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Friday, April 01, 2005

Food for Thought: Fried

In the March Artforum, Michael Fried looks back almost 40 years to “Art and Objecthood” to develop a new approach for understanding Thomas Demand’s recent work, now on view at MoMA.

Fried’s take goes like this. With his photography of paper sculptures of documentary photographs, Demand wrests back the artistic intentionality that the Minimalists ceded to the viewer.

To get to this point, Fried reads Demand’s work through the theoretical framework he developed for understanding how work by the Minimalists (or, as he called them, the “literalists”) functioned in relationship to its viewers. He recaps his original argument this way:
To the literalists, what mattered or ought to matter was not the relationships within a work of art, as in modernist painting and sculpture, but the relationship between the literalist work and the beholder, as the beholder was invited to activate (and in effect to produce) that relationship over time by entering the space of exhibition, approaching or moving away from the work. . . . The literalist work, in other words, was incomplete without the experiencing subject, which is what I meant by characterizing such work as theatrical in the pejorative sense of the term.
Demand’s work, by contrast, exists without regard for the viewer. Fried writes:
Simply put [Demand] aims above all to replace the original scene of evidentiary traces and marks of human use . . . with images of sheer authorial intention. . . . [N]othing could be plainer than that his project is fundamentally, not to say hyperbolically, opposed to the literalist attitude. . . . Demand seeks to make pictures that thematize or indeed allegorize intendedness as such, not simply assert the intendedness of the representation. . . .
Fried’s reading of Demand’s work provides a useful theoretical basis for the more practical impressions I took away from the MoMA exhibition. I found Demand’s work there to be cold, aloof, hermetic, and self-reflexive. Fried’s reading confirms those impressions and bases them in Demand’s conceptual practice. The work exists in an agnostic state towards its viewer, according to Fried, so the viewer should not expect to feel welcomed to the work or easily engaged with it.

But once again, as he did years ago in “Art and Objecthood,” Fried missteps when he makes a value judgment on the work using his theoretical framework. Fried excludes the viewer’s experience from his evaluation of the work's implicit value.

The problem I have with Demand’s work is that it turns its back on, shuts out, its viewers. Demand does not create work that is generous, that provides a space for engagement and the play of discourse between object and subject. The photographs are objects that exist to proclaim their existence and the intentionality of their creator. In a sense, the work doesn’t require an audience because it doesn’t care about its audience. The work acts like the public speaker who continues talking, answering questions that he hasn’t been asked, long after his audience has left him.

Fried sees this as a strength in Demand’s work, and he saw the Minimalist’s requirement for viewer engagement to be a detrimental aspect of their work. In Fried’s world, art exists as self-contained, internally referential objects that live without viewers. In Fried’s world, by extension, a tree that falls in the forest makes a sound.

That’s not the practical and pragmatic world that I live in. In my world, a tree that falls in a forest creates waves of modulating atmospheric pressure that must be received by an ear drum in order to become a sound. Likewise, in my world, an object can have an existence on its own, but it requires a viewer to engage with it before it becomes a work of art.

In stating his preference for the ontological nature of art objects in his original essay and in his reading of Demand’s work, Fried leaves out the human experience and actually implies that an object is better—more pristine—if it doesn’t have a viewer. That approach is how art is treated in the academy, in its journals and in its classrooms. That’s not how art is treated in the studio, the gallery, or the museum—the places where art really exists.

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