Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
February 19, 2001
Jill Beaulieu, Mary Roberts, and Toni Ross, eds. Refracting Vision: Essays on the Writings of Michael Fried Sydney: Power Institute Publications, 2000. 407 pp.; 4 b/w ills. Paper (1864870249)

Michael Fried wrote a number of essays about contemporary painting and sculpture in the 1960s to which arguments about these topics still return. Some will think it ironic that it should be an essay about sculpture which has become the most widely read and influential, as Fried has mostly concerned himself with painting. Since the sixties Fried has devoted himself almost exclusively to historical subjects, but this has not meant that he has become less influential—only that when people gather to discuss topics germane to contemporary art, they are likely to refer to something Fried has said about Manet and Courbet. T. J. Clark says, in a note on the jacket of Refracting Vision: Essays on the Writings of Michael Fried, that Fried’s influence on art and art criticism is immense but still, in what is perhaps a play on one of the latter’s favorite words, “incompletely acknowledged.” I agree with him that this volume will go a long way to improving the situation, and think this will be not least because the best essays in it are sensitive to the differences between Fried’s earlier and more recent thinking.

These differences have emerged during the pursuit of a question about what is the right way to look at a painting, and how this question is manifested in different historical contexts, which for Fried is not unrelated to a proposition that paintings that ask for a certain kind of looking are implicitly more ambitious, which is to say, better, than ones that don’t. Judging from the volume under review, Fried’s interest to contemporary scholars lies for the most part in the question rather than the proposition. It is a question that can mean asking the viewer to enter the picture in another way than through the visible as a sign for itself, and as such is of considerable interest to poststructuralist, but also socially preoccupied, art historians and theorists who have emerged since the 1960s and couldn’t care less about nonrepresentational painting or sculpture but are very interested in representation, especially when what is present is a sign for the invisible. Fried, while remaining firmly committed to Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenological approach to painting, has made extensive use of Jacques Derrida over the past twenty-five years, and Derrida’s writing about blindness comes up in more than one of the essays in this volume. I think this reflects a general interest in the unseeable that is also a reflection of a shift in emphasis, in Fried and those who read him, toward that half of his thinking that has to do with the body thinking itself from within. Jill Beaulieu, in an essay that probes the question of necessary self-contradiction that Fried develops through his idea that Courbet’s paintings are about the body as object and the body as lived, quotes him saying that the tension exhibited in the way Courbet painted his own hand in The Country Siesta “makes us aware of the hand as a potential locus for sensation and hence as a sign of the male sitter’s possession from within of his own body” (37).

This sentence, it seems to me, exemplifies several aspects of Fried’s thinking. It is the presence of tension that makes us aware of the special significance of the hand and that we should think of a special way in which to see it—in Fried, incident attracts attention which excites inquiry. The approach is at once cautious and specific. It is cautious when describing the act of looking. The hand is a “potential” locus—but once attracted to the hand we are invited to see it as a sign of interiority because it makes us think about touch, which comes from inside, joins it with the outside, creating in Merleau-Ponty’s famous examples a meeting between the two in which it is impossible to separate what is doing the feeling from what is being felt, a simultaneous process of externalization and internalization.

It is specific when the issue at hand can be said to be narrowly historical. The subjectivity the male sitter believes himself to inhabit is specified. It is by implication an Enlightenment subjectivity, for which possession of the self is both important and contested, and it seems to me worth noting that for all the authors here it is Fried’s caution that guards him against misunderstandings caused by his specificity. This is particularly so with regard to gender. Mary Roberts is very good at demonstrating how Linda Nochlin’s oppositional model of gender relationships prevents her from pursuing the complexity of Fried’s argument, and sees more mileage in comparing Fried with Luce Irigary, whom she describes as one of his “feminist sources.” Toni Ross, in pursuing that complexity while defending it against a misreading caused both by impatience with the earliest formulations, and a failure to grasp how the thinking has changed, patiently assimilates Fried to Jacques Lacan, by making his theory that Courbet sought a self-annihilating merger with his paintings compatible with the Lacanian idea that in addition to form and history “it is the non-signifying opacity, let’s say, the theatricality of representation, that also constitutes the subject” (203).

Fried’s thinking came to involve the gender question as a direct result of his protracted examination of his own thinking about what kind of looking works invite. Several of the essays, Stephen Melville’s and Rex Butler’s in particular, are concerned with how Fried has developed the hostility to "theatricality"—characteristic of art in which the work is entered wholly from without—which drove his first discussion of Manet, as well as his art criticism, into a more developed theory of “strikingness” and “facingness.” Butler describes Fried’s idea of modernism as one in which art seeks to defeat theatricality but never can. Fried comes to see that this is in part because theatricality is itself a product or response to absorption as opposed to the other way around, and invents strikingness or facingness as acknowledgments of this that do not reverse his earlier argument but do turn it inside out, in effect to some extent reconciling absorption with theatricality—which sounds to me like the substitution of a differential for an opposition, as one might find in Derrida. Melville describes Fried’s Courbet as one in which the blindness of the body is replaced by exposure of the face, a “literalization” of seeing as opposed to being (which would be seeing from inside), in which separateness replaces absorption, in a kind of double negation of theatricality that might be taken to return one to something quite like it. Butler’s essay implies that Fried is driven to this position by Manet, to whom he returns after a long passage through early realism and who is less interested in a traditionally conceived interiority than in making the whole painting address one directly, not in order to tell a story or present a tableau, but so as to make one confront confrontation, which is to say, separateness.

Most of the authors note the ethical dimension of Fried’s writing, which also makes it contemporarily germane. The weakest essays in the volume try to use Fried’s implicit and explicit ethics to assimilate him as a person to arguments which have little to do with art. The rest, while otherwise diverging with regard to interpretation, try to get at what is at stake in Fried. The essay about sculpture Fried wrote in the 1960s that continues to be a point of constant return in discussions of that subject and of art in general is, of course, “Art and Objecthood,” about which James Meyer has contributed a valuable essay that describes its evolution, sources, and, more sketchily (and with a tendency to repeat anecdotal revisionism without comment), its subsequent critical adaptation and misreading. Meyer explains Fried’s teacher Stanley Cavell’s use of the term “acknowledgment” to denote that responsibility to a tradition which for him and Fried separated the modernist work from the merely avant-garde one. “Acknowledgment” is an ethical concept, or at least one laden with ethical “potential,” and anticipates the concerns of the more recent “strikingness” and “facingness.” Perhaps the importance of the ethical in Fried is shown most clearly in that it is the departure point for the best and the worst in this anthology.

People originally sought to reject “Art and Objecthood” because it is a strong argument in favor of art that no one except him thought was better than the stuff he was writing against. Others saw at the time that if the argument was better than the work it was arguing for, the argument would survive the art nonetheless. The reason why is that it is obviously right in the demand it makes for art, its rage against art that is powerful only through it capacity to function as a negation, or as Fried puts it, to get in the way like furniture, which is to say, like an object rather than a “potential” subject. Many of the essays seem to me to suggest that Fried has come to substitute a general concept of subjectivity for the notion of tradition, a view with which I’d agree and which I think explains the popularity of his work among such a wide constituency, as is represented here. Sometimes, I think, Fried the theorist causes the authors collected here to overlook Fried the historian. Meyer, while also discussing Fried’s early involvement with Jonathan Edwards, doesn’t mention—unless I missed it—his contemporaneous interest in Gyorgy Lukacs, another theorist of obligation and acknowledgment, and this seems to leave out too much in his development that has to do with historical thinking. On the other hand, Fried, when insisting, in the interview with him at the back of the book, that his focus is closely historical, forgets to mention (acknowledge) that this has obliged him to redefine what that might mean, which he has done by looking closely at the history of looking at, seeing, and also reading, objects that never were things.

Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe
Art Center College of Design