Topic: notes on michael fried WHY PHOTOGRAPHY

My notes on M. Fried WHY PHOTOGRAPHY MATTERS AS ART AS NEVER BEFORE (2007)




Fried indeed refines his judgement from the Art and Objecthood essay in this text. But it becomes also very clear, that the enterprise here is not a revision but instead a reactualisation of his position with an important refinement, which is a differentiation between “bad” or ”abstract” objectness and “good” or “specific” objectness. Fried discusses several photo artists with his terminological toolbox, which he has not changed since the 60s: absorption, exclusion, presentness on the one side and immersion, indeterminacy, theatricality and presence/objectness on the other. Also the argumentation, that absorption (as effect) and presentness (as quality of the work) is aesthetically esteemed over immersion (as effect) and presence or objectness (as quality of work) has not changed. But you can say that he opens his catalog of valuable works to (some) photography.




One object of the book is: “to bring the entire question of antitheatricality in contemporary art photography into the open as regards both the works themselves and, wherever relevant, the discourse around them.” (344)




What remains puzzling to me in tis is the differentiation between the motiv of a photo (the thing as it exists in the factual) and the photo itself. He discusses this extensivly in the chapter on the Bechers, but I either have not understood or he has not throughly solved this distinction. Clearly he is on the search for the individual object, the object, that is not generic and that can be or should be seen sub specie aeternitatis (from the persepctive of eternity) as he says quoting Wittgenstein. Fried interprets this sub specie aeternitatis as “clearly implies that we behold it [the work of art] as if it had nothing to do with us, indeed as if it were in its deepest being oblivious or indifferent to our existence.” An example for such good objecthood would be Welling's plank in the beginning of the chapter but also Bechers' industrial towers, who, through the technique of serialism, become individualized. My question here is, what becomes individualized and what is the good object, the motive or its photo?





If it is the plank (the tower) – he quotes extensively to show, that “in their [the Bechers] eyes, the technical installations were 'objects', not motifs. The photo is merely a substitute for the object, it is useless as a picture in the usual sense of the word.” (Armin Zweifel in Fried 321) OR “surrogate objects” (ebd) – is he really discussing the photos as art works or rather their motives?




Fried is not ignorant of this distinction, but I could not follow him in clarifying it. He states at the beginning that he (and Welling) was interested in “qualities pertaining to objects that can only be revealed or manifested in and by the art of photography (no “good” objecthood tout court).” (304)




I understand that only photography has this documentarian quality which makes the object as such come to the fore. You can of course say the same about the art of Stilleben – an art that is wholly concerned with “the thingness of the object” (303) while staging and faking it continously all the same. A comparison between photography and Stilleben under this very aspect of (anti-)theatricality, would be interesting and instructive!




So what do we have:



Fried criticized Minimalist art for „the projection of objecthood as a means of bringing about a particular sort of open-ended yet also rigorously controlled relationship among the work in question, the embodied viewer, and the gallery space within which the encounter between the first two was arranged to take place.“ (303)




So there are two things at work here: „the project of objecthood“ AND „the open ended relationship/theatricality“ of the situation. It is clear, that the latter does not take place in photography, since the object in question is so to speak banned from the space the beholder occupies, it is removed enough to not engage the beholder in anything other than absorption, longing possibly. The photo on the wall is clearly a picture – not an object – and can therefore be contemplated as such. But that is only one aspect, we can cal it the spatialor situational aspect of the situation. The other aspect, is the content of the picture and within this there Fried sees a kind of “objectness” that he judges as pure or individual.




Is the question than one of making us believe in the factual objectness of the motive: does this really exist and look like this? is it really there? Fried seems to me to imply that in painting, this question about the ontology of the motive never appeared but does so in photography. I agree to some respect. In fact, when looking at a photo, the question of how and where and when this was taken DOES PLAY A ROLE, while i would say that it does not in painting. The photo is therefore rooted in a social interaction between motive, location of the shot and the artist. There must have been a moment of presence there (even in Gursky's or Wall's highly digitalized and unreal photos). So the photo – as a work of art – is somehow also extending beyond what is there to see. There is the element of a story here and therefore – you could say – duration, indeterminacy, theater....




But Fried does not call this (the indeterminacy at play in photos) “non-art” but instead he calls this “good objectness”.




Fried uses Wittgenstein's sub specie aeternitatis to explain once more his idea of anti-theatricality, “outsideness” as he calls it:



“Wittgenstein makes a fundamental distinction between the ordinary object (der Gegenstand) as it is in itself and the “individual thing” (das Einzelne) as presented by the artist. My thought at this juncture is that the latter, “das Einzelne”, amounts to a version of what I have been calling “good” or “genuine” objecthood. Wittgenstein further indicates that “das Einzelne” is in effect seen sub specie aeternitatis, which whatever else it means clearly implies that we behold it as if it had nothing to do with us, indeed as if it were in its deepest being oblivious or indifferent to our existence.” (328)




Wittgenstein: “The work of art is the object seen sub specie aeternitatis (from the persepctive of eternity); and the good life is the world seen sub specie aeternitatis. This is the connection between art and ethics. The common way of looking at things sees objects as it were from out of their midst, the view sub specie aeternitatis from outside.”



[The Becher's typologies evoke] the viewer's “outsideness” from the “world” of objects they evoke (or should I say, conjure), as opposed to standing in the “midst” of those objects as one does in ordinary life. (328 f.)



Fried here wants to prove that the Becher's oeuvre is indeed art. I would agree and I would also agree with his definition of art. But I would argue, that there is no absolute outside position but only a relational one (as any position is by the way). I would also say, that this is not a historic process, but that art has always been seen in such a relational way, as the experience of an atmosphere, a space that is occupied by the work, the motive and the beholder.



Instead Fried says in ART AND OBJECTHOOD: “Whereas in previous art what is to be had from the work is located strictly within it, the experience of literalist art is of an object in a situation – one that, virtually by definition, includes the beholder.” (323)




Is this not instead just a question of perspectives? That is why, Böhme speaks of artistic situations altogether, not even bothering with the distinction between ”within the work” and outside of it.









Further quotes:



“It is possible to see [James Welling's photograph of a] plank as a real world analogue to the California minimalist John McCracken's high gloss „abstract“ planks leaning against gallery walls that were a feature of the avantgarde-scene in the late 1960s. But the concern in Welling's photograph with the specificity of this particular two-by-four, with its individual history and identifying nicks and blemishes, comes out the other side of minimalism into the world of the real and not “generic” objects. (From this point of view, the trouble with Donald Judd's Specific Objects was that they were never specific enough.) Another way of characterizing Welling's focus [...] might be to speak of an interest in real as opposed to abstract literalness or even in “good” as distinct from “bad” objecthood, understanding by the first term in both oppositions qualities pertaining to objects that can only be revealed or manifested in and by the art of photography (no “good” objecthood tout court).” (304)



Wittgenstein:


“The work of art is the object seen sub specie aeternitatis (from the persepctive of eternity); and the good life is the world seen sub specie aeternitatis. This is the connection between art and ethics.


The common way of looking at things sees objects as it were from out of their midst, the view sub specie aeternitatis from outside.


Such that they have the whole world as background.


Is it perhaps this – that it [the latter mode of beholding] sees the object with space and time instead of in space and time?


Each thing modifies the whole logical world, the whole of logical space, so to speak. The thought forces itself upon me: The thing seen sub specie aeternitatis is the thing seen together with the whole logical space.” (328)



“Smith's Die is (for me in Art and Objecthood) a work of almost pure theatricality, depending as it does on enticing the viewer into a kind of indeterminate, open-ended situation of which the hollow steel cube itself is only one ingredient.” (333)



Historic Development of “the project of exclusion” (344):


1) “Manet was the decisive figure in the liquidation of the Diderotian ideal of establishing the ontological fiction that the beholder does not exist, that there is no one before the painting. As was mentioned in Chapter Two, that fiction was principally to be sustained by depicting figures who appeared wholly absorbed in what they were thinking, feeling and doing, and who, if there were more than one of them, also appeared caught up in strongly unified actional and compositional gestalts. In fact the Diderotian project ran into difficulties at an early date, and in the work of Manet's immediate predecessor, Gustave Courbet, one discovers a far more radical, indeed hyperbolic strategy with respect to the beholder, according to which the painter-beholder – to whom Courbet's operations are in effect limited – seeks to merge all but corporeally with the painting coming into being under his brush. (If such merger could be achieved, the painter beholder would no longer find himself before the canvas.)” (340)



To-be-seenness:


“the posedness and constructedness of [Jeff Wall's] compositions [is] an acknowledgment I have also described as of his pictures' to-be-seenness, a notion related to theatricality but not, I have suggested, identical with it.” (341)



“The diverse currents that flow into Gursky's work emerge as the coherent picture of a world. There is no place for us in that world. Banished from its commanding symmetries, we are consigned to contemplate its wholeness from without. We may study its details at our leisure. We may be beguilded or repelled by the gorgeous spectacle. We may marvel at its serene indifference. We may even elect ourselves to sit in judgment upon it, but we will never become participants.” (344)



on the beholder:


“the mobile and self-consciously “experiencing” subject of minimalism/literalism” (344)



indeterminacy:


“indeterminacy, that is the notion that the meaning of a given work is simply what it turns out to be for individual subjects.” (345)



OPPOSITION: PRESENTNESS and PRESENCE


PRESENTNESS – denies duration, not objectness, absorption


PRESENCE – Objecthood, exploits duration, theatrical (352)