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.
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.
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.
This is to say that the strictly documentary character of Adams’s work, which by and large claimed viewers’ attention at the time of New Topographics, has somewhat receded in importance. And it is also to suggest that the theoretical issue of the non-representational nature of the photograph as well as of the problematic status of the photographer’s intentions owing to the photograph’s indexicality…turns out to be not quite relevant to the present case. Or rather, more precisely, it is as if the “weak intentionality” of the photograph…turns out to throw into relief the extraordinary strength and efficacy of Adams’s esthetic perfectionism…with respect to the appearance of the final print, the esthetic artifact as such.
Pictures from all stages of Dzubas’s art since the 40’s will in time to come thrust themselves increasingly into attention: enough of them to establish him once and for all where he belongs, which is on the heights.
It’s important to understand that for the greater part of thirty years, Greenberg believed in this artist. But by 1977, his claim was that Dzubas had yet to construct a solid foundation for his future artistic development; that he had failed to “follow up on his achievements and achievedness”; that, instead, he had “let it all lie scattered.”
In excavating the optische Schichten in which artworks—that is, drawings, paintings, sculptures, and so on—are constituted…post-formalist art history calls for histories of the aesthetic orders and structures (as it were the “art”) of human vision, of imaging and envisioning, that is, of its active imaginative force whether or not any actual historical artwork was (or is) in vision or in view. The optical appearance of visual artworks—the supposed object of Wöfflinian formalism—is becoming less important analytically than the configuring force of imaging, regardless of what is imaged.
There is a deep schism within Pollock criticism. Taking Pollock’s marks to index the artist’s activity elevates the causes of his paintings over their meanings, with the consequence that his works of art are reduced to intentionless surfaces that just register his “traces.” That position implicitly requires us to reject the status of a painting as a medium of expression, and treat it instead as an occasion for a viewer’s experience. But Pollock’s project–one that finds its most rigorous articulation in formalist accounts of his art–is based on demarcating the actual from the representational, the literal surface from pictorial meaning.
The works’ achievement—“triumph,” we might even say—resides precisely in their ability to make both things simultaneously apparent. Admission or acknowledgement alone would have amounted to mere acceptance, resulting in something simply, flatly decorative, and detached from any engagement with the world. Conversely, antipathy or avoidance on its own would have been tantamount to a denial of how much painting (and the world around it) had changed in the first decade or so of the twentieth century. It is finally this doubledness, I would argue—the works’ acknowledgement of loss and their stubborn refusal to be reconciled to it—that makes them the compelling, occasionally haunting, images they are.