By analyzing the Gros case in relation to nineteenth-century French law concerning the droit d’auteur, this essay offers evidence against one of the central historiographical postulates advanced in anti-authorial criticism: that the displacement of an interest in an author’s meaning onto a reader’s productive activities represents or would have represented a subversive blow to the modern proprietary regime of authorship. More specifically, I will dispute the plausibility of certain supposedly critical alternatives to the author, be they Roland Barthes’s modern scriptor or his emboldened readers, by demonstrating that the criticality of these positions depends upon a mistaken view of what historical authorship entailed and, more tendentiously, by suggesting that these same alternative “authors” had already been furnished with rights of their own.
Helio Oiticica’s career tells the story of the democratic leap of art off the wall and into life, out of contemplation and into action and experience, from autonomy to involvement, from elite contemplation to democratic participation, from aesthetics to politics. This narrative, which carries the authority of being the story Oiticica himself wanted to tell at one point in his life, is not false. And yet the truth lies elsewhere: closer to the works themselves and, only apparently paradoxically, in the great political crosscurrents that tore through the Brazilian 1960s.
Again: is this Farago’s politics, or is this something deep in the DNA of global art history? Insofar as globalization concerns itself with “subject positions,” it seems clear that struggles for state power and deep changes to the relations of production and the exploitation of labor are not just beyond its grasp but irrelevant to it.
As artist and urbanist, Theaster Gates is his own patron, his own institution, his own LLC. He is start-up and content creator combined. Though artists have long engaged in corporate parodies, Gates goes beyond the twee anarcho-entrepreneurship of the Bernadette Corporation or the politicized media takeovers of the Yes Men. He creates new art spaces as anchor institutions in blighted blocks. His works propel white creative types to penetrate black areas of the city formerly unknown to them. His renown encourages art tourists to travel beyond the usual downtown museum circuit. But Gates does not draw attention with mural paintings or large public sculptures. Gates’ artwork is, simply, real estate. And there is real money at stake.
In footnote number 6, however, he directly addresses Greenberg’s axiom, and the specific condition of painting. There is a sense in it of an intuitive recognition that for the enterprise of modern painting, Greenberg had the cart before the horse. We know the horse is in front of the cart because the pulling function of the horse is attached to the steering mechanism of the carriage. Greenberg, in this instance, like Joshua Reynolds, seemed more concerned with the status of the carriage, that is, painting as an Art, than with its use-function. What we can glean from Fried is that flatness and the delimitation of flatness is a functional mechanism of the art of painting, and was, at the time, steering the direction that painting was going in.
What am I looking or hoping for from a studio visit? A clear-eyed view of the sculpture that tells me the piece is not working or is working. Then, with luck, an explanation or theory about how it is doing what it is doing. OK, but there are visitors and there are visitors. As is true of any of Michael’s criticism, his understanding of how a work of art gets made comes first.
No one likes to be taken seriously when they are speaking lightly. And nobody likes to be told they are not serious when they believe they are. But the encounters staged around the various remarks quoted in “Art and Objecthood” are not exactly either of these: the question of seriousness is not being raised by Fried in the face of what the artists have said but is presented as already there in what they say—and as unheard there by them.
The real problem here is not the gap between intent and reaction, but rather with the simple fact that whether or not a building is actually used in the way the architect wishes, it is always made for a user. One could of course build structures exclusively for friends or for oneself but that feels more like an exemplification of the problem than a solution to it. There is no real possibility of fictionally or on any other level of not acknowledging the beholder/user, they are present at the conception and the realization of the work.
It’s important to note that the word “conviction,” Fried’s keyword for the effect produced by the successful painting, is an ambivalent term in his criticism. Sometimes the word refers to a judgment of value, or quality, defined loosely as the capacity of a given work to stand comparison with valued earlier masterpieces. But in “Art and Objecthood,” and at other key moments in his criticism—“Caro’s Abstractness,” for instance—“conviction” refers to the specific experience of the suspension of objecthood.
Whereas, on Fried’s account, such theatricality and coercion by objects is a scenario to avoid, both 2001 film and novel presume the inevitability of spectacle and objecthood. They embrace the theatrical condition of their 1968-modernity as their 2001-future. It might even be the case that Kubrick was attempting to turn the entirety of his film into the experience of a minimalist object in a manner entirely congruent with Fried’s account.