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, Caro, Jules Olitski, Kenneth Noland, and Morris Louis can be understood as struggles against the almost impossibly difficult demand to create new artistic forms that could avoid this falseness. The modernists’ antagonists — roughly, the American Minimalists against whom “Art and Objecthood” was originally directed — had all but abandoned any hope that the work itself could bear this demand. The gallery space — not color or shape — was where the action was, and the work was allowed to become a simple black cube, a single steel beam, or whatever. That is, it was allowed to become exactly what it didbecome in the late 1960s and 1970s, and what is to be seen hermetically greeting confused, solicitous visitors at just about any museum today. (Right next to the headphone station.) The photographers discussed in Fried’s recent book were returning to and developing the modernist project interrupted by the interregnum of the Black Cube. And so, Fried argues, are these honest outlaws.
Fried’s four work in different media. Anri Sala is a video artist, Charles Ray a sculptor, Joseph Marioni a painter, and Douglas Gordon a … well, Fried is not quite sure what to call him, though “video artist” is close enough. There is nothing about their work that immediately suggests they belong together: a 13-minute video of the American free-jazz saxophonist Jemeel Moodoc improvising on a ledge outside a high-rise apartment building in Berlin (Sala); a life-size reproduction of a fallen oak tree and a massively enlarged replica of a child’s toy (Ray); a series of quasi-monochrome canvases of varying size (Marioni); and an installation of two large screens and one small monitor, on which is looped a video elephant repeatedly lying down and standing up (Gordon). None of these descriptions does any of the artists justice, Marioni especially, though the book is full of handsome reproductions and comes packaged with a supplementary DVD.
But in what sense can a massively enlarged replica of a gaudy toy — or, for that matter a video of a saxophonist perched outside a building — claim our attention as an authentically modern work? Both could be bad jokes. What separates these four from the usual art-school fare: an enormous Mickey Mouse made out of chocolate, a cartoonishly busty woman masturbating, or a canvas of precisely one million handpainted dots? (The first two I made up, the last Damien Hirst is hard at work on right now. Or, rather, Damien Hirst’s team of assistants. It should be for sale at Sotheby’s in about nine years.)
This puzzle makes this book rather different from Fried’s earlier writing. There, the quality of the works — paintings by Manet, Courbet, or Pollock; sculptures by Caro — was beyond question. Even if Fried’s story of modernism left you cold, the works did not. But a video of an elephant playing dead? I’ll take a black cube. Fried is himself handsomely up-front about this, and concedes that had he been told that such a video merited consideration in his book — and not some gaudy New York gallery publication — he would have laughed.
But this is exactly Fried’s point about the increasingly difficult task of creating work that is both sensuous — as art must be — and resolutely modern. No one can paint like Jackson Pollock any longer. I mean, someone can paint like him, but there is no reason anyone should. The result would be false — a mere copy of a Pollock and nothing more. Pastiche can be flattering, but it cannot be authentic. It would be, in Fried’s terms, merely theatrical. But the wrong conclusion to draw from this is that there is no longer any possibility of sensuously representing ourselves to one another. The right conclusion is that it might well take something like a spooky video of an elephant playing dead to do what Stella did with irregular polygons, or Morris Louis with his “Unfurleds.”
Or, if not an elephant, then a transfixing video of a saxophonist. I actually find Fried least convincing on Gordon’s elephant, and at the end of his chapter on Gordon I felt the way I did at the beginning: that no matter how neat the editing, a video of an elephant playing dead holds no interest for me. But Sala’s saxophonist is another story. “The Long Sorrow” begins with a medium-range shot from inside an empty white room. The single window is open, the pane beveled back toward the viewer. Beneath it is some strange, smallish object — a plant, a piece of fruit? — and it isn’t clear whether the object is on the window sill, suspended from outside the window, or what. The camera very slowly approaches until, in Fried’s words,
we see [that it] is entwined with leaves and one or more white flowers, something that finally is observed to move, and not only that, to move in apparently motivated relation to the sounds of somewhat disjointed … saxophone playing that we have been hearing from the outset … until we realize — this takes about two and a half minutes but feels longer — that the object must be, that it is, the head, seen from behind of a musician playing the saxophone, and that the musician has somehow been suspended outside the window …
We watch Moondoc’s improvisations — both with his instrument and his voice — from inside the room for six and a half minutes, when the camera shifts to some vantage outside the room and films the saxophonist for the next three minutes at extremely close range, until it switches again back to the inside of the room and follows his orphic descent to the streets below. Two final shots present the building itself. In the first, a plane disappears behind the building; in the last, a long shot reveals the klieg lights that illuminated Moondoc during his playing, although how Moondoc stayed suspended outside the building is never shown. He remains an angel over Berlin. I do not know anyone who does not find the video hypnotic.
Our hypnosis is partly a product of Moondoc’s total immersion in his playing. And this allows Fried to suggest that the video belongs to the tradition of painting which attempted to counter any sense of falseness or theatricality by depicting subjects wholly immersed in some activity — card-playing, reading, or drafting. There is, says Fried,
no question as to the authenticity of the saxophonist’s engagement in what he was doing: it seemed inconceivable that he was merely mugging for the camera, or that the sounds … could have issued from any other source than his efforts … In other words, within a very short time … I had formed the conviction that I was seeing … another work … in which a protagonist’s absorption was thematized in a way that activated, brought into play, an entire tradition of representation that went back to the middle of the eighteenth century in France …
But the manner of Sala’s representation is entirely unique and, it goes without saying, wholly unlike anything in that tradition. His camera is antsy, invasive. It flits from Moondoc’s forehead, to his eyes, to the saxophone’s mouthpiece and the dental work on his teeth, and almost always at extremely close range. At no time, though, does our conviction in Moondoc’s absorption ever flag. Indeed, says Fried, it is as if Sala’s editing creates that conviction. Sala has somehow discovered that such a mode of representation — fragmentary, manic, incomplete — is what is required to assure us that the playing, and the piece as a whole, is both authentic and authentically modern.
This synopsis will be music to the ears of Fried’s detractors, who have long complained that Fried knows only one word of praise: “absorption.” That is the chrism with which Fried anoints everything he likes. The best 18th-century French painting? Absorptive. Courbet’s self-portraits? Absorptive. Morris Louis’s stripe paintings? Ditto. And now Anri Sala and, to a lesser degree, Marioni and Gordon are all counted among the faithful. (Ray’s achievement seems something else entirely.)
To combat the caricature, Fried’s defenders are fond of noting, rightly, that the terms of his admiration vary. Successful paintings and sculptures must, in his view, avoid the theatrical, and they might frequently do so by representing absorbed subjects, as Sala does. But the modes of representation are never the same, and are sometimes downright opposed. What counted as an absorptive, authentic success in the late 18th century would seem the paragon of theatricality in the early 19th.
Fair enough — but I think that Fried’s defenders, when met with this caricature, should consider doubling-down. If the most compelling contemporary work is absorptive — in the way that Sala’s “Long Sorrow” certainly is — that only confirms Fried’s radical idea that there is a single, crucial problem facing the modern arts: the problem of authenticity.
Are there philosophical grounds for thinking this true? Could it be that more than two centuries after Chardin the modern arts are still beset by the threat of theater? Hegel, Cavell, and Robert Pippin, the author of a series of brilliant articles on Fried and Hegel, would nod their heads. But simply consider the familiar alternative story about the modern arts as sites of resistance, exposing the contradictions of finance capitalism, and other “critical” accounts. Fried cites art critic and Princeton professor Hal Foster who, in a short text summing up the art of the last 10 years that has remained “most vivid” for him, singles out work that “allows formlessness to be … so that it might evoke, as directly as possible, both the confusion of ruling elites and the violence of global capital.” Foster goes on to cite, approvingly, the curator Kelly Baum, who writes:
What if art’s heterogeneity signals possibility instead of dysfunction? What if, in its very heterogeneity, art were to productively engage current sociopolitical conditions … I think what we are seeing today is art miming its context. I think we are witnessing art performing “agonism,” “disaggregation, and “particularization.” Heterogeneity isn’t just contemporary art’s condition, in other words; it is its subject as well.
Fried agrees that there are compelling stories that go something like this (his friend and frequent interlocutor T.J. Clark’s are the gold standard). But what Foster and Baum offer above is hard to take seriously. In the first place, why would we think that art would be any good at evoking — much less evoking “as directly as possible” — the confusion of ruling elites and the violence of global capital? Something or someone needs to be doing that. That’s for sure. But why would we think that the arts, a fundamentally sensuous mode of sense-making, would be better equipped for that than, say, David Harvey? Worse, why think that the celebrity hype-machine that is the art world — all those prizes, all those festivals! — is anything but global capital’s handmaiden? (I suspect Hirst is outsourcing the project mentioned above. Then again, he did get 17.2 million bucks for his shark, so perhaps he can afford to pay a decent wage. One wonders if that counts as “engaging productively” in current sociopolitical conditions.)
Joseph Marioni, the third of Fried’s outlaws and something like the hero of the book, is not “performing” agonism, disaggregation, or anything else so far as I can see. He is merely painting — gorgeous, quasi-monochrome canvases. What I find most astonishing about Marioni is the simple fact he has discovered that paintings like this can still be made. Marioni belongs loosely to the Color Field tradition that included Rothko, Clyfford Still, and Barnett Newman, but that seemed to die with — or, rather, be killed by — Robert Ryman and Brice Marden, after whom color no longer seemed a viable vehicle of artistic reflection. But Marioni shows that color’s obituary was printed far too soon, and that its richness has yet to be fully mined. Fried describes Marioni’s monochromes as aspiring
to the liberation of color from all sense of limit: at its farthest extent (top, bottom, sides) a painting by him comes to an end, but the flow of color never presents itself as cut short — one’s conviction is rather of color fitting itself perfectly to its container (the congealed drips at the bottom of many of his canvases virtually allegorize this state of affairs as one of metaphysical fullness), in effect subsuming the latter in its expressive life.
That is Michael Fried at his best: sober, responsive to particular features of the work, and, best of all, deeply serious about the philosophical significance of the arts. I wouldn’t say that it is immediately clear what “the liberation of color from all sense of limit” means. But I do know that it isn’t one more way of saying that painting is dead.
Fried’s title — Four Honest Outlaws — riffs on a line from Bob Dylan’s “Absolutely Sweet Marie”: “to live outside the law you must be honest.” Fried doesn’t say much about the weirdness of that advice, noting only that each of the four artists in the book
lives outside the law in that he has found his own unsanctioned path to highly original achievement, and each is honest in that he has done so in part by refusing to succumb to a cultural consensus that has lost almost all sense of artistic quality, philosophical seriousness, and, it sometimes seems, hope for the future.
This isn’t quite right, since it splits in two what Dylan keeps coupled. They aren’t outlaws andhonest. They’re outlaws because they’re honest.
Honesty must be the virtue of the critic too: honesty in looking, honesty in feeling, honesty in expressing. Many will find this book stodgy and conservative, insufficiently agonistic or disaggregative or critical. The Geoff Dyers of the world may find it repetitive, dull, or self-regarding. But it is honest. And if Dylan is right, that puts it outside the law, and, better, makes it a law unto itself.