IN THE FIRST INSTALLMENT of his new gig at The New York Times back in July, Geoff Dyer had some fun at the expense of the art historian and critic Michael Fried's Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before. Dyer zinged Fried in the Times for what he called his "style of perpetual deferment," his habit of never quite getting on with the interpretive business at hand:
[T]he first page of Fried's introduction summarizes what he intends to do and ends with a summary of this summary ... The second page begins with another look ahead ... Page 3 begins: "The organization of Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before is as follows ..." Well, O.K. again, even if it is a bit like watching a rolling news program: Coming up on CNN ... A look ahead to what's coming up on CNN ...
I sincerely hope Dyer doesn't find his way to Fried's latest, Four Honest Outlaws: Sala, Ray, Marioni, Gordon, since I doubt he'll make it past the first page, which begins like this: "This book comprises four essays on contemporary artists: Anri Sala, Charles Ray, Joseph Marioni, and Douglas Gordon. In effect it goes on from a much longer book published in 2008, Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before — but I am already getting ahead of myself."
Thus, the deferment commences. Back Fried takes us to the mid-1960s, when he was "part of the circle" around the high priest of American art criticism Clement Greenberg, and friendly with major painters like Frank Stella and the British sculptor Anthony Caro. It was then that Fried published "Art and Objecthood," the essay for which he is still most known, and whose central brief has structured almost all his writing since. More deferment ensues as he chronicles the reception of "Art and Objecthood," and then still more as the arguments of Fried's studies of 19th-century French painting and contemporary photography are reprised. With all this dallying, I can hear Dyer grumble, the outlaws, honest or not, will have long since made off with the loot.
I had a good laugh with Dyer — his jokey, blokey tone is hard to resist — but he got things all wrong. The style of perpetual deferment is not a sign of Fried's fascination with himself, but of the thrilling ambition of his lifelong project: He's not admiring his own past triumphs (well, maybe a little ...), but making sure those who just came in are all caught up. Fried claims to have identified something like the defining problem of aesthetic modernism — the problem of authenticity. The task of the modern arts, from the late 18th century onward, was to discover forms — colors, shapes, dispositional motifs — that themselves compelled the beholder's conviction in the work's authenticity and defeated any sense that it was being staged merely for the viewer's interest. Inauthentic modern paintings were suddenly regarded as "theatrical," in a negative sense: they were false, mannered, playing to the crowd. Authenticity, by contrast, meant not mere verisimilitude but something like being true, or true to life, in a much more fundamental sense. Paintings, then, could be authentic or theatrical in much the same way that human beings could be.
Twentieth-century modernism inherited this problem of authenticity, and on Fried's account, the careers of high-modernist heroes like Stella, Car...