Fluxus containers, in summary, initiate the beholder (a holding, handling beholder, maybe a tool-being holder in the Heideggerian sense) to explore and take interest in the world. The boxes sensitize the user to a world where the public is overwhelmed and numbed by the excess goods proliferating, literally ad nauseum, in the world and landing in the seconds bins along Canal Street, where Maciunas made use of them as artworks. The kits express a collective obligation (or opportunity) to repurpose the excess manufactured articles of late capitalism.
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.
How do we know what counts as true to art, of “art as such”? Take a parallel case: In the sixteenth century, arguments over what counts as Scripture raised the question of precisely what makes something Scripture. What can count as proof—for one cannot ask the author, and certainly not the Author? The key here is the experience of finding oneself in (absorbed by) what has a claim to be art—or in this case in what claims to be Scripture. “Art as such” gives this: art is thus never primarily representation.
Thinking in this way, we might recast Fried’s wonder about why modernist artists went to the cinema. Perhaps they were not (just) seeking refuge from the burdens of the seriousness of their work; perhaps they saw in the cinema a range of different ways of negotiating the same questions about the relation of artwork to beholder that they were themselves preoccupied with. On this view, cinema does not stand apart from Fried’s modernist history; it continues that history by other means.
It is important to recognize, when reading his critique of literalist sensibility in “Art and Objecthood,” that his view of literalness and contingency is not that these should be abolished from artworks (as though that could ever be possible! Mallarmé reminds us that it’s not), but that the literal and contingent properties of a work should be acknowledged and incorporated into it, creating an intimate and non-arbitrary relation between a work’s literal conditions and its configuration, between its situation and its syntax. The problem is not literalness, but what one does with it.
It is just this split that Fried introduces into the world, and after which there is no going back because no matter how far back we go there is always the same doubling (this is part of the meaning of the Caravaggio book, which sees the problematic of absorption in a period notionally before modernism) and no outside (because even indifference is now only an attempt to overcome a prior scepticism, that is, an effort at absorption). All this is exactly that willed indifference that Fried evokes through Diderot in Absorption and Theatricality, in which painting must seek the “superior fiction” of not being beheld, just as the actor must ignore the audience in front of them (and this effect of will applies in Diderot—this is the important point—whether there is an actual audience or not).
“Art and Objecthood” reminds us that the past is a foreign country, as the (now) quite obscure British author L.P. Hartley was the first to say. It belongs to an era in which Artforum was full of writing about art, and where the question of whether what was being discussed was worth considering as—or, as Fried’s essay asks, even was—art, was thought to be important. There could be no hint in the essay, or of any thing or of the artists to which it refers, of the anthropological haze moist with sanctimony that has since descended, obscuring and diluting questions having to do with aesthetic judgment while seeking to wash them away altogether.
From 1967 to the present, no other writer has so systematically thought through the history and effects of artistic temporality. This accomplishment necessarily binds together his art criticism and his art history, and it allows us to see another layer of significance to the legacy of “Art and Objecthood” fifty years after its publication.
Hegel believed that it was incumbent on anything that wanted to be taken seriously to “prove its object,” which is to say, to show itself to be the kind of thing that it in fact is. I am enough of a Hegelian (and a modernist) to feel that art must still “prove its object,” each work somehow making visible a claim for its existence as a work of art rather than some other sort of thing. I take it that what Fried has wanted to show us, not only in his early writings but throughout his art-historical career, is that such “objectivity” is at consequential odds with mere “objecthood,” and that both art and art history need to be clear about those stakes, at least if they hope to be taken seriously.
In footnote number 6, however, he directly addresses Greenberg’s axiom, and the specific condition of painting. There is a sense in it of an intuitive recognition that for the enterprise of modern painting, Greenberg had the cart before the horse. We know the horse is in front of the cart because the pulling function of the horse is attached to the steering mechanism of the carriage. Greenberg, in this instance, like Joshua Reynolds, seemed more concerned with the status of the carriage, that is, painting as an Art, than with its use-function. What we can glean from Fried is that flatness and the delimitation of flatness is a functional mechanism of the art of painting, and was, at the time, steering the direction that painting was going in.