliday says, and it is defined by two intertwined strands: that of the “metamorphosis of private portraits into significant public spectacles, and that of the jobbing portraitist into an artist of independent genius.”17
He goes on to add that the approach “which such portraits inaugurated continues to influence the way in which we look at paintings now.”18 Indeed, this new form of transcendence that collapsed the distinction between the ordinary and the extraordinary or the mundane and the transcendent by reconfiguring time as iteration was the root aesthetic form for what we now call “privatization.” By bracketing out narrative constructions of time, the process of socialization was naturalized and thus substantively removed from politics as the enlightened site of human agency.
This revaluation of time was itself a byproduct of the revolution, of course—its phenomenological reduction stood for a kind of ontological democratization in which every moment and thing counts exactly as much as the next—but it was revolution in its most formal, idealist or spectacular form, revolution in the register of mathematical abstraction and creaturely feeling but not in terms of the human organization of material relations. It was revaluation that aimed, ultimately, for the positivist principle of the equality of all matter dovetailed to the evil twin it presumed to transcend: the market’s reduction of all value to the commodity form. In doing so it would achieve its secondary goal: the evacuation of the project of judgement and its role as the driver of enlightenment. As Theodor Adorno would put it, “the history of modern art is largely that of the ineluctable loss of metaphysical meaning.”19 The loss was not of the artists’ own making, he said—“institutions are more powerful than ever; they have long since produced something like the neon-lit style of the culture industry, a style that covers the world as the turn to the baroque did once upon a time”20 —but artists adopt those institutions’ critique of metaphysics as if it were “their own cause, and are stimulated to push further toward that goal.”21
In positivism, naturalism, existentialism and phenomenology, this development in the history of modern art would have a string of philosophical fellow travelers that would share what Adorno called “the same merchandise character,” combining a critique of the metaphysical character of transcendence with, he says, “a feeling of absolute, doubt-free certainty” in order to embrace one version or another of the principle of everyday immediacy as a basis of its transcendence.22 In so doing, art and philosophy both would do the yeoman’s work of upending faith in the universalism of the social contract that had been the infrastructural aim and backbone of enlightenment and revolution, unwittingly replacing it with the post-enlightenment particularism of liberalism’s civil contract that is the central organizing principle of the marketplace.
This idea that transcendence is to be found in the matter of the world rather than in its material relations as mediated by the law of church or state would manifest itself in the formal properties of artworks in myriad ways. Ingres’s “moment of pure line—depthless line,” of line that “recalls us to surface,” as T.J. Clark has put it, can serve as our starting point.23 The history of modernism as a whole is defined by the contest between these two objects of understanding and identification—immanent matter and transcendent law—each vying for pride of place as the leading idiom of secular modernity. Modernism’s conclusion and resulting turn into contemporary art would arrive when the idiom of matter would finally win out over that of law as a leading aesthetic, epistemological and political-economic ideal. As Eric Hobsbawm would pithily summarize, “the (British) industrial revolution”—or capitalist market relations embodied in the unplanned, unlegislated iteration of civil contracts driven by organic appetite and need—“swallowed the (French) political revolution”—or democratic political relations embodied in the principle of the social contract, written into law and enacted through political contests ranging from policy disputes to elections to revolutions.24
Focused on the 1950s’ abandonment of the old composed or constructed artwork in favor of the objet trouvé, Berger described the turn from the general principle of ordered material relations that is the basis of legal and social reasoning to that of the passive reflection of matter as a “sentimental, highbrow fashion for projecting crises of conscience and introspection on to the timeless processes of nature” or “sinking back into” the environment that humans strive in “and emulating fossils.”25 The social measure of art, he said, “can only be built on the general awareness that art should be an inspiration to life—not a consolation.”26 Fried would agree, posing life and art both against the “latent or hidden naturalism” that he said was “at the core of literalist theory and practice” (AO 157).27
Two Critiques of Contemporary Art
John Berger and Michael Fried arrived on the scene of art criticism alongside the triumphal emergence of the fully realized post-enlightenment idiom of art we now call “contemporary,” and each in his own way excoriated it. Art that “apes the inarticulate and disorientated victims of [its] own society,” Berger could say in his 1960 Permanent Red, for example, “is in fact a phenomenon deriving from the same kind of unreality as the commercial pin-up, the government defence policy, and the average Academy portrait.”28 At its heart, that unreality is born of an abandonment of judgment, of taking as a “theme the impossibility of finding a theme,” or adopting an approach that “chooses to deal in ideas which put no pressure on anything” (PR 72). By “rejecting dialectics,” Berger fulminated, the contemporary artist chooses a path by which he is “unable to distinguish between its positive and negative tendencies, he is forced to deny absolutely his own sensibilities and heritage, to unlive his life in fact” (PR 78). As Fried put it, quoting Donald Judd, “the literalist predilection for symmetry, and in general for a kind of order that ‘is simply order … one thing after another,’ is rooted not”—as the contemporary art he was railing against would claim again and again and again—“in new philosophical and scientific principles,” but “in nature” (AO 156). While this may hold philosophy in particular to a higher bar than we would likely accept now, the larger point about the reduction of thought to matter—or, as Robert Smithson put it, to the “sedimentation of the mind”—stands.29
Indeed, both men were powerful and incisive critics of contemporary art’s rapidly emerging hegemony. In large measure this was because they were able to funnel rage into exacting judgments against the withdrawal of judgment. That withdrawal had first emerged with the post-enlightenment turn 150 years earlier—or was it, as we will ask with Berger below, first with the withdrawal of analysis 450 year earlier?—but had only come to universally dominate taste in their time.
For example, responding in 1966 to what he called “the valueless and appetiteless voraciousness of contemporary culture” and the “new unwillingness” of the artworld “to rule anything out,” Fried admitted “I am angered and stunned with frustration.” From “the perspective of this experience and these convictions,” he said, those “who accept a bit of everything, or all of everything, who take pride in what they call not having a position, who rule nothing out, whose sensibilities accommodate comfortably, even triumphantly, the most diverse productions of our time” hold a view that is not at all the liberal “openness and tolerance and humaneness and distrust of extremism” that it pretends to be. Instead, it is “nothing more than promiscuity and irresponsibility verging on nihilism.” What the new definition of contemporary art failed to understand, Fried inveighed against the tide, was that the “issue of value or quality or level is explicitly, nakedly, and excruciatingly central.”30
Berger and Fried thus agreed that the contemporary art that had emerged with them was, as Berger put it, a form of “theatrical mannerism” (PR 74) and, thus, a form of “unlived life” (PR 36). They both believed passionately that discrimination is the seed of good art, of “life lived,” in Fried’s words (AO 219), and the vocation of the critic. However, they did not agree on the root cause of the failure of contemporary art or on the alternative, on what, specifically, art should be and do in the wake of modern art’s collapse.
Fried pointed to the disagreement about the root at the start of his review when he said that Berger’s argument was that contemporary art’s failure is a function of the “excessive subjectivity of most bourgeois criticism today.” Indeed, Fried goes on to say, “as a committed Marxist Berger finds it impossible to conceive of personal as distinct from social potentialities for improvement” (MC 70–71). While Fried’s sense of the personal potentialities for improvement would evolve decisively towards an appreciation for impersonal potentialities in the next couple of years, he would also only further disassociate himself from both Berger’s and Marxism’s emphasis on social potentialities (a pairing which we will disentangle momentarily).
The real hitch between Fried’s position and Berger’s was a disagreement about what constituted “unlived life” and “life lived.” Fried explained his evolving position and that of the artists he championed this way in 1965:
while modernist painting has increasingly divorced itself from the concerns of the society in which it precariously flourishes, the actual dialectic by which it is made has taken on more and more of the denseness, structure, and complexity of moral experience—that is, of life itself, but life lived as few are inclined to live it: in a state of continuous intellectual and moral alertness. (AO 219)
That state of intentional alertness not tied to any specific idea or judgment or expectation—that is, not tied to any past or future and thus open to experience in the present without bias—is what Fried would mean two years later with the famous concluding line to his “Art and Objecthood,” “Presentness is grace” (AO 168). This insight is something that his friend Stanley Cavell would gloss a year or so after that when he wrote that the demands of “continuous presentness” are “as rigorous as those of any spiritual exercise—to let the past go and to let the future take its time; so that we not allow the past to determine the meaning of what is now happening (something else may have come of it) and that we not anticipate what will come of what has come.”31
Berger had made a similar point a few years earlier, albeit as a sociopsychological diagnosis rather than an ethical charge:
We or our fathers revolted against past injustices in the name of the only thing we had left—individual conscience. Therefore we tend to suspect that any limiting of complete freedom, any narrowing down of the paramount necessity of individual conscience, must be despotism.32
While Berger does not specify letting the past go and allowing the future take its time, as Cavell did, it is implied by the reduction to individual conscience insofar as it is divorced from the tradition that is the idiom of church law and the prospect for progress that is the idiom of the state’s.
Moral experience without a concrete moral problem, in Berger’s conception of it, is less a demand to release oneself from the alienated determinateness that Fried calls “theatricality” or “the conditions of objecthood” (AO 153) and more a symptomatic expression of a retreat from that demand. It’s not that Berger did not agree with Fried about the fundamental importance of the denseness, structure, and complexity of moral alertness, or that cultivating such an aptitude and propensity is a capacity particularly suited to art—he did agree. Berger’s concern was that such presentness came with a downside as well, albeit one that also bore within itself the capacity to overcome its failure. That overcoming, in Berger’s understanding, required its own distinctive form of moral alertness that was different from Fried’s but also came with its own limitations.
The richest sense of the dance between the downside of presentness and its overcoming that Berger insisted was to be found within presentness itself can be seen in his many writings on cubism. For example, the key to understanding Picasso’s work, he explained, can be heard in many of the artist’s statements like this one: “To me there is no past or future in art. If a work of art cannot live always in the present it must not be considered at all.” Or this one: “when I have found something to express, I have done it without thinking of the past or the future.”33 What made Picasso the touchstone for art’s promise and failure both, Berger said in 1954, was “not his individual works, but his existence,” or, as he put it in 1987, the way his work positioned itself “at the doorway of coming-into-existence.”34
The acme of this analysis for Berger arrived several months before the June 1967 publication of Fried’s “Art and Objecthood,” in an article titled “The Moment of Cubism” that followed on and further advanced the argument developed at length in his 1965 book The Success and Failure of Picasso. The “moment” at issue in his account is both the historical event of early cubism and the phenomenological juncture he later named “coming-into-existence.” To help his reader think about this second meaning he used a musical analogy: the “incongruity” of the instant when a piece of music begins, “compared to the uncounted, unperceived silence which preceded it,” he wrote, “is the secret of art” because it alerts us to the “distinction between the given and the desired.” What gives art its human vitality and its social promise, he argued, is its effort to “define and make unnatural this distinction.”35
The motor driving art’s work of denaturalization was a critical distinction between personal and impersonal experience that all art draws on as the foundation for its value as a substitute for the authority of religion (and, eventually, the state). This value re-emerged with cubism but had not been readily available thentofore since the Renaissance. The “clear objective eye” created by linear perspective introduced to the experience of art an impersonalism that created a working “equality between man and God” (TMC 82). By ridding vision of the personalism of faith and power, of subordination and domination, and giving it over to the impersonalism of reason, art takes on its founding mission as a category of its own. With this shift it also takes on its modern social association as something more than luxury and propaganda in the service of its patron class. This drawing back or disassociation from the myth and power in the service of gods and kings into reason is the materialist perspective that Berger had in mind in his Picasso book when he said that it is only “stupid people” who “accuse marxists of welcoming the intrusion of politics into art” (SFP 89). As we will see, it is also what he had in mind when he said that “it is both possible and logical to define Cubism” during its early years as “the only example of dialectical materialism in painting” (SFP 56).
Again, in Berger’s sweeping history of western art, the period from Michelangelo up until the emergence of cubism is defined by failure or the loss of art’s autonomy from the culture it is embedded in. “The Copernican revolution, Protestantism, the Counter-Reformation destroyed the Renaissance position” and introduced what he calls “the theatre stage” (TMC 82–83). This new theatricality would be complicated and, to a certain degree, checked later by the Enlightenment and its legacy. However, its main quality of artificiality—or understanding of itself as performative, or subjectively generated by an artist with an audience in mind, rather than as an objective possibility given by and derived from the material conditions of the world as it is—would endure through various iterations over the next four centuries.
The brief “moment” of analytical cubism that put an end to that long span of intermittent but, in the end, always dominant theatricality would return art to the analytical project of the Renaissance but with a difference. The Renaissance had depersonalized individual vision and thereby abstracted reason from embodied life in order to secure its transcendence from the culture it was embedded in. Cubism, by contrast, turned to an immanent analytics of the world for its means of transcending its cultural situatedness. If the mechanics of linear perspective drew its theoretical basis from the early years of the commodity form and capitalist political-economic reasoning generally, cubist composition drew its immanent perspective from, as Berger said, dialectical materialism or socialist political economy.
Berger reviews the history of this relationship at some length in his 1965 book but at bottom—that is, as it is expressed in the art itself—it is said to reside in the “the relation between the seer and the seen” (TMC 91). The vantage point of Renaissance linear perspective had been “fixed and outside the picture” and yet that to which “everything within the picture was drawn” (TMC 86). Cubism, by contrast, drew on and co-developed a new all-purpose theoretical concept—the “field of force,” Berger called it—that had been anticipated philosophically by Hegel, elaborated social-scientifically by Marx in the 1840s, and formalized scientifically by Faraday and Darwin in the 1850s (SFP 67). This field theory would be developed in art from Courbet through Cézanne, but it was only in cubism that it would reground art in “a field of vision which is the picture itself” (TMC 86).
What cubism introduces through its distinctive manner of looking at the world, in other words, is no longer just the subject’s mastery over its object embodied in the social structure of property, but instead a new subject who found her autonomy through a process of “considering all that was interjacent” or socially interconnected (SFP 67). As a result, a new idiom would be given clarity of purpose in early cubism that no longer simply deconstructed the imperious perspectival individual eye of the Renaissance in the manner that spanned from Courbet to Cézanne, but instead newly grounded its pictorial eye in a field of force that bore the promise of a “true fraternal sense of solidarity” (SFP 178). “Consciousness was now seen to be subject to the same laws as Nature” and thus open to political-scientific re-organization, is how Berger described it to Labour Monthly in 1961. With this new self-reflexivity and sense of plastic possibility, he said, arises “the possibility of creating—for the first time in history—a truly materialist art.”36
“I see for the others” was Picasso’s shorthand for this innovation (SFP 136).37 While somewhat misleading (and in a manner, Berger tells us, that already anticipates the failure to come), this statement points us in the direction of cubism’s distinctive form of impersonal, antiliteralist antitheatricality. Schematically put, Picasso’s “I see” carries the intentionality that is generally so forceful and so recognized in his oeuvre; “for the others” carries its depersonalization, deliteralization and antitheatricality. Both Fried and Berger defined their critical positions in opposition to life cosplayed (as we now put it) with a mind to manipulating and being manipulated by others in the marketplace of identities. But where Fried would find “life lived as few are inclined to live it” in a state of absorption or “continuous intellectual and moral alertness,” Berger’s account of Picasso finds it in the being for others of solidarity or collective subjectivity.
Berger pinpoints the moment of final collapse for the momentarily redemptive or proto-revolutionary cubist project in the 1917 theatrical production Parade at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris that included costumes and sets designed by Picasso, music by Erik Satie and a one-act scenario by Jean Cocteau. “For the first time,” Berger writes (overreaching a little), “we see the modern artist serving, despite his own intentions, the bourgeois world and therefore sharing a position of doubtful privilege.” The service provided, he explains, is to use shock to distract his audience from the truth and thereby accommodate their denial. “The rest of the story of Picasso’s life,” he concludes (perhaps continuing to overreach), “is the story of how he has struggled to overcome the disadvantages of this position” (SFP 90).
Fried would likely not agree with Berger’s account of the “field of force” or social basis of this overcoming. However, he would likely agree that art has always struggled with the threat of theatricality born of each of us selling ourselves for what the market will bear. As he put it in “Art and Objecthood,” that “theater has an audience—it exists for one—in a way the other arts do not” is “what modernist sensibility finds intolerable” (AO 163). The critique that both shared as critics rather than historians was that contemporary art had given up on this struggle and, in so doing, given in to the market’s way of constructing itself and its audience as social subjects.
One Promise for the Future of Art
As we said at the beginning, Berger and Fried offered different possibilities for what art might be and become in their role as critics than the one that has now long been cemented into place in the name of contemporary art. Each searched for, and in his own way found, the basis for the transcendence that has structured art’s search for a unique and socially relevant vocation since it lost the patronage of church and state. So too, both did so in ways that held onto the founding modern premise that, as Fried said, the “issue of value or quality or level is explicitly, nakedly, and excruciatingly central.” By necessity their visions for that transcendence—like that of contemporary art—were grounded in the modern patronage system of the capitalist marketplace. Both agreed that, as Fried put it in 1965, the fact that “the most important single characteristic of the new modus vivendi between the arts and bourgeois society” has been the “tendency of ambitious art to become more and more concerned with problems and issues intrinsic to itself.” Equally so, both agreed that modern art’s loss of any meaningful connection with a popular audience, as Fried said, could not be “understood apart from a consideration of economic” factors (AO 217). How they responded to that fact, however, was different. The question that we come to at this point in our analysis is more ambitious and more speculative: what is it that we want for art going forward?
To answer this question we need to consider our available options by looking at the limitations of each of the three models we have before us, that of Berger, Fried and contemporary art. The root problem with contemporary art, in Berger’s analysis, is the iterative theatricality born of flatly accepting modernity’s market-based system of patronage. Fried, we might guess, would agree. While contemporary art reflects social reality accurately enough, either by presenting itself as an immanent-iterative (or repetitive-compulsive) symptom of capitalist exploitation, or as the equally symptomatic endless lobbing of inconsequential critiques from the sidelines, it does so passively and, in so doing, unwittingly reproduces that reality:
It does, of course, reflect unconsciously, and entirely passively, a reality: the reality of the fears, the cynicism, the human alienations that are accompanying the death throes of imperialism. It reflects, passively, the reality of our own Mau Mau superstitions, rituals and crimes—a reality against which the African Mau Mau was only a counter-measure.38
As European colonialism was giving way to American dominated neocolonialism in the 1950s and 60s, the old violence and direct rule and its primitive accumulation was transitioning into the further spread of capitalist alienation and its characteristic form of indirect rule.39 No doubt responding to accounts about the Kenyan Mau Mau revolt that “have almost begun to rival Cowboys and Indians in their ingredients of excitement” at the time of his writing, Berger saw the prevailing geopolitical winds clearly.40 By choosing to model itself on the commodity form, contemporary art would no longer maintain even the smallest identification with the old state patronage by carrying water for colonialism’s ruse of “civilization,” but would now take on the task of opening up markets as a model cultural import/export with incipient globalization’s new form of the “biennial”—or “banale,” as Berger chose to call it.41
In 1971, Fried would frame his account of the alternative promise of art’s transcendence in a study of “the last major painter who did not have to deal explicitly with these issues, who did not have to confront the risk that his paintings might be seen as objects”—Morris Louis—with an epigraph from Marx: “The forming of the five senses is a labor of the entire history of the world down to the present” (AO 128, 100). Louis, Fried argued, was able to bypass the felt distinction “between the demands of life and those of art” through various techniques that created a sense of uncertainty about what constituted the artistic medium, the depicted subject or realm, and the locus of artistic agency (AO 126). Citing a key term of Stéphane Mallarmé’s, Fried calls one element of this the “‘elocutionary disappearance’ of the artist, amounting to the illusion of a sovereign impersonality.” But overall the effect he was pointing to was one of transcendence of the literal in which the art in question amounted to more than the immediate desires of the artists and material qualities of the object (AO 127).
Later in his career Fried would turn to Heidegger, as his friend Stanley Cavell had earlier, to explain the distinctive transcendence of presentness. It was “the primordialness of absorption in practical activity,” that is, of “Heidegger’s emphasis on absorbed practical activity, hence obliviousness to one’s surroundings beyond the immediate sphere of such activity” that was “revelatory of worldhood,” he wrote in his 2008 Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before.42 Thus, worldhood, or absorption in immediate practical activity, or the larger sense of Being or Sein that arises out of Dasein, is the site of transcendence that Fried’s alternative to the hegemonic understanding of contemporary art offers. The subject is “lost in their own world,” but raised to the condition of presocial and prepolitical abstract potential. Such an aesthetic moment poses the possibility of another possible world to the actually existing one out there as an abstraction and thereby provides a foothold for imagination and critique both, without filling in either with specific content. It provides a base for “meaningfulness as such” (AO 162) and “life itself”—that is, “a state of continuous intellectual and moral alertness” that allows one to exist as a thinking, synthesizing subject in the world prior to any concrete engagement with it, rather than an object continuously reacting to and thus being manipulated by forces beyond her control.
The downside to Fried’s model—and, by extension, Heidegger’s—is likely something that he himself would acknowledge and even embrace in the name of it being the best available option: such a revealed worldhood provides no specific traction in the world outside and thus no solution to the problem of popular audience. Because it also needs to survive in that world, however, this also means that it has little choice but to position itself in the luxury goods market that more or less—with the exception of personal wealth or the ivory tower—has been the only haven for artists since the French revolution. Needless to say, this has made it the site of its perpetual contradiction. As such there are concrete limits to its autonomy, limits that contemporary art resolved by simply accepting—happily, cynically, opportunistically, despairingly, or otherwise—its place in globalizing, neoliberalizing, neocolonizing market life.
Berger’s alternative solution was effectively the opposite. As Fried noted in his review, Berger’s bottom-line criterion was a function of its place in the real world: “Does this work help or encourage men to know and claim their social rights?” Fried rejected this criterion on the grounds that it was “objective” and made no room for individual potential, but this was likely unfair (MC 70). Berger worked with his own abstract understanding of individual human potential too. For example, another way he phrased his criterion early on was through a phrase he attributed to the French writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, “One can only grow through obligations.”43 Or, as he would put it several years later, “we must each visualize our own city, ourself as its centre.”44 In other words, Berger’s judgement did not hinge on objective social potentialities at the expense of subjective personal potentialities for improvement, as Fried charged in his review, but instead on personal potentialities gained through the realization of social potentialities.
This is all well and good and is consistent with the Picasso-centric field-theoretical account of aesthetic experience he would develop in the early 1960s. The critical question for our purposes is really about the specific nature of those obligations. In the end, Berger’s critical and aesthetic thought developed in the milieu that would give rise to British cultural studies and the communitarianism that would follow. E.P. Thompson published his biography of William Morris in 1955, Richard Hoggart published The Uses of Literacy in 1957, Raymond Williams published his Culture and Society in 1958, and the New Left Review was launched in 1960 with Stuart Hall as its editor. Fried, accurately enough, described that milieu in his review of Berger’s Permanent Red this way:
In large measure this audience is composed of the New Left: young intellectuals who mostly were at university when England invaded Suez and when Russia put down the Hungarian uprising without a murmur of protest from the British Communist Party, and whose overriding concern is for the theoretical refurbishing and practical establishment of socialism. Broadly speaking they are sympathetic with Castro’s revolution, are members of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and would like to see a neutralist England extricate herself from NATO. More fundamental, perhaps, is the fact that they have read Marx with some diligence and are concerned with proving the viability of his concepts against the realities of contemporary experience. (MC 70)
Out of this heady postwar environment emerging in the midst of rising anti-Stalinism and the rapidly decolonizing Third World, a strong counter-narrative to the Enlightenment ideal of universal humanist progress rooted in the democratic state was developed. “Culture is ordinary,” is how Williams would put it. “What kind of life can it be,” he asked, “to produce this extraordinary fussiness, this extraordinary decision to call certain things culture and then separate them, as with a park wall, from ordinary people and ordinary work?”45 Williams had Clive Bell in mind for his model of fussiness but, for our purposes, it might as well have been Fried.
Berger worked this vein of class resentment throughout his professional life, giving tenor and substance to the theory of cultural studies that would be formalized in the 1960s by Williams, Hall and others before being picked up in the U.S. in the 1970s. In 1952, for example, he curated an exhibition for the Whitechapel Art Gallery titled “Looking Forward” and promoted it in the anti-Stalinist, democratic-socialist organ Tribune with a letter titled “Dear Enemy…”. The letter would quickly turn to satire but it began in earnest:
I planned this exhibition not for the critics and the Bond Street art-financiers but for you, and all your friends who can’t stand modern art. For the fact of the matter is that I don’t believe you’re a Philistine at all. I think it’s modern art, and not you, that’s to blame.46
This is just to say that Berger had a very different notion of absorbed practical activity, of worldhood, of art as revelation rising out of its foothold in everyday experience, than did Fried. In the end, it was anthropological rather than existential and phenomenological even if he worked hard to look closely at the absorbed practical revelation of worldhood (in his field theory of cubism, for example). Another “aspect of his Marxism,” as Fried had it accurately enough citing his friend Richard Wollheim’s parallel review in Encounter, is an “‘old fashioned Populism’”; his “ideal, in our society at any rate, is the small-town art show” (MC 72).
The problem with anthropological approaches of art is almost always a function of the seeing for others that Picasso (mis)spoke of. One can listen to others, repeat and refract the experience of others, be in solidarity or a “field of force” with others, but the social democratic ideal that has been art’s motor of transcendence since its modern inception is foreclosed at the moment one person speaks in another person’s name. Fried may have overreached a bit when he described that foreclosure this way, but not by much: “What all this comes down to, then, is that Berger accepts a priori a militant and often staggeringly vulgarized brand of Marxism from which all his judgments about art derive” (MC 71).
Contemporary art and Fried both solved the problem of vulgarity rightfully enough attributed to Fried through abstraction. Where contemporary art did so by iteration, jumping from one abstract equivalent thing to the next and the next ad infinitum and ad nauseum, Fried did so by reducing the aesthetic moment down to the phenomenological epoché or presentness before experience is overdetermined by a pre-existing idea or a future plan. There is a type of romantic despair to iterativeness and a form of romantic grace to presentness, but either way such purity comes at a cost. Berger was conscious enough of the risks of speaking for others but in the end that meant little when we look back on the costs to the material needs that gave rise to art’s dream of an independent transcendence in the first place. The rise of the anthropological notion of culture after World War II that migrated from British cultural studies into American identity politics has been devastating for any viable left and thus disastrous for the democratic gains made by socialism since its emergence as a program after the French revolution.
Where does this leave us as critics with the question of what art should be and do moving forward? The answer is not easy but with our three options on the table—Berger, Fried and contemporary art—it seems pretty clear that Fried rises to the top as a starting point. The self-commodification of contemporary art’s thing theory and the self- and other-balkanization of Berger’s anthropologized culturalism unwittingly reproduce and extend the rising exploitation that has defined globalization’s political economy over the last three quarters of a century. By turning us back to presentness, Fried’s aesthetic position does not offer much for art’s dream of a transcendence of its own independent of church, state and market. It does, however, provide an opening by intervening in our hegemonic culturalism and a bearing for human desire towards freedom.
The critical question remains about how art might proceed from presentness in order to realize its desire. If that exercise is taken too seriously by being made into an end rather than a means, the impulse to fend off bad aesthetics and bad politics results in quietism that defaults to the status quo it guards against. It may be that this bracketing out of the before and after of causal historical understanding is of a piece with the “fussiness” Williams complained about.
With that concern in mind, we might look to Berger for a dialectical complement to Fried’s position even if we recognize the failure of his critical model as it was realized in the concrete proposals that he developed with his “ordinary culture” colleagues. One way to put this is simply to say that Berger got cubism right even if he was wrong about small-town art shows. Fried was correct to raise the question of personal and social potentialities in his review of Permanent Red but, as we have already noted, Berger’s position is probably best not understood as an either/or proposition. Instead, with Berger, we might ask how art can endow us with the capacity to “each visualize our own city, ourself as its centre.” That is, how do we begin from presentness and reach out into the world and find solidarity with the judgement it enables?
This is just to say that art does need and want a real audience after all is said and done, albeit one that is not, as Fried put it in 1966, “in the grip of the wrong experience.”47 This is the meaning of the transcendence that art was born with, a transcendence that cannot simply be reduced to unrequited longing for the old purpose it once had as a theological, philosophical and public outreach arm of church and state. Even if it had no choice in the matter, it was right to turn from the church, and, as long as it lasted, it was right to maintain its distance from the market. But, in the end, it may have been a mistake for it to give up on the state. It was understandable to do so, of course, in the wake of the Terror or the Commune or the Gulag or the Holocaust, say, and any return to a statist art is impossible to imagine in the political environment we have now. Nonetheless, art’s turn away from the state after the French Revolution that only took on its current absolutism with the rise of contemporary art has also unquestionably contributed to the dramatic redistribution of power and wealth that we are continuing to experience today.
In its bohemian and avant-garde days, art still held onto a piece of its once revolutionary charge by presuming to challenge a state-mediated status quo; it still imagined itself to be proto-revolutionary, to be engaged in some manner or another of provisional statecraft for a future possible world in its laboratories in Montmartre, Weimar and Vitebsk. It was naive, confused and conflicted, for sure, but it was clear about its Entäusserung, its sense of its own repulsion at the modern world. It was clear, as Fried put it, that the “issue of value or quality or level” was “explicitly, nakedly, and excruciatingly central,” and it was clear that this governing issue had a concrete footing in the world as it is. The historic turn away from judgment by contemporary art means, in the end, that it is now considerably more a part of the problem that art originally set itself against than it is the solution.
Berger’s core critical premise that art’s distinctive humanist purpose developed in Renaissance field theory and renewed and repurposed in the early years of cubism provides a kind of answer to this problem. As we have seen, however, it also suffers from its own form of retreat and passivity by defining its field of power ahistorically in culturalist or communitarian terms. As we now know all too well, the “power” that such culturalism wields is nothing more than a ruse obscuring the very real power of the market and the actors who control it. This is why Berger did not live up to his own chosen label of “Marxist.” We know too that the consequence of quietism that casts itself as an end rather than a means can only ever be the conservation and extension of the power of those same market actors. In this way, both Fried and Berger leave us in the redoubt of presentness bequeathed to them. With hindsight, it may be that Joshua Reynolds was right with his long lost insight that the present and the future should “be considered as rivals,” that presentness is, in the final analysis, “a defective model,” and that history painting or its equivalent can be the only art-historical future if art is to serve freedom rather than bondage.
But if there is one thing that Fried and Berger were both right about in 1962, it is that the standard of presentness we inherited has to be worked through if we are going to get to the other side. Presentness remains the highest calling of the tendency towards autonomy that emerged when art lost the patronage of church and state and was forced to seek its social justification in “problems and issues intrinsic to itself.” It makes a virtue out of limiting its social horizon to zero in order to hold on to the claim to universality that had been its professional right and societal justification in service to church and state. Berger’s communitarian efforts to pin taste to specific communities and “cultures” in the anthropological manner fails because it forecloses on art’s reach for universal value from the outset. Fried’s effort to bracket the literalism and theatricality of communitarianism and appeal instead to an impersonal intentionality or socially available desire poses anew the question of the relationship between art’s aesthetic claims and the economic conditions that enable them. He does not provide an answer, however, and instead leaves that task to us.
It is only by taking this task seriously and developing a working understanding of art’s desire for freedom within the economic relations that we have—not the ones that might once have been or those that may one day possibly be—that art’s role mediating between those who “feel thoroughly shut out by the best painting today” and the “increasingly direct interest taken in contemporary painting and sculpture by moneyed concerns of all kinds” will be seized. Critics of our future art, take note.
through his eyes we look at the pine-forests in the snow or the bare hill in the dusk, and say to ourselves, ‘How such scenes humble us, how little the mark we make upon them’. Whereas in front of a Constable we are aware of mastery—like seeing a mountain through the eyes of a man who has climbed it. In art it isn’t just the moral virtue of humility that is needed—if it were, Friedrich would be a master; rather it is a healthy respect for the difficulties of the job, a caution maintained in order to achieve victory, not just a turning of the other cheek.
was the cultural means by which our present bourgeois societies agonisingly chastised themselves as no society had or could before. … Romanticism represented and acted out the full predicament of those who tried to fight capitalism with idealism, of those who created the goddess of Liberty, put a flag in her hands and followed her only to find that she led them into an ambush: the ambush of reality. It is this predicament which explains the two faces of romanticism: its exploratory adventurousness and its morbid self-indulgence. For pure romantics the two most unromantic things in the world were firstly to accept life as it was, and secondly to succeed in changing it.This desperate situation, as he diagnosed it, was a function of a foundational contradiction: “The Romantics accepted the way science had freed thought from religion, but at the same time were intuitively in protest against its closed mechanistic system, the inhumanity of which seemed to be demonstrated in practice by the horrors of the economic system.”
I see no reason whatever to believe in the idealist fairy story and every reason not to. … To be blunt about it, what is art that there should be a pure essence of it, of whatever kind? There is no such thing as art. Art is nothing but a general word, of quite modern coinage, to designate the activities of epic poets and lyric poets, of writers of tragedy and comedy, some historians and philosophers and novelists, of painters … of sculptors … of architects … Of musicians—but I will not continue the list … And if a man says that surely there is some one nuclear essence shared by all forms of artistic activity that we can discover if only we look long and hard enough at all these activities, the candid answer is a brief one, namely, that the longer and harder we look the more diverse do these activities come to appear to be and that a purity of essence in which they are all seen as one and the self-same act is a dream and a delusion that turns into a nightmare.