Theatricality vs. Absorption

I was reading the January issue of ArtForum and found themes of theatricality and absorption reverberate alongside reviews of Prospect 1 in the magazine and in various blogs. A few interesting notes to ponder on follows.

In Robin Kelsey’s review of Michael Fried’s new book “Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before”, he discusses Fried’s grappling “two overlapping histories in modern art, one concerning realism and embodiment and the other…concerning problems of beholding, through categorizing art between two systems of theatricality and absorption. Meaning, if an artwork addresses a viewer, then it is theatrical, and if it is self contained and oblivious of an outside world, it is absorption. This singular means of interpretation leads to an understanding of contemporary photography, starting with 70’s and 80’s photography emphasizing the medium’s inherited problem of wanting to indulge in absorption but the setting of objects and perspectives as deeming it theatrical. This limiting inevitability appropriates meaning and intention in the work and artistic practice, but must approach such theory and criticism with caution since we are speaking of Michael Fried, an art historian responsible of coining the essay “Art and Objecthood”, widely studied in art history courses. This vague dichotomy between theatrics and narcissism disregards social and historical developments that might have influenced a work and “seems less about a modernist aesthetic experience of absorption than about a global economy of disengagement.” Under Fried’s theory, no work is left behind and excluded; there is no room to work against or contrary to. One simple question I have is how this might pertain to non-figurative and abstract photography, and also, how fine art photography differs from other compartments of the medium: personal and historical photography, documentary and journalistic photography, fashion and cultural photography, etc.

Kelsey then mentions Fried’s heavy referencing to the essay “Photographs and Fossils” by Walter Benn Michaels which defines theatricality as an “experience of a work, not the work itself, thus subject to positions and politics of identity.” This reactive positioning of photography renders them “the most like ordinary objects, the most susceptible to being defined not by the intention of the maker but by the viewer’s affective experience.” The remaining review of the book continuous on this way about Fried unsuccessful argument of theatricality and absorption in photography and his wanting to use Barthe’s Camera Lucida as evidence and extension of this theory/criticism.

Now move on to Glenn Ligon’s take on Prospect 1 New Orleans, in the essay “To Miss New Orleans” and he goes on to discuss Prospect 1 and its engagement with the city and the biennial functions as an intervention and instigator of infused culture. He concurs that a biennial such as this functions as a “platform for the presentation of art” and how it provides an opportunity to “supersize their work in unproductive ways and provide them with venues to engage in facile notions of site-specificity, in which the local population acts as a backdrop for the main action.” P1 differs from other overproduced and gluttonous biennials in that it admits and embraces tourism as a calling card for meaning and uses the city as a base for contemporary art. Some works could not be well defined without the city as a backdrop, as it is concerned with the disasters of Katrina and embeds the vibe and energy of the city into the work. The site-specific-ness of the works heightens the trauma and makes evident the exploitation and manipulation of such a heavy load of emotional, psychological, political and social affects incorporated into art. The idea of “art as a healing force” and the “debates around the politics of representation” make some works inevitably relevant, and “particularly affecting” to the location. In using the traumas of the city as a subject in their work, artists in the biennial narrow the potential horizon their works can reach but for the purpose of the biennial, successfully aestheticize the city “in ways that are digestible for the art lovers” as well as the residents of New Orleans. Ligon admits during his visit that it was easy to “mistake life for art” and that as much as “art not only reflects the society it is part of but predicts where that society is going”, that in this biennial, it was the art “that was outrun at every turn”. The artworks exhibited as much as it was an intervention, was predicted and overrun by its surrounding environment.

In the next article of the biennial, Elizabeth Schambelan emphasizes the works addressing “the events that recently transpired there, putting forward a kind of material rhetoric stripped down to the most basic propositions” and the biennial’s “interpolating itself not only spatially but politically and economically into the territory it maps.” The implicit curatorial methodology of establishing “a reflective criticality vis-à-vis the exhibition’s relationship to its setting” relentlessly aestheticizes the city, engendering “an ethical interaction between viewer and site that precludes imperious detachment and dissolves spectatorial guilt.” Now what the hell does that all mean? I think it means that the role, function, and interpretation of the city in the artwork and the artwork in the city is ALLLLLLLL relative to the spectator’s conclusion.

And here is where I link these articles. By appropriating the city of New Orleans as a stage for the works displayed in the biennial, it brings on the notion of theatricality and nullifies any of them being guilty of absorption. Viewer experience and participation is crucial as each person experiences a different experience by touring the city and the art cast within, each interchangeably influence the other. It would be difficult for an artwork, such as a photograph, to enter the biennial and not be subject to Fried’s notion of theatricality, to suggest to the viewer a relationship between the piece and its immediate environment. If an artwork deems itself as absorbed, self-sufficient and living in its own world, but is placed in the context of the biennial, it is appropriated whether or not it wants to be subject to its influence. So perhaps what I’m trying to say is, I’ve found a link between these articles and am nullifying Fried’s theory using the biennial as proof. Written coverage around the blogosphere provides ample proof of the array of differing reactions, a personal journalistic story of how one person viewed a work as opposed to another. Art is victim to interpretation and achieving autonomy is a statement of denial.

By golly, I’ve rambled and probably don’t make any sense at all, but these topics alongside thoughts on art and politics and how the new administration affects and inflicts its messages into the artmaking process is lingering in my brain and I want to make sense of it. I want to make coherent sense of it all.


Nicole Caruth on Prospect 1.

Hrag Vartanian on Prospect 1.

Paddy Johnson on Prospect 1.

Talk with Paul Chan and the New Orleans art collective The Front.

Art Blogger summit in discussing art in politics, politics in art, and Prospect 1.

Michael Fried book review.

Glenn Ligon on Prospect 1.

Elizabeth Schambelan on Prospect 1.


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