The essay discusses minimalist art and its relation to modernist painting and sculpture in generic terms applicable in art criticism.We first summarize its main points.
Fried's essay claims that Minimal Art (which he prefers to refer to as literalist art) is largely ideological. It defines its position as neither modernist painting nor modernist sculpture, but rather art which is whole, without parts. The shape and presence of the artwork has to be whole, one. By contrast, modernist painting must be pictorial and defeat its objecthood.
The objecthood of Minimal Art (and the fact that it does not transcend it) is a plea for theater. Minimal Art necessarily includes the beholder. It is large, confronting and creates a distance and space that includes the beholder as a public. The scene establishes the objecthood of Minimal Art. Its human size, inspiration in people and nature, its hollow nature betray it as anthropomorphic, biomorphic. Its nature is theatrical.
And, theater is profoundly hostile to art. Modernist painting (Kenneth Noland, Frank Stella), for one, has to defeat theater. Its analysis of objecthood has to transcend the object to become pictorial, and true painting. In modernist sculpture, the juxtaposition of the parts, the syntax of the work creates a tension that goes beyond the objecthood of the material (David Smith, Anthony Caro).
The succes of art, Fried poses, depends on its ability to defeat theater, while Minimalist Art depends on the public. Art degenerates as it approaches the condition of theater. The arts are not converging, but remain individual disciplines with their concepts of quality and value. What is in between is theater. That is the difference between Minimal Art and modernist art, the difference between interest and conviction, hollowness and fullness, the stress on duration instead of instantaneousness.
Literalism is omnipresent. Art is not.
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