Korea National University of [the] Arts, Western Contemporary Art Criticism course (graduate)
Dec. 6, 2012
Michael Fried is an art historian and critic best known for his essay, “Art and Objecthood” first published in 1967 in Artforum. He was educated at Princeton, Oxford and Harvard and taught at Harvard and Johns Hopkins University. In “Art and Objecthood,” Fried is known to have “attacked minimalism as being primarily “theatrical,” i.e., relying on what he considered necessity of being viewed, of pandering to an audience reaction (Gewen), i.e., a theater relationship, for its success.” According to Gaebler.com, Artforum has an “approximate” readership of 31,000 and according to E-Flux.com, “it is one of the most widely read and distributed publications in its field.” The reason Fried has written this essay seems to have been to define a quaint new movement at the time in minimalism and, according to the author’s own words, “the desire to distinguish between what is to [Fried] the authentic art of [the time of his writing] and other work which, whatever the dedication, passion, and intelligence of its creators, [seemed to the author] to share certain characteristics associated here with the concepts of literalism and theater has largely motivated what [he has] written.” In other words, Fried questions the artistic merit of literalist works, casting them as lacking distinguishing features from “non-art.” Fried’s “efforts to check Minimalism were ignored” by the community of art critics upon publication of “Art and Objecthood,” according to DictionaryofArtHistorians.org.
In “Art and Objecthood” Fried is primarily concerned with how minimalist art ‘projects and hypostatizes objecthood’ in a way which makes the latter “antithetical to art,” or, in other words, Fried argues that minimalist art is theatrical because it requires an audience to be for its existence as art to be validated, and therefore is impure and certainly discreditable as art. Regarding this theatricality of minimalists, Fried states the following which explains how minimalist art shares with theatre the quality of, in terms of visual representation, having only a bare essential setup to include all the physical markers required, and no more, to denote a play or a work of art, leaving the bulk and rest to imagination and make-believe, or interpretation, in a loaded sense. Fried’s use of the expression, “acting accordingly” implies the viewer of a minimalist work of art is led to acknowledge what they are seeing as art, although there is nothing in the piece for them to read or observe beyond its superficial presence. Fried reinforces his comparison between minimalist art and theatre by suggesting that minimalist art is covertly anthropomorphic, as in a play where it ultimately depends on the audience’s imagination to bring to life the characters each actor is in the role of.
Furthermore, the presence of literalist art, which Greenberg was the first to analyze, is basically a theatrical effect or quality- a kind of stage presence. It is a function not just of the obtrusiveness and, often, even aggressiveness of literalist work, but of the special complicity that that work extorts from the beholder. Something is said to have presence when it demands that the beholder take it into account, that he take it seriously- and when the fulfillment of that demand consists simply in being award of the work and, so to speak, in acting accordingly.
Fried argues that the aforementioned theatricality of minimalist art is antithetical to art primarily because, he believes, the essence of modernist art is to “deny or suspend its objecthood” long enough express ideas and sensibilities through the very “interesting incidents” of form which physically and conceptually distinguish art alone from all other objects in the world. Known as a closely-associated student of Clement Greenberg, Fried advocates formal expressionist artists such as David Smith and Anthony Caro, and introduces a quote from Smith to suggest minimalist sculpture would hardly be considered art outside a white cube setting. Fried introduces a brief history of how modernist painting incidentally began to resemble objects (presumably by their painting for painting’s own sake ethos), how this almost spun out of hand to the extent of suggesting the entire history of painting has likely always been heading toward objecthood, and how modernist painters had to fight this phenomenon through more intense painterly expressions. Fried also claims that minimalism arose from the same conditions, except the proponents of minimalism were “already corrupted… by theatre,” something which modernist painting had strived to avoid all along, something which is dangerous for expressing a presumptive ignoring of modernist art entirely, but the mode of which is… as explicitly stated by Fried, so pervasive as to render us “all literalists [(minimalists)] most or all of our lives.”
Michael Fried’s position appears to be in direct contradiction to Roland Barthes in “The Death of the Author,” if Barthes’ idea of the ideal author, a minimalist invoking a picture of the typical minimalist artist, were indeed transferrable to artists, as well as to Jacques Ranciere in The Emancipated Spectator, where Ranciere espouses the idea of theatre’s audiences being actually more empowered than critical discourse widely acknowledges. While the all of the aforementioned concepts of Fried are for the most part well-communicated and appear to be logically valid, the general content of the author’s arguments lacks hard facts to be sufficiently convincing as an appeal to the reason of the critical community against minimalism. It is a good example of a definition-centered, comparative analysis between two modes of art-making, though, and could be used to inform other research attempting to compare two distinct concepts in art.
Fried ultimately appears to be arguing that minimal art fails in the area of artistic value in the process of creating a work of art, in a round-about way of arguing the difference between anything which is hand-made versus their mass-produced versions, because Fried’s major distinguishing quality of theatre and minimalist art are their requirement of an audience, i.e. an assumption that theatre and minimalist art must be seen by an audience to become completed works of art whereas a movie or representational or expressionistic art may sit and collect dust upon completion without anyone viewing them and still have value because their process of creation involved sufficient artistic intervention by the artist. This may be debatable by today’s cultural standards, and evidently it already was at Fried’s time of writing “Art and Objecthood,” while perhaps objectionable to today’s values of professionalism in the arts. Taken how Fried was also known to have been relatively close friends with formal expressionist artists such as Smith and Caro, “Art and Objecthood” seems likely to have been a friend’s emotion-involved advocacy of artists who have, imaginably, worked too hard to have their share of recognition be shared with, or even perhaps eclipsed by, those who curiously enough refuse to show any signs of intellectual struggles in their works- those ‘perverts.’
 Fried, Michael, “Art and Objecthood,” Art and Objecthood, University of Chicago Press, pp. 167-168.
 “I am suggesting, then, that a kind of latent or hidden naturalism, indeed anthropomorphism, lies at the core of literalist theory and practice…. what is wrong with literalist work is not that it is anthropomorphic, but that the meaning and, equally, the hiddenness of its anthropomorphism are incurably theatrical.” Fried, Ibid., p.157.
 Fried, Ibid., p. 155.
 Dictionary of Art Historians, Ibid.
 “What not put the work outdoors and further change the terms?…” Fried, Ibid., pp. 159-160.
 Dictionary of Art Historians, Ibid.
 “…perverted by theatre….” Fried, Ibid., p. 161, p. 168.