This fall, I was so fortunate as to participate in a seminar on art critic/historian Michael Fried. Without adornment, here is a modest narrative of our proceedings.
We began with a selection of writings by Clement Greenberg and his account of modernist art. By this narrative (originally Marxian in its historical conception), an avant-garde emerges in nineteenth century France, a historical novelty (AK 7) dialectically generated by and negating the urban, industrial bourgeois society to which it remains tied by an “umbilical cord of gold.” (AK 11) Since that bourgeois society and its Protestant leanings had encouraged a dominance of “literature” (where all arts aspire to the virtues of story-telling, to deleterious effect [TNL 24]), the avant-garde turns inward upon itself. It becomes an “imitation of imitating” (AK 10), fundamentally about its discrete mediums. (AK 9)
Courbet is an important origin figure in Greenberg’s genealogy of the avant-garde; with him, we see painting renouncing its literary desire to “have been breathed on air or formed out of plasma” (TNL 29) in favor of insisting on its composition from—and being in—paint. “Reducing his art to immediate sense data by painting only what the eye could see as a machine unaided by the mind” (TNL, 29), in Greenberg’s terms, Courbet’s art exhibits new formal characteristics: “A new flatness begins to appear … and equally a new attention to every inch of the canvas.” (TNL 29) Manet, like the Impressionists who followed, took this alienated, avant-gardist sensibility with its superior historical consciousness (AK 6-7) steps further in seeing “the problems of painting as first and foremost problems of the medium.” (TNL 30)
It is then through this medium specificity that the modernist arts constitute their autonomy, ferociously throwing off the mantle of literature and taking the purity of music (via theorists like Walter Pater) as model. (TNL 32-2) Medium, as Greenberg argues here, is thus nearly coextensive with materials. “For the visual arts,” he writes, “the medium is discovered to be physical; hence, pure painting and pure sculpture seek above all else to affect the spectator physically.” (TNL 32-3) The history of the modernist plastic arts thus reads as a series of renunciations of modeling, chiaroscuro, perspective and ultimately representation of visible entities themselves as painters increasingly find their subjects within and as the means of their métier:
Under the influence of the square share of the canvas, forms tend to become geometrical—and simplified, because simplification is also a part of the instinctive accommodation to the medium. But most important of all, the picture plane itself grows shallower and shallower, flattening out and pressing together the fictive planes of depth until they meet as one upon the real and material plane which is the actual surface of the canvas where they lie side by side or interlocked or transparently imposed upon each other. Where the painter still tries to indicate real objects their shapes flatten and spread in dense, two-dimensional atmosphere. A vibrating tension is set up as the objects struggle to maintain their volume against the tendency of the real picture plane to re-assert its material flatness and crush them to silhouettes. In a further stage realistic space cracks and splinters into flat planes which come forward, parallel to the plan surface. (TNL 35)
In later writings of the early 1960s, Greenberg (at left) associated this kind of medium specificity with a self-critical drive first announced by Kant. (MP 85) By this telling, the alienation and rationalist undermining of art’s religious justification forced artists to demonstrate that “the kind of experience they provided was valuable in its own right and not to be obtained from ay other kind of activity.” (MP 86) The autonomy of the modernist arts would be established by insisting upon the material means of making and problems revealed within them by ruthless self-criticism. (MP 86-7)
Not only, then, were the plastic arts struggling to overcome literature, but painting had to parse itself from sculpture to offer unique address to “pure optical experience.” (MP 89) Modernist painting, in this view, is utterly continuous with the past (MP 92), not at all the historical break as the earlier advent of the avant-garde had pledged (see AK 6-7). Further, the coming of “openness” in post-painterly abstraction from the closed forms of synthetic Cubism suggests that abstraction itself is but another iteration of the “cyclical alteration” (AAE 123) characteristic of art’s history as seen in Wölfflinian, formalist terms.
For early Fried, there is much to admire in this narrative and its attendant methods. Formalist criticism, he argues, is indeed most appropriate to the interpretation of modernist art for the simple reason that “modernist art in this century finished what society in the nineteenth century began: the alienation of the artist from general preoccupations of the culture in which he is embedded, and the prizing loose of art itself from the concerns, aims and ideals of that culture.” (MPFC 646) Since modern art is alienated from its social framework rendering appeal to social-historical factors (supposedly) moot as explanatory tools, “the fundamentally Hegelian conception of art history that is at work in the writings of Wölfflin and Greenberg” (MPFC 646) is best poised to interpret modernism’s problems. Appealing to the work of Lukacs and Merleau-Ponty, Fried identifies a non-teleological dialectic operative in modernism (MPFC 646) driven by painters’ own intensely self-critical understanding of their medium’s history, which they keep “not as an act of piety toward the past but as a source of value in the present and future.” (MPFC 647) Modernist art, then, is not gratuitous, but fundamentally moral insofar as its ongoing dialectic produces problems to which the self-critical painter (and critic) mist face up to. Both demand “a state of continuous intellectual and moral alertness.” (MPFC 648)
If this moral dimension is not entirely present in Greenberg, Fried makes a more explicit break with his mentor ca. 1966 around issues of materiality and medium. For example, in “Shape as Form,” Fried begins his exploration of Frank Stella’s shaped canvases by claiming that they treat “shape as a medium” (SF 77) (He’ll repeat this formulation in 1967 [A&O 151, 153] and, in ’69, extend a conception of medium to include “Frenchness” [MS 52, 57]). Shape and Frenchness imagine a far less material conception of medium than Greenberg had allowed, and this becomes crucial to Fried in the essays of 1966-7. First, the argument he runs via Stella is that the shape of the canvas support emerged as a crucial problem for modernist painting due to advances in post-painterly abstraction. Noland and Olitski had to “acknowledge” (SF 78) the shape of their canvas supports due to the presence of new kinds of purely optical illusion in their work, which had the effect of calling greater attention to the shape of the canvases on which they worked. (SF 78-81) Stella’s early striped aluminum paintings then took a reiteration of canvas shape by literal form to the brink. (SF 81) Noland responded by exaggerating the shape of his canvases, putting them into violent relationship with his painted forms “so that, while the physical limits of the support are assaulted by illusion, the (depicted) boundaries between the bands are the more acutely felt—as if absorbing the literalness or objecthood given up by the support.” (SF 83) Olitski, by contrast, did away with internal form (in favor of sprayed color) and combated objecthood by altering the rectangular proportions of his canvases. (SF 84-86) Yet, these were effectively “naïve” strategies, which left the literal canvas still “there to be felt.” (SF 87)
It is this feeling—and commensurate desire for nothing but the literal object—that Judd, Bell and other minimalists seized upon. This, however, was a serious misapprehension of the modernist project of which Greenberg too was guilty. For, Fried claims, it is wrong to say that the modernist painter aims at the “essence of all painting, but rather that which, at the present moment in painting’s history is capable of convincing him that it can stand comparison with painting of both the modernist and pre-modernist past whose quality seems to him beyond question.” (SF 99, n. 11) Literalism/Minimalism, thus, confuses the acknowledgment of modernist art’s material composition for a simple-minded exemplification of those materials. (SF 88) More than an epistemological act according to Cavell (K&A 263-4), acknowledging requires possessing knowledge and responding sympathetically to it. It is, in this sense, moral. That moral point is evident in Fried’s account of the importance of Stella’s later shaped paintings (pictured above), which at once register the urge and the pull of reductivist, materialist literalism and yet still resist in favor of a kind of illusion and play between shape and form. Objecthood is defeated … for the moment. (SF 95-6)
What, then, is a “medium” for Fried? Following on from his citation of Kuhn (SF 99 n. 11, see also MS], a working hypothesis is that we might see medium not as materials but as “paradigm”—as a rule-binding framework that generates crucial problems and makes work productive for those inside it. (SSR 23-4) Like a paradigm, a medium in this sense can also be undermined by a profusion of anomalies that resist resolution by the available theories and methods (SSR 84-5), and ultimately enacts a Gestalt shift—that creates “a different world” (SSR 111)—when one paradigm replaces another. In part, by misunderstanding medium as mere materiality—by taking ontology (essence) to inhere in literal, physical properties instead of paradigmatic concerns (see A&O 169 n. 6)—minimalist art perpetrates a travesty. By capitulating to objecthood rather than simply acknowledging it, the object inscribes the beholder in a false ontology. The characteristic distancing of the minimalist work “makes the beholder a subject and the piece in question … an object.” (A&O 154)
This conception of human being as mere subjectivity, deriving from the Cartesian cogito, flattens Dasein’s being-in-the-world in seemingly obvious, but highly detrimental ways, according to Heidegger: “For what is more obvious than that a ‘subject’ is related to an ‘object’ and vice versa? … While this presupposition is unimpeachable in its facticity, this makes it indeed a baleful one.” (B&T 86) Essentializing material presence, minimalist art also inscribes its subject in a false temporality—a (profane) duration of the intermingled arts of theater (A&O 153-4, 166-7) to which the (sacred) presentness and instantaneity of modernism stands opposed. (A&O 167-8) And the stakes are even more significant, Fried suggests, since “the more nearly assimilable to objects certain advanced paints had become, the more the entire history of painting since Manet could be understood … as consisting in the progressive … revelation of its essential objecthood.” (A&O 160) Of course, for Fried, this is a tragic misunderstanding.
In this light, it is not surprising that we next see Fried turning to a historical account of Manet—rewriting this history in his own terms. What certainly is surprising about “Manet’s Sources” is the nature of argument Fried makes. Rather than the haughty indifference or insistent flatness that Greenberg had foregrounded (TNL 30), Fried’s point of departure is the way in which Manet makes persistent references to art history in his paintings of the early 1860s. Stressing the importance of pictorial precedents by Antoine Watteau and Louis Le Nain in Manet’s Old Musicians (1862; at left) above the more obvious relations to Velazquez, he goes on to make a highly peculiar argument. Manet, Fried claims, is moving in an avant-gardist milieu far more aware of and open to 18th century painting than one might think. It took new interest in Watteau as a serious painter (MS 37); it used puppet theater to call for a return to 18th C. theatrical conventions. And while no less than Baudelaire shows up as a closet buff of the Rococo (MS 43), Manet moves in circles where rococo theatricality can be seen as “realist” insofar as it is “naïve.” (MS 48)
The leading idea in all this is that Manet has to be seen within a moment of formation of an art-historical infrastructure and consciousness in the mid-nineteenth century—one that took definitions of the “national school” and the quintessence of national traditions to be of the utmost import. (MS 48) Exemplified by his mustering of Watteau and Le Nain in the Old Musician, then, Manet needs to be seen as consolidating his own canon of distinctively French painting. (MS 50) This struggle to articulate a French canon not only provides the necessary context for a better apprehension of Manet’s so-called “eclecticism” (MS 50-1), but also explains how the painter then proceeds to embrace the art of other national traditions with this medium (i.e. paradigm) of Frenchness in pace: “His genius … enabled him to make Frenchness itself the medium through which Frenchness was transcended and access to the great paintings of other nations secured.” (MS 52)
Manet’s historicism, in this way, is inescapably related to his realism—the more familiar term, as Reff’s critique makes abundantly clear. No longer, Fried claims, is it possible to think of the influence of the past on Manet. Instead, we need to recognize how art from the past gives Manet “sanction” since “his problem was not how to overcome the power of the past to determine the present; but what to make of a past that had lost the power to do just that.” (MS 70 n. 47) Yet, once he had worked the medium of Frenchness out through his paradigmatic canvases of the early 1860s, Manet accomplished a revolution—an autonomous paradigm for modernist painting that resolved its relations to the Old Masters once and for all: “No painter since Manet has been faced with the need to secure the connectedness of his art to that of the distant past, to the enterprise of the Old Masters. With Manet’s paintings of the first half of the sixties, that simply and without notice disappeared as a problem for painting.” (MS 66) Alienated from society, modernist painting and its autonomy against the precedents of the past had been established.
But, given the highly pejorative reading of theatricality outlined in A & O, what are we to make of Fried’s repeated associations of Manet’s valorized art with theater? Further, given the critique of anthropomorphism and incessant unity leveled against the minimalist object, how do we make sense of the animism and embodiedness that Fried attributes to Manet’s paintings? Noting how Manet resolutely restrains more than one figure from gazing out of the picture, he claims:
Manet seems … to have felt that to have more than a single figure look directly at the beholder would in effect be to establish a number of individual, and so to speak merely psychological, relationships between the beholder on the one hand and the figures in question on the other. Whereas Manet seems to have wanted to establish a particular kind of relationship between the beholder and the painting as a whole, in its essential unity as a painting. In this sense it is as though the painting itself looks or gazes or stares at one—it is as though it confronts, fixes, even freezes one—… and as though this was an essential source of Manet’s conviction … that the pictures in question really were paintings. (MS 69 n. 27)
Authority as painting derives from an integrated totality that seems to look at the beholder, to “make the painting itself turn toward and face the beholder … It is as though the frontality, the problematic relationships and finally what has been seen as the flatness of Manet’s paintings are at bottom just this facingness, this turning-toward.” (MS 72 n. 97)
So, if Manet’s paintings take their authority from an ability to face the beholder, to turn toward us as single entities, why aren’t they simply theatrical? In part, the claim seems to be that what Manet reveals is the fundamental theatricality underpinning any act of depiction no matter how “straight” it seems: “In Manet’s art the very act of posing, or fact of being represented, was for the first time revealed as ineluctably theatrical—as inescapably, even when inadvertently, a performance.” (MS 70 n. 46) In this way, though, what looks like theatricality ends up being closer to the naivety and the realism of Watteau and Le Nain whose figures gaze out from the picture plane “innocently” because they do not yet take the beholder as a problem. (MS 79 n. 114) By squaring up to what Fried will come to call the primordial convention of painting that it is made to be seen and self-consciously building his autonomous project on the naïve tradition of the Old Masters, Manet is thus engaged in the fundamentally moral program of acknowledgment and sanction key to modernism.
AK: Clement Greenberg, “Avant-Garde and Kitsch” , in Clement Greenberg: The Collected Essays and Criticism. Volume I. Perceptions and Judgments (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986), 5-22
TNL: Clement Greenberg, “Towards a Newer Laocöon” , in Clement Greenberg: The Collected Essays and Criticism. Volume I. Perceptions and Judgments (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986), 23-37
MP: Clement Greenberg, “Modernist Painting” , in Clement Greenberg: The Collected Essays and Criticism Vol. 4. Modernism with a Vengeance, 1957-1969, ed. J. O’Brian (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993), 85-93
AAE: “After Abstract Expressionism” , in Clement Greenberg: The Collected Essays and Criticism Vol. 4. Modernism with a Vengeance, 1957-1969, ed. J. O’Brian (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993), 121-133
MPFC: Michael Fried, “Modernist Painting and Formal Criticism,” The American Scholar 33, 4 (1964): 642-648
SF: Michael Fried, “Shape as Form: Frank Stella’s Irregular Polygons” , in Art and Objecthood: Essays and Reviews (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), 77-99
A&O: Michael Fried, “Art and Objecthood” , in Art and Objecthood, 148-172
MS: Michael Fried, “Manet’s Sources: Aspects of his Art, 1859-1865,” Artforum 7 (March 1969): 28-82