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 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).
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.
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.
Indeed, over the course of the nineteenth-century, two temporalities became increasingly recognizable in modernizing societies. The “lived time” of premodern and natural cycles oriented to the sun, the tides, the moon became the “measured time” of the clock and the workday, of shipping times and railroads connecting major cities. Although the conventional view would have it that speed and instantaneousness decisively came to dominate with the advent of the railroad and the telegraph, a deeper analysis indicates that only a small percentage in the nineteenth century felt the rigors of measured time decisively undoing an older, natural time.
In my imagined temporary community on the stage, in that ring and in those lights, we would have started with a single set of questions, a single set of definitions, and disagreed from there until we came to new sets of questions, and so that is what I will do here, sitting literally alone, around my hearth, and without tribe. The artist always fights herself, in the end. I relax, so I can strike myself harder. I establish my balance, so I can stay on my feet.
So there is a sense in which Winogrand’s personal crisis expresses a theoretical position, just as there’s an equally important sense in which that theoretical position and the alternatives to it (what it might mean to intend something, and especially what it might mean not to or what it might mean for your reasons to be treated as causes) were becoming at the time of that crisis central to literary theory and aesthetic production. Indeed, in what is now an aesthetic and a political as much as a philosophical sense, the structure of intentional action has recently emerged as a crucial issue.
I do not mean here to refer to the issue familiar in philosophy since Plato, the way the psyche can be shaped in very different ways by the education it receives and by the context of some particular regime. Democratic souls for democracies; oligarchic souls for oligarchies. Plato and many others keep the soul’s structure constant in such accounts, concentrating on the effects of the formation process on that structure. I think something much more radical is implicitly suggested by these films—that what counts as such a structure is at issue and open to real variation. This is particularly true of the psychological structure assumed in “explaining actions” or “assigning or accepting responsibility.” How we have come to think of that issue, the range of possible answers, may, if the brothers are right, have more to do with the imperatives of a particular social organization of power than it would be comfortable to admit.
Both as intellectual and as literary history — as an account of the relation between the two in the mid-20th century and an attempt to reimagine the relation between the two in the early 21st century — Mark Greif’s The Age of the Crisis of Man: Thought and Fiction in America, 1933-1973 (Princeton University Press, 2015) is an important and original book. We asked a number of critics working in related areas to say what they thought about it, and Greif to respond.
Let me be clear, the problems I raise do not stem from a dissatisfaction with the way October authors repeat a kind of party line. In fact, I envy the unity and consistency of the resolve and of course their massive impact on the discipline (what is there, politically speaking, besides anti-hierarchy in the humanities?). My point is that the basic set of claims shared by many of these authors is mistaken.