Two Crises of Beholding: Authenticity and Identity in Michael Fried’s Art History

    • Lucca November 2016
    • Presentation speakers
      • Mathew Abbott, Federation University Australia, Victoria, Australia


    In 1980’s Absorption and Theatricality, Michael Fried presented a new interpretation of the work of some of the greatest 18th Century French painters. He read the pictures of Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin, Claude-Joseph Vernet, and Jean-Baptiste Greuze in terms of their confrontation with theatricality: the condition of artworks that have failed to manage successfully “the primordial convention” (93) that they are made for beholding. This formed the basis of his account of Manet’s achievement in 1996’s Manet’s Modernism. The key claim here is that, by the early 1860s, the problems of beholding French painters had been negotiating became unmanageable, as their anti-theatrical strategies lost their efficacy. Simultaneously acknowledging and disorienting their viewers, works such as Olympia and The Luncheon on the Grass register the coming to a head of a crisis of beholding. Against critiques of Fried’s alleged formalism, this paper seeks to show that theatricality must be understood historically: it emerges out of a field of tensions that develop dialectically, such that what appears authentic at one point in time may begin to seem unbearably contrived at another. Further, it bears an internal relationship to the development of a modern capitalist society, in which the increasing impersonality and abstraction of social and economic relations puts pressure our capacities for authentic self-determination and mutual recognition. If we read Fried’s art history in Hegelian-Marxist terms, deep connections emerge between aesthetic problems of form and content and political problems of alienation, recognition, and identity. Undermining false dichotomies between the aesthetic and the political, this account of Fried’s art historical discoveries can help clarify the grounds of the notorious attack on postmodernism presented in his 1967 essay “Art and Objecthood.” This polemic registered a second crisis of beholding: one that may have marked the end of the modernist trajectory, and the opening of a new phase in capitalism.