PRINT January 2009


Michael Fried’s Why Photography Matters . . .

Jeff Wall, Diagonal Composition No. 2, 1998, transparency in light box, 20 11/16 x 25 1/4".

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410 PAGES. $55.

IN THE INTRODUCTION TO HIS LATEST BOOK, Michael Fried bemoans the “facile criticism” that he is “excessively preoccupied” with his own ideas. The proper test, he suggests, is not the frequency with which he has deployed notions such as beholding, theatricality, absorption, and embodiment across different moments in modern art but whether the resulting interpretations are convincing. Then he throws down a gauntlet: “I know it is too much to ask,” he writes, “but it would be useful if readers impatient with what I have done were to feel compelled to offer superior interpretations of their own.” This is an odd challenge for a famous art critic to make. Did Fried predicate his impatience with Minimalism on his capacity to produce a better sculpture than Donald Judd? No matter. He has every right to demand that his interpretations be measured by their merit and not by the familiarity of their signature moves.

But Fried also has reason to anticipate criticism, because his new book unmistakably makes theater of self-absorption. It reverberates with gratuitous cross-references and aggrandizing discussions of his past writing. Preoccupation with a handful of ideas is one thing, but preoccupation with one’s own authorship is another: Whereas Roland Barthes gave us La Chambre claire, Fried runs the risk of giving us la chambre d’écho. The best excuse I can devise for him—and it’s not a bad one—is that he is among the most important art critics and art historians of his time.

Fried’s scholarship to date primarily tracks two overlapping histories in modern art, one concerning realism and embodiment and the other—especially germane to this book—concerning problems of beholding. He first encountered these problems while grappling with Minimalism and high modernist painting (see his landmark essay “Art and Objecthood,” published in these pages in 1967) and later traced them historically to critical moments in the emergence of modern art going back to Diderot (see his trilogy on eighteenth- and nineteenth-century French painting—Absorption and Theatricality [1980], Courbet’s Realism [1990], and Manet’s Modernism [1996]). The linchpin of Fried’s prodigious account of these moments is theatricality and its antithesis, absorption. In his usage of these terms, if a work acknowledges, addresses, or otherwise includes the beholder, it’s theatrical; if it’s self-contained and self-sufficient, it’s absorbed. The paramount aim of modernist painting in the 1960s, according to him, was to defeat theater.

The central claim of Fried’s new book is that in the ’70s and early ’80s, when artists began producing very large photographs for wall display, photography “inherited” the problem of beholding as Fried had described it. According to this claim, because the photographic tableau emerges in the wake of Minimalism and of new concerns about voyeurism and the inherently contaminating effects of beholding, it must acknowledge what Fried terms “to-be-seenness” even as it must continue to resist theatricality. Hence, Jeff Wall has produced pictures of figures absorbed in their own world, while the artifice of the pictures—the fact that the figures are actors posing in a contrived scene—is obvious. Throughout ten chapters, Fried builds his case across a swath of contemporary practices. Needless to say, his discovery that a bevy of acclaimed contemporary artists working in photography (including Wall, Thomas Struth, Thomas Ruff, Rineke Dijkstra, Bernd and Hilla Becher, Thomas Demand, and Hiroshi Sugimoto) are trafficking in “a Diderotian thematics of absorption” is conspicuously convenient in a “have theory, will travel” sort of way. But just as there are inconvenient truths, so are there convenient truths, and only a grouch would begrudge a colleague who finds an old scheme newly relevant.

Fried is at his best in this book when he is training his extraordinarily acute powers of observation on particular pictures or on the relationships between works by different artists. In the first chapter, he deftly weaves together Sugimoto’s movie theaters, Cindy Sherman’s film stills, and Jeff Walls’s Movie Audience, 1979, to argue cogently that these artists were investigating theatricality in cinema in a way that cinema itself cannot. Elsewhere in the book, he trenchantly addresses the relationship between fictive space and museum space in Struth’s museum pictures and sensitively distinguishes Dijkstra’s beach portraits from the related work of Diane Arbus. In these and other similarly attentive passages, he contributes signally to our literature on contemporary photographic art, and anyone interested in the subject will find the book indispensable.

 Jeff Wall, Diagonal Composition No. 3, 2000, transparency in light box, 29 5/16 x 37".

Fried’s efforts to bring Heidegger, Wittgenstein, and Hegel to bear on contemporary photographic practices are, in my view, less convincing. For instance, his effort to associate Wall’s pictures with Heidegger’s notion that the world reveals itself when functional assignments fail or are disturbed (e.g., when the hammer breaks) prompts the question of why such breakdowns are not more evident in Wall’s work. Although Fried suggests that the artist’s “Diagonal Composition” series is about such breakdowns, the neglected sinks and mop buckets of those pictures seem to be more about the loss of an incalculable “liquid intelligence” in a digital age of dry precision—a loss that Wall has written about with laconic brilliance—than about instrumental failure and its revelatory effects. Wall’s mop, one might say, seems closer to William Henry Fox Talbot’s abandoned broom than to Heidegger’s broken hammer.

More broadly, the book’s many shortcomings—and great merit—ultimately stem from Fried’s enormously ambitious and profoundly unresolved effort to enlarge the notions of theatricality and absorption to accommodate the photographic turn in contemporary art. Until now the elasticity of these notions has mainly been a virtue. It has made his famous dichotomy valuable to scholars in various fields and enabled Fried to construct a theory that more or less convincingly connects the age of Diderot to Minimalism. At the same time, the potential extremity of this elasticity—theatricality and absorption can essentially define a spectrum on which any work of art can be placed—has always threatened to dull its application to particular pictures. It is one thing to characterize modern aesthetic experience as absorptive, but quite another to hunt about in art for signs of antitheatricality.

In the past, in both his critical project and his historical writings, Fried has successfully kept his dichotomy sharp by focusing on discursive moments of salient concern for the artwork’s autonomy. The criticism of Diderot and his contemporaries as proffered and discussed in Absorption and Theatricality renders incontrovertible the viability of Fried’s dichotomy for understanding the painting of their time (“The canvas encloses all the space, and there is no one beyond it,” Diderot writes). Similarly, countless remarks by Minimalists in the ’60s—such as Robert Morris’s assertion that the best of the new Minimalist work “takes relationships out of the work,” thus making the beholder “more aware than before that he himself is establishing relationships as he apprehends the object”—clarify again the pertinence of Fried’s scheme. A reader may take issue with this or that aspect of Fried’s arguments about French painting or Minimalist sculpture (or with the value judgments he makes about the latter), but the general relevance of his conceptual apparatus to both is, I think, beyond question.

In Why Photography Matters, however, Fried’s assertion that problems of theatricality are once again vital has no such secure anchorage in discourse. Although Wall acknowledges having used “absorbed” figures in his tableaux, Fried can deliver no constellation of historically incisive voices insisting that problems of theatricality are vital to current art. Indeed, he often resists the words that artists use to describe their own work or digs up textual passages from other decades or centuries to find material analogous to what he sees. Given that he abides by his long-standing practice of disregarding larger social and historical developments (“nowhere in the pages that follow is an effort made to connect the art and criticism under discussion with the social, economic, and political reality of the age,” he writes in Absorption and Theatricality), his argument suffers a kind of historical weightlessness.

The anachronistic matching of passages and pictures often seems arbitrary. Take his chapter on Wall and the everyday: Fried quotes a 1930 text from Wittgenstein in which the philosopher imagines a theater of ordinary activity—“we see someone alone in his room walking up and down, lighting a cigarette, seating himself, etc.”—that the philosopher claims would be “more wonderful than anything that a playwright could cause to be acted or spoken on the stage.” The problem, according to Wittgenstein, is that wonder of this sort emerges only if an artist represents the subject as a work of art. Although Fried understands Wall as having taken up this challenge “fifty years later,” it seems to me that Walker Evans’s surreptitious photography of subway riders from 1938 to 1941 (which Fried discusses elsewhere in the book) is much closer to this imaginary theater than is Wall’s work, which traffics in the kind of artifice (“anything that a playwright could cause to be acted”) that Wittgenstein denigrates.

What makes the elasticity of Fried’s formula especially problematic is his claim that the work of his chosen practitioners combines antitheatrical measures with an acknowledgment of “to-be-seenness.” At times, this post-Minimalist articulation of the beholder problem makes it difficult to imagine how any pictorial evidence could count against his theory. In other words, a figure not looking out at the beholder is deemed to be absorbed, while a figure looking out at the beholder is deemed to be acknowledging “to-be-seenness.” Even when we add the requirement that every instance of absorption be accompanied by signs of “to-be-seenness” and every acknowledgment of “to-be-seenness” by signs of absorption, the formula remains troublingly capacious. Although it may be useful in discussing the work of Wall, its application to the work of certain other practitioners, including Ruff and Andreas Gursky, seems less apt. For example, although Gursky often makes the beholder’s view extremely detached, this detachment seems—at least to me—less about a modernist aesthetic experience of absorption than about a global economy of disengagement.

Hiroshi Sugimoto, AL. Ringling, Baraboo, 1995, black-and-white photograph, 16 5⁄8 x 21 5⁄16".

UNTIL THE VERY END of the book, Fried’s argument remains curiously indeterminate in two respects. First, it is not entirely clear whether he is writing as a critic or a historian. This matters because he has admonished readers not to confuse the two. Indeed, as he asserted in the introduction to his volume of collected essays from 1998, “between myself as historian of the French antitheatrical tradition and the critic who wrote ‘Art and Objecthood’ there looms an unbridgeable gulf.” Is the present book, then, a continuation of his “genealogy” of art and theatricality, or is it criticism of contemporary art? Because he occasionally renders judgments on particular pictures or practices (as when he says that he has “strong reservations” about Gursky’s photographs of works by Turner, Pollock, and Constable), we can assume that this is a work of criticism, and yet it bears little of the sure and vigorous advocacy that marks his other critical writing. Second, Fried’s argument is indeterminate with respect to the grand promise of his title. It is not immediately obvious why inheriting problems of beholding would make photography matter as art as never before.

This indeterminacy places great stress on the book’s conclusion. “In what sense, then,” Fried asks in its first paragraph, “does photography—some photography—since the late 1970s matter as art as never before?” His tacit acknowledgment that after ten chapters this crucial question has yet to be addressed brings a measure of relief, but what immediately follows—to this reader’s disappointment and surprise—is a lengthy discussion of a recent essay on photography by Walter Benn Michaels. This extensive reliance on Michaels’s work at such a crucial juncture is puzzling. Whereas Robert Smithson once posited “a double Michael Fried” in the sense of a mirror image that Fried sought to vanquish through his attack on theatricality, Fried, in Michaels, evidently now has a double on his side of the glass.

Although the pass to Michaels is surprising, it is also helpful, because Michaels has been clear about what he thinks is at stake in photography. For Michaels, writing in his 2007 essay “Photographs and Fossils,” the pressing question is whether there are works of art that have a meaning we can argue about—or whether there are simply objects that have different effects on different people. He understands theatricality in Minimalism and after as belonging to a postmodern mind-set in which the experience of a work, not the work itself, matters, and thus subject positions and the politics of identity become paramount. In his view, photography has become crucial because photographs, among all modern artworks, are arguably the most like ordinary objects, the most susceptible (as Barthes explained) to being defined not by the intention of the maker but by the viewer’s affective experience. If Derrida shifted our attention from the sign to the signifier as trace, then the photograph suddenly looms large as an image that is arguably more trace than sign. Photography thus becomes a vital site for working through the crisis of art, for exploring the limits of postmodernism’s assault on ideology and meaning. The test becomes this: If photography sets the productive conditions for the work of art, can the work of art overcome them and survive?

If Fried agrees with Michaels, we can understand why he does not clearly signal whether his book is a work of criticism or of history. It would presumably be a prolegomenon to either. In other words, what would be at stake is whether there is any art left to criticize or historicize, or whether we are left to discuss only our various responses to various objects. The historical return of theatricality as a problem for art would not simply be the resurgence of a theme but the recognition that what Fried calls “beholder-based art” is really not art at all.

But Fried is far from agreeing with Michaels completely. The divergence in their views is especially evident in their discussions of Barthes’s Camera Lucida (1980). Michaels reads the book through his own sustained engagement with the fallen status of intention in the age of Derrida. For him, photography is artistically important now because it structurally compromises intention. It moves beyond absorption as an intended effect (e.g., Chardin painting a figure seemingly preoccupied with building a house of cards) to the eradication of intention as a source of meaning (e.g., Barthes finding himself pricked by accidental photographic details). This is why Michaels finds the resolute constructedness of photographs by practitioners such as Demand and Wall so vital; by saturating the photograph with signs of intention, they raise the possibility of overcoming photography’s ontological incapacity as a medium of art. According to this way of thinking, the theatricality of the photograph stems not from its production for display, but rather from its status as an indexical trace (and not a representation). Thus, according to Michaels, although the photograph as a purveyor of unintended effects à la Barthes is radically antitheatrical in the Diderotian sense, the result is pure theater because the photograph is rendered an object that depends on the affective response of viewers. Or as Michaels puts it: “It turns what Fried called absorption into what was supposed to be its opposite, literalism.” As a result, according to Michaels, Barthes has been a crucial figure not only for Fried and his critique of postmodern art but also for Rosalind Krauss, Abigail Solomon-Godeau, and others committed to defending the postmodern.

Thomas Struth, Audience 2, Florence, 2004, color photograph, 70 x 92 5/16".

Contra Michaels, Fried wants to keep Barthes in his camp. Although he agrees that Barthes insightfully shows the theatricality inherent in photography, he argues that an “antitheatrical animus” nonetheless runs through Camera Lucida. In making this argument, Fried strongly emphasizes the passage in which Barthes discusses with evident displeasure his discomfort as a subject before the camera. But Fried also discusses a crucial and much later passage in Camera Lucida in which Barthes essentially imputes what he terms “the pose” to all of photography:

[W]hat founds the nature of Photography is the pose. . . . [L]ooking at the photograph, I inevitably include in my scrutiny the thought of that instant, however brief, in which a real thing happened to be motionless in front of the eye. I project the present photograph’s immobility upon the past shot, and it is this arrest which constitutes the pose.

To maintain his interpretation of Camera Lucida, Fried implicitly extends the book’s “antitheatrical animus” to the theatricality Barthes discusses in this passage. In other words, he would have us understand the passage as describing an inherent theatricality of photography—the “pose”—that photography must still somehow resist. This interpretation emphasizes the kinship between Camera Lucida and “Art and Objecthood” and allows Fried to imagine certain practices of art photography that emerged around 1980 as a response to a challenge that Barthes was simultaneously articulating.

But Barthes’s book gives us little reason to think that his antipathy toward sitting before a camera extends to the beholder’s projection of the photograph’s stillness on the past event it depicts. On the contrary, although Barthes uses the word pose (or, in French, poser) in both passages, nowhere in his discussion of the projection of arrested time on the photograph does he suggest that this form of the pose is undesirable or must be resisted. Indeed, the pose he describes, which he declares to be photography’s noeme, or essence, accords precisely with his mad love of photography, his moving affective response to the “this has been.”

In the end, Fried wants a modernist Barthes to anticipate and endorse a modernist struggle in contemporary photography. Although I am sympathetic to Fried’s belief that the struggles of modernism remain vital, his effort to construe recent photographic practice as embroiled in problems of theatricality succeeds only modestly. Nonetheless, Fried’s book––more than any other I have read—challenges its readers to interpret more cogently the resurgence of the tableau in photographic form. The gauntlet has been tossed.

Robin Kelsey is an associate professor of the history of art and architecture at Harvard University in Cambridge, MA.