Modernism, Theatricality, and Objecthood
What I offer here may be read as a note of thanks I wrote to Michael Fried many years ago, and which I reproduce here with only minor changes. I delivered it aloud in his presence on the occasion of a panel discussion on “Art and Objecthood” at the annual meeting of the American Society for Aesthetics, Washington, D.C., October 1999. The other panelists were Stephen Melville and Norton Batkin. I had recently profited from reading Melville’s early response to Fried, “Notes on the Reemergence of Allegory, the Forgetting of Modernism, the Necessity of Rhetoric, and the Conditions of Publicity in Art and Criticism,” first published in 1981, as well as other writings of his. Among the several liabilities of the approach taken in my remarks is that I keep pretty much to an examination of the concepts of “objecthood” and “theater” as deployed in Fried’s essay. These concepts themselves, however, are emerging out of Fried’s descriptive engagement with works themselves, both in the New York and London art worlds of the ’sixties, and in European painting since the eighteenth century. I make no effort to show how Fried’s powers of visual attention and philosophical daring reinforce each other, both in the essay itself and in the numerous essays on painting and sculpture he published around the time of writing “Art and Objecthood.” His collection Art and Objecthood now makes it possible to read them together as a whole, and my references to Fried here are taken from that volume. Fried’s original essay is among other things an intervention in artistic theory and practice, at a time when the word “theory” had not yet achieved the omnipresence and cultural sedimentation it was soon to acquire. In 1967 Fried’s essay was immediately received as a polemic, one which incited fierce reactions within the communities of artists as well as critics. The reverberations from the essay have not died down in the fifty years since then, but they manifest themselves in an utterly changed artistic and critical landscape today. Here I make only the briefest attempt to interrogate the artistic and theoretical stakes in the different “sides” that ranged themselves around this site of contention at the time, and no attempt at all to explore the transformations that these positions have undergone in the long afterlife of “Art and Objecthood” in the decades since then.
“Art and Objecthood” is part of an ongoing argument about the nature of Modernism and what follows it, an argument conducted both with Clement Greenberg and with (I guess we can now say) Post- modernist figures such as Donald Judd and Tony Smith. It is thus both an account of a particular historical episode in the visual arts, at a particular time and place, and the development of a (suitably historicized) ontology of the work of art, in the course of which the concept of something called “theatricality” is deployed to illuminate not only the situation of beholder and artwork, but also such questions as that of the nature of an artistic medium, and the conditions of expressiveness in art. The central figure in the argument about Modernism is Clement Greenberg, but the dialectic he describes is part of the conceptual repertoire of many diverse writers. At one point Fried paraphrases Greenberg’s story in the following way. “Starting around the middle of the nineteenth century, [Greenberg] claimed in ‘Modernist Painting,’ the major arts, threatened for the first time with being assimilated to mere entertainment […] discovered that they could save themselves from that fate ‘only by demonstrating that the kind of experience they provided was valuable in its own right and not to be obtained from any other kind of activity.’”
The following continuation of this passage from Greenberg is also quoted by Fried:
Each art, it turned out, had to effect this demonstration on its own account. What had to be exhibited and made explicit was that which was unique and irreducible not only in art in general but also in each particular art. Each art had to determine, through the operations peculiar to itself, the effects peculiar and exclusive to itself. […]
It quickly emerged that the unique and proper area of competence of each art coincided with all that was unique to the nature of its medium. The task of self-criticism became to eliminate from the effects of each art any and every effect that might conceivably be borrowed from or by the medium of every other art. Thereby each art would be rendered “pure,” and in its “purity” find the guarantee of its standards of quality as well as of its independence. “Purity” meant self-definition, and the enterprise of self-criticism in the arts became one of self-definition with a vengeance.
This describes one way of relating the process of Modernism, in the visual arts anyway, to a developmental story, and a Kantian-style quest for autonomy through self-definition, and with an equally Kantian invocation of an idea of “purity,” this time focusing on the nature or irreducible essence of a particular artistic medium. The story Fried tells also describes Modernism as in part a crisis and working-through of self-definition which focuses on the question of an artistic medium, but the distance between the two accounts is considerable, particularly with respect to the idea of “irreducible essences” and the rhetoric of purity and reduction. And in fact Fried’s critique of the ideology of Minimalism, which positioned itself as the total rejection of both Greenbergian aesthetics and the painting and sculpture he championed, is based on what Fried sees as shared by both camps in their interpretation of the process of Modernism, in their dependence on ideas of reduction and essence in connection with an artistic medium. As he puts it in the Introduction to his recent collection of his earlier art criticism, “a major strand of my argument in […] ‘Art and Objecthood’ is that literalism arose within modernism as a misreading of its dialectic (a misreading anticipated, on the plane of theory, by Greenberg in ‘Modernist Painting’ […]” (45).
In the essay “Art and Objecthood” itself, this diagnosis is made out in relation to both the concepts of theatricality and of objecthood. In the visual arts, the physicality of a particular medium becomes a matter of a different kind of self-consciousness, a different necessity of self-consciousness, at least since Manet. In Greenberg’s terms, the dialectic of Modernism is a process of refining the self-definition of an artform to the unique and irreducible facts of the physical basis of its medium, in particular the delimited flatness of the picture-support, in the case of painting. Literalist (or Minimalist) practice responds to this reading of the situation by the insistent projection of the essential “object-character” of the work of art, something neither quite painting nor quite sculpture. In “Art and Objecthood,” Fried puts it this way: prior to the present situation (1967),
the risk, even the possibility, of seeing works of art as nothing more than objects did not exist. That such a possibility began to present itself around 1960 was largely the result of developments within modernist painting. Roughly, the more nearly assimilable to objects certain advanced painting had come to seem, the more the entire history of painting since Manet could be understood—delusively, I believe—as consisting in the progressive (though ultimately inadequate) revelation of its essential objecthood, and the more urgent became the need for modernist painting to make explicit its conventional—specifically, its pictorial—essence by defeating or suspending its own objecthood through the medium of shape. Literalist sensibility is, therefore, a response to the same developments that have largely compelled modernist painting to undo its objecthood—more precisely, the same developments seen differently, that is, in theatrical terms, by a sensibility already theatrical, already (to say the worst) corrupted or perverted by theater. (160-161)
The conceptual interplay between the ideas of theater and of objecthood, in their relation to the pressures of Modernism, had been prepared for one paragraph back, which declares that “the imperative that modernist painting defeat or suspend its objecthood is at bottom the imperative that it defeat or suspend theater,” and indeed, refers in passing to the “theatricality of objecthood” itself (160).
So, what is theatricality in this context, such that it can bear such an intimate relation to the idea of objecthood? And what do the pair of them mean to tell us about the concept of a work of art, such that in a given time and place they can count as something like the negation of art, even self-consciously so? I’m thinking here of the punctuating sentence early in the essay that says: “The literalist espousal of objecthood amounts to nothing other than a plea for a new genre of theater, and theater is now the negation of art” (153). To invoke the idea of the negation of art is a very defining form of criticism, however historically localized in application, and even when, as Fried has pointed out, its basic terms of criticism are shared by both critic and the practitioners of the situation he is diagnosing. It is a characteristically Modernist form of absolute criticism of art, disarming more local terms of criticism and appreciation in favor of raising the question of the status of some object as painting at all, as art or as a negation of art. That is, something like the very concept and possibility of art is addressed not only in Fried’s essay but in the discourse and I think we can say in the installations of the Minimalist artists under discussion. Objecthood and theatricality are linked not only with respect to something like the negation of art, but the negation in question is something pursued from within the world of the arts itself, something pursued in the very name of the negation of art. This is not an unheard of situation in culture or discourse, but it is also one that is only possible in certain times and places. We’re familiar with the presence of hostility to the very idea of art, which is somehow yet also something internal to the nature and practice of art itself, something which, since the twentieth century at least, lives side by side with some of the highest achievements of the individual arts. But that doesn’t mean we understand it very well, or how it is so much as possible for movements defining themselves against “art” could emerge and flourish within the cultures of what we still call artistic practice. The idea that it is an internal, defining, possibility of art, at least in its Modernist practice, that it may go astray from itself, or lose itself, or seek to “go beyond itself’ or bring itself to an end, is something that Melville’s work has provided new terms for thinking about, and I hope to say something about this possibility later. Its truth as a phenomenological description of one’s engagement with much twentieth-century art doesn’t efface the paradoxical character of speaking of the very practice of an art going astray from itself. And indeed something like an Institutional theory of art seems designed to prevent such descriptions in terms of crisis or scandal, since nothing independent of the structures of ratification (nothing in artistic history or practice) is invoked to give content to the idea of something being strayed from. We avoid paradox this way, perhaps, but then the social, cultural and political phenomenon we were trying to describe also disappears from view. If either such straying or such negation is indeed an internal possibility for modernist art, and not a matter of external threat (from political repression, from public indifference or contempt), then that fact will be a deep characterization of it, something that defines it and distinguishes it from other discourses and cultural practices.
But the more specific questions I want to raise have to do with the relation of the terms “theater” and “objecthood” as they figure in Fried’s reading of the “dialectic of modernism.” First and most crudely of all, the ideas of “theatricality” and of “objecthood,” even in the context Fried prepares for them, just sound like quite different, even opposed, ideas; so there’s a question of how they can be deployed in support of each other as terms of criticism, describing an internal threat to art as such in a modern context. “Theater” is the name for something that is a possibility for the domain of expression, a form of staging or self-projection, whereas “objecthood” would appear to name the realm of things outside that domain altogether. In “Art and Objecthood,” part of the criticism of the theatrical work is given in specifically anthropomorphic terms, in the “complicity that the work extorts from the beholder” (155), in its tendency to “confront the beholder” (154), in effects of presence which reflect a kind of “demand that the beholder take it into account” (155). How, then, is theatricality understood in these terms of personification to be seen as part of “the risk, even the possibility, of seeing works of art as nothing more than objects”?
An object qua object, a brick or a stretch of highway, is neither expressive nor withholding of expression; and if such an object is seen as silent, its silence is not that of a person holding his tongue. Fried, however, characterizes the installations of Minimalism in terms of the “projection” of objecthood, which is a different matter entirely, since projection, exhibition and display immediately involve us in the domain of expression. The “mere” or “pure” objecthood of a brick is thus not a possibility any longer. In the installation space everything takes place, as it were, under the sign of expression, even if it is one that is thwarted, denied, or suspended. The specter of anthropomorphism haunts Literalist practice like a bad conscience. In trying to tease out the relation between objecthood and theatricality, I want right now just to insist that it is not objecthood itself, but rather the projection of objecthood, that is crucial to this relation. This will necessarily be a project at odds with itself, since the projecting, displaying hand has to keep itself fully out of view, has to retreat to tautology when any gestural point comes to consciousness. (Judd: “To me the piece with the brass and the five verticals is above all that shape.”) So long as we are in a situation of projection and exhibition, objecthood can’t be the plain fact of the matter, but can only be something exploited, something deployed and retreated to, a refuge from specific demands of significance. Hence one aspect of relating the concepts of theatricality and (the projection of) objecthood in this context will be found in the idea of an activity which disallows transparency about itself.
A related question concerns the connection between the idea of theatricality and the production of effects. If objecthood itself belongs outside the domain of the expressive, it is very much within the realm of cause and effect. And the installations of Minimalist practice are self-consciously understood in terms of the controlled production of effects. In Robert Morris’s words, distinguishing his installations from earlier artistic practice, “But the concerns now are for more control of and/or cooperation of the entire situation. Control is necessary if the variables of object, light, space, body are to function.” This is one of the places I had in mind earlier when I said that the terms of criticism of Fried’s diagnosis are in many instances shared by the Minimalist practitioners themselves. The emphasis on the controlled production of effects is both part of his case against theatricality and another dimension of its relation to objecthood. The installations created a kind of “mise en scène” that was “extraordinarily charged,” and “It was as though their installations infallibly offered their audience a kind of heightened perceptual experience, and I wanted to understand the nature of that surefire, and therefore to my mind essentially inartistic, effect.” It’s the relation of the surefire and the inartistic I want to just point to now. Kant argues that it defines a judgment of the beautiful as such that it cannot be the conclusion of a demonstration, or as it is sometimes put, that there can be no principles of taste, general rules which could require such a verdict as it were ahead of time, prior to experience of the object. A parallel argument in Kant claims that there can be no laws of taste, that is, descriptive premises which could then support an empirical law to the effect that some object will in fact be found beautiful. For Kant, this absence of laws defines the judgment of the beautiful just as the possibility of ordinary empirical judgment. I don’t know if Fried means to be alluding to this in divorcing the aesthetic from the realm of sure-fire production of effects, but I bring it up here to anticipate a further way the ideas of theatricality and of objecthood, for all their surface opposition, can be seen as parallel repudiations of the conditions of expressiveness in art. I need to go into one final characterization of theatricality in Fried to prepare for this, but the thought I would like to arrive at is that artistic or gestural expression involves the interplay between an assumption of authority for what one means, together with a yielding of control over the final effects produced, the desired uptake. In this light, Literalist practice, as depicted in “Art and Objecthood,” declares its anti-artistic status and the repudiation of expressiveness in the ambition of total control of the situation of beholding, coupled with the refusal of all authority for how it is to count for us.
I’ve asked some questions about the idea of theatricality in connection with objecthood, the negation of art, and the emphasis on the controlled production of effects. The last characterization of theatricality which I want to bring in here in some ways brings in an apparently even more heterogeneous set of concerns than the others, but also brings us back to the Greenbergian dialectic of Modernism and the reflective concern with the conditions of an artistic medium as such.
One of the concluding moments of “Art and Objecthood” comes at the idea of theater in the following way. “The concepts of quality and value—and to the extent that these are central to art, the concept of art itself—are meaningful, or wholly meaningful, only within the individual arts. What lies between the arts is theater” (164). Let me try to say something about the issue of “medium-specificity” in Fried’s criticism, before I worry explicitly about how the challenging or evading of such specificity could be called by the same name as the concept we’ve been tracking alongside that of “objecthood.” We’ve briefly seen the appeal to an ideal of self-criticism and artistic self-definition in Greenberg’s story of the Modernist pressures brought to bear on the relation of the artist to his artistic medium. At the same time, Greenberg appears to see the response to these pressures primarily in terms of asserting the particular value of an artform with the purity and exclusivity of its medium, hence the internal quest for the “unique and irreducible” features of its medium. This is not the place to unravel the different strands of uniqueness, intrinsic value, and the idea of the irreducible essence of a medium, but Fried’s essay already helps to show how the idea of self-definition in the specification of an artistic medium can be disentangled from both Greenberg’s teleological story and the idea of “essence” that he works with. On Fried’s account, as I understand it, what defines a particular artistic medium is nothing more or less than the evolving histories of artistic and critical practice themselves, and is no more timeless or predictable than they are. This shows another way in which the spatial picture of purity (i.e., what is genuinely “internal” to an artform versus what is merely “external” to it) does more harm than good. What matters is not a medium’s conformity to some previously defined “essence,” but the assumption of responsibility for self-definition. Self-definition which, of course, doesn’t insure artistic success, but provides (some of) the criteria for what is to count as success or failure. It is the refusal of this moment of self-definition, at least in the writings of the Literalist artists Fried takes on, which distinguishes their relation to the idea of a medium of art from a Modernist one.
There is of course a much more detailed story, but even if this correction of Greenberg is accepted, and this placement of the issues of self-definition and medium-specificity is found importantly right, the question I want to raise is how can this vision be brought into alignment with the family of concepts we traced around that of “theatricality” such as to motivate the claim that it is theater, of all things, which lies between the individual arts?
For some help here, I want to turn again to Melville’s “Notes on Allegory” essay. At one point in “Art and Objecthood,” Fried says the following: “… what is wrong with literalist work is not that it is anthropomorphic but that the meaning and, equally, the hiddenness of its anthropomorphism are incurably theatrical” (157). After quoting this passage, Melville offers the following gloss:
What Fried objects to in the work of Tony Smith is the way in which it offers itself to its beholder as (not simply a person but) a person who then refuses to allow one a human relation to itself—it is work that distances itself from (the subject it thereby forces to become merely) its beholder. It refuses to let itself mean—be taken as meaning; it is soulless, it enforces the condition Cavell calls “soul-blindness” on its viewer. We have known people with this kind of irony—who would make us the decider of their ensouledness, who would make us decide for them the humanity of their expressions. (“Notes,” 153)
What strikes me first of all in this passage is the interplay depicted between activity and passivity, specifically activity and passivity as they are implicated together in the very idea of expression. Something is being objected to in this passage, something in connection with the place of expression in Literalist theory and practice. At first the Literalist work is said to refuse to “let itself” mean, or be taken as meaning. Without yet asking just how to understand such a refusal, we can hear in these words a refusal of a kind of passivity or exposure, a refusal to be taken or even “read” by another person as meaning this rather than that. We might then understand such a refusal as a refusal to relinquish a kind of control over one’s field of expression. But the next sentence, which presents itself as a kind of gloss on this one, refers us to a familiar kind of person “who would make us the decider of their ensouledness, who would make us decide for them the humanity of their expressions.” And that sounds like a (fundamental) kind of relinquishment itself, rather than a refusal of such yielding. If this is the same person who is refusing to let himself be read, it is not through an assertion of a kind of dictatorial authority over the true meaning of his expressions (that might be one sort of “refusal”), but rather through an abandonment of any such authority. There is surely something deeply right in this doubleness, this interplay between a kind of passivity and a kind of authority, and that this tells us something important about the conditions of expression in art and elsewhere, and about what “theatricality” could mean in this context, in relation to the issues of medium-specificity and the idea of “theater” in Fried’s sense as that which lies between the arts. And how “theater” could, in a particular historical context, come to seem or be the enemy of art itself.
The story of Modernism that brings literalism and objecthood to bear on the concept of a medium of art begins from a sense, surely undeniable, that insofar as there is a concept of “the modern” in art, it is defined by the fact of crisis in the artist’s relation to the history and conventions of the medium. One of Stanley Cavell’s formulations for this situation is the following from The World Viewed:
Modernism signifies not that the powers of the arts are exhausted, but on the contrary that it has become the immediate task of the artist to achieve in his art the muse of the art itself […] One might say that the task is no longer to produce another instance of an art but a new medium within it. […] It follows that in such a predicament media are not given a priori. The failure to establish a medium is a new depth, an absoluteness, of artistic failure.
The imperative to establish an artistic medium means that the artist herself must somehow assume the authority to determine and declare how her work is to count for us, determine as just what medium of art it is to confront its specific possibilities of success and failure. In art, as well as in ordinary speech and gesture, possibilities of meaning and expression exist only insofar as there are answers to the criterial questions of what sort of thing is the subject of expression here, what speech, what action, what medium of expression. Since this is a matter of establishing and declaring criteria, someone (plural or singular) has to speak with a particular authority here, and have that authority recognized, accepted. This is the moment of self-definition Greenberg saw as defining the task of modernism, but without his assimilation of the tasks of autonomy and self-definition to the aims of purity and exclusivity. Medium-specificity becomes an issue precisely because “media are not given a priori,” and not guaranteed by tradition or placement in history either.
The person “who would have us decide for them the humanity of their expressions” is refusing the authority to declare what he or she is up to and why or how it should count for us. And yet, as we are imagining this scenario, something has just been said, something has been presented or projected, or we are confronted by something in a gallery space. Mere literality, literal literality, is not an option here, and in any case we are confronted here by an inchoate demand for response.
The determination of a medium defines what is to count as artistic success or failure, and hence sets the terms of artistic risk, and thus involves a relinquishing of control (over the response of its audience) for the same reason that it demands an assumption of authority (in making the criterial declaration of a medium itself). The possibilities of expressiveness, whether in art or elsewhere, involve requirements of both types: the assumption of authority to, as it were, speak criterially, and the relinquishing of control over the ultimate destination, or the further reaches of the response being sought out or tested. The Literalist objects and installations can be seen as turning these conditions inside out, for they present themselves as simultaneously refusing all authority to determine a particular medium or mode of expressivness, declaring how this is to count for us, while also insisting on a kind of total control of the situation of the beholder. As if artistic success or failure could be produced through sheer force of control; as if control could do the work of authority. (And from this perspective there is nothing for the beholder to choose between the twin post-modernist strategies of Total Control and Total Chance.)
In this way we can see how something called theatricality could be both part of the pressure of objecthood emerging out of the Greenbergian reading of Modernism’s dialectic of self-definition, and how, as part of this same story, it can be said that “what lies between the arts is theater.” As hopelessly compressed as this is, I hope it also starts the way toward understanding how, in a given time and place, theater in this sense could come to seem the very negation of art, that is, something striking at its very concept, and not simply one of the countless failings (of nerve, of taste, of clarity) that are constitutive risks of any practice of art.
I’ll end with two last remarks. The first is that most of this paper has been a continuous attempt to lead up to the question: “Why isn’t Literalism part of the same motor of self-criticism that Greenberg and others take to be definitive of Modernism?” The answer to that is not entirely in place, of course, but I hope to have ended up posing the question.
Secondly and relatedly, most of my remarks here have discussed these issues somewhat outside of their immediate cultural context. And one of the questions left out by that emphasis is how such a set of concerns could constitute an ideology in the first place; that is, how these conditions of expressiveness, and with them the concept of art itself, could not only come to be repudiated (which may happen for all sorts of reasons, including boredom and incompetence), but also whose abandonment or overcoming could come to be a matter of self-conscious urgency and allegiance to so many of the most ambitious artists and writers of these decades. When it’s more than headline-grabbing, what is it that is really sought for or rallied behind in the various recurrent discourses of the “end of art”? How could such an idea ever be experienced as a matter for taking sides? I would suggest that part of the meaning of these developments can, I think, be seen against the context of Greenberg’s invocation of explicitly Kantian ideas of autonomy and reflexive criticism, and his seeing these as defining of the high modernist project. For that heritage of the high-modernist project provides us with a way of seeing various movements, products, and postures since then, which announce themselves in terms of the end of art as such or position themselves as “anti-aesthetic,” as more or less desperate ways of asserting, what sometimes needs asserting, namely the Kantian as well as post-Kantian idea that it is definitive of the idea of art, as it is of philosophy, that it is bounded by nothing beyond itself, and that it follows from this that only art can bring an end to art.
 Stephen Melville, “Notes on the Reemergence of Allegory, the Forgetting of Modernism, the Necessity of Rhetoric, and the Conditions of Publicity in Art and Criticism,” October 19 (Winter 1981): 55-92.
 Michael Fried, Art and Objecthood: Essays and Reviews (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998).
 Clement Greenberg, “Modernist Painting” (1960) in Modernism with a Vengeance: 1957-1969, ed. John O’Brian, Clement Greenberg: The Collected Essays and Criticism 4 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993), 86; quoted in Fried, 34-35.
 I’m thinking in particular of the first chapter of Melville’s book Philosophy Beside Itself, “On Modernism” (Minneapolis, Minn.: University of Minnesota, 1986).
 Bruce Glaser, “Questions to Stella and Judd,” in Gregory Battcock, ed., Minimal Art: A Critical Anthology (New York: E.P. Dutton and Co., 1968), 156-57; originally broadcast on WBAI New York in February 1964; quoted in Fried, 151.
 Robert Morris, “Notes on Sculpture Part 2,” Artforum 5.2 (October 1966), 23; quoted in slightly abridged form in Fried, 154.
From a talk Fried gave at the 1987 Dia Art Foundation symposium, “Theories of Art after Minimalism and Pop”, in Hal Foster, ed., Discussion in Contemporary Culture, Number One (Seattle, Wash.: Bay Press, 1987), 55-6; quoted in Fried, 40.
There are, of course, other central characterizations of “theatricality” in the essay, which I won’t be taking up here. Perhaps the most seriously neglected one here is the characterization of both Literalist and Modernist works in terms of contrasting modes of temporality.
 Not to mention subsequent writings, such as the response to T.J. Clark, “How Modernism Works,” Critical Inquiry 9.1 (September 1982): 217-34.
 This “moment” is, of course, an extremely problematic one to describe, let alone to inhabit. How, for instance, are we to begin thinking about what Caro’s table sculptures declare themselves as, determine how they are to count for us? It is not helpful to be told “they are to count as ‘sculpture.’” Nothing less than experience with the evolving practice of the artist can be expected to help here. And perhaps nothing less than the kind of philosophical-critical writing of we’ve been considering can be expected to provide specific content to the idea of “self-definition” or “medium-specificity.”
 Stanley Cavell, The World Viewed: Reflections on the Ontology of Film, enlarged edition (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1979), 103.
 “But the things that are literalist works of art must somehow confront the beholder—they must, one might almost say, be placed not just in his space but in his way.” (“Art and Objecthood,” 154).