Still More On Michael Fried – From Arresting Images To Stop Signs – Welcome To Post-Modernism!

Posted: December 1, 2020 in Uncategorized

Amelia,

I’m glad that you actually enjoyed the Michael Fried essay, indeed found it to be one of your favorites. Most students enjoy this the least of anything I assign. So, good for you! As I’ve said, I don’t know that I agree with all Fried says, but like T.S. Eliot, he does, for all his conservatism of taste, clearly identify a radical shift in the history of human sensibility. He feels certain, in 1967, that we are quickly crossing over into a whole new era in which the old values will be liquidated and replaced by new forms; or, rather, non-forms, mere brutes shapes. From the crossing, Fried believes, there may well be no return.

It’s important to keep in mind that when we say ‘spiritual values’ in Fried, we most emphatically do not mean religious doctrines or the Spirit of God. I’m quite certain Fried is an atheist. We’re talking instead about the ‘human spirit’, the feeling of ennoblement which great art and literature, or great pieces of music or dance, can awaken within us. The experience of such artworks liberates us, if only momentarily, from a world brute things; wood which is merely wood, stone which is merely stone, noise with is merely noise – none of these materials animated by any sense of life. Notice, for instance, that in Robert Smithson’s “Non-Site: Line of Wreckage”, any remaining sense of living verticality, of human upright posture, of the ‘statuesque’, is achieved not through an act of sculpting, but simply by stacking rocks into a bin. Take away the visible mechanical support, and the rocks would immediately collapse into a shapeless pile. Smithson in fact ‘lets things slide’ this exact way in later works, ‘achieves’ (if that word even applies anymore) this effect of collapse even more emphatically in pieces such as ‘Glue Pour‘ and ‘A Heap of Language’.

Fried believes, in 1967, that it’s still possible, desirable, event urgently necessary that we keep up the fight to bring into the world artworks that suggest some sense of ‘life’ – if only as a pure effect. Meanwhile, Minimalists and Pop Artists, according to Fried, would prefer to occupy a world that is mere empty space and extended matter, without any emotional depth, without any sense that the physical entities with which we interact are anything greater than the sum of their parts. Rather than the larger, more compelling wholes which we see in traditional art, the new non-art will be nothing other than an arrangement of pieces. To look at it another way, the organic is here being replaced by the mechanical. Instead of life forms, we have clocks and sundials. This is what Fried means by ‘literalism’. The word ‘minimalism’ suggest that the best way to achieve this state devoid of all transcendence is through the manufacture of objects so simple they have no parts at all hence no composition. Meanwhile, Pop Art embraces the inorganic and ‘soulless’ through 1) rejecting the creation of new images in favor of the mere theft of already existing ones, 2) the deliberate use of machines rather than human bodies to create art. Who cares about live dancers when you can have robots? Who cares about writing and reading poems when you can simply print receipts? Why bother to dream up new images when there is Silly Putty? And why would anybody bother to learn to paint or draw when there is Spirograph?

Vs.


This is where Fried’s use of the terms ‘anthropological’ comes into play. Like “presence’ (either ‘real’ or brute), he uses anthropological to mean two very different things. In the good sense (for Fried) anthropological refers to artworks which seem to want to communicate something, which seem to ‘mean’. We may not know exactly what they mean, but they nevertheless seem to ‘gesture’, like ghosts trying to speak, though only “oooooooooo” comes out of their mouth. Anthropological, in the bad sense (again, for Fried) refers not to a world of pure formal gestures (such as dance), but rather a world of mere physical traces, one in which pregnant gesturing is replaced by mere mark-making, fluttering hands are replaced my inert footprints left in the dirt, anonymous smudges left on the wall, rocks propped up for some unaccountable reason 20,000 years ago. To put it in the technical language of American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce, icons and symbols are being replaces by indexes. To put it in more common language, art is being replaced by road signs.

Choreographer Lar Lubovitch is a longtime devotee of jazz music. He pays tribute to a visual and music artist in “Coltrane’s Favorite Things, ” which premiered in New York City in February 2010. Lubovitch choreographed the piece to Coltrane’s live recording of “My Favorite Things.” The dance is performed against a backdrop reproduction of Jackson Pollock‘s “Autumn Rhythm (Number 30).”

Andy Warhold
Dance Diagram 3 (1962)


True, both paintings and road signs have the power to stop us, move us, or make us yield. But are the two modes of address really the same thing? Fried and his enemies will both say no. Fried, if it still matters to anyone in 2020, will doggedly defend paintings to the death, while both Minimalism (Robert Morris) and Pop (Andy Warhol) will blithely choose a STOP sign or crosswalk stripes over the Mona Lisa or a William de Kooning any day. Putting it this way goes a good distance toward explicating the notorious anecdote about the day Tony Smith took a late night joyride on the New Jersey turnpike and decided it was better than anything he had experienced in a museum. That was the night the Artist in him died and became the mere caster of ‘Die’s.

In sum, for Friend, 1967 marks the point at which the progress or adventure of the Human Spirit is abandoned and replaced by mere traffic lanes and barriers. Or, in the case of Pop Art, 1967 marks the point at which the feeling of love and longing are abandoned and replaced by the interest of money. As you inquired about persons poised on the border between these two realms, there are a few key liminal figures, artists on the frontline of the battle between these two radically opposed views of human experience and expression. Most impressive to Fried, as I’ve said before, are the American painter Frank Stella and the British sculptor Another Caro, as both these artists struggle to begin with brute shapes and then ‘suspend’ (the fancy Hegelian term is ‘aufheben’) them; which is to say, to destroy them or cancel their status as mere objects, while simultaneous preserving them and exalting them as Art. Hence, the title of Fried’s essay “Art and Objecthood”, which should be read Art versus Objecthood.

In sum, for Friend, 1967 marks the point at which the progress or adventure of the Human Spirit is abandoned and replaced by mere traffic lanes and barriers. Or, in the case of Pop Art, 1967 marks the point at which the feeling of love and longing are abandoned and replaced by the interest of money. As you inquired about persons poised on the border between these two realms, there are a few key liminal figures, artists on the frontline of the battle between these two radically opposed views of human experience and expression. Most impressive to Fried, as I’ve said before, are the American painter Frank Stella and the British sculptor Another Caro, as both these artists struggle to begin with brute shapes and then ‘suspend’ (the fancy Hegelian term is ‘aufheben’) them; which is to say, to destroy them or cancel their status as mere objects, while simultaneous preserving them and exalting them as Art. Hence, the title of Fried’s essay “Art and Objecthood”, which should be read Art versus Objecthood.

You can see examples of this sort of work not only in my earlier post comparing and contrasting two very different Renaissance depictions of Christ (Ruben’s, warm and freshly resurrected, vs. Grunewald’s, cold and dead as a leftover pork chop), but also by comparing two different kinds of ‘drapery’ (Morris Lewis’s, lovingly painted and seemingly shimmering with light, vs. Robert Morris’s, merely dip dyed and nailed to the wall to hang in shreds). I will provide images of other artists Fried considered to be major players in this war to preserve Art. While their results may not be as successful as those of Stella and Caro, what matters to Fried most is not their success or failure, but simply their determination not to surrender in the fight.

Jules Olitski

Larry Poons

Anne Truitt

Kenneth Noland

Comments
  1. Amelia Munson says:

    Thank you very much for the reply! I sincerely enjoyed your comparisons, and your descriptions allowed me to further understand what Fried was getting at with his essay.

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