In retrospect, Michael Fried’s stance against “theatricality” and the literalization of the object can be read as a last-ditch defense against the impending desublimation of the art object. While Fried’s position was perhaps vitiated by his embrace of Anthony Caro’s gentrified constructivism as an alternative to minimalist vacuity, his thoughts on the dire consequences of literalism bear rereading.
I read Fried’s notion of “theatricality” as a euphemism for perversion. The literalization of the object, its “subjective destitution” in Lacanese, is a formula for its transformation into an object that imposes itself on the viewer as a debasing physical ordeal. Of course, this “real” object of minimalism is no more real than any other object. Its stripped-down “realness” is merely the artifact of an ostentatiously performed debasement, which is the hallmark of perversion. This becomes fully evident when the literalized, debased object is the body. Literalizing the body involves subjecting it to endless masochistic indignities in an effort to establish its dissociated “materiality.” Chris Burden’s early performances come to mind. Or Marina Abramović’s. Or Ron Athey’s. Or countless others.
Why this compulsion to debasement? Likely because it reenacts what capitalism and the commodity fetish have done to art and to the possibility of symbolic production in general. It reflects the dire condition to which artistic expression is reduced when the phallus is de-mythified and can no longer function as a semiotic organ. In this condition, art is reduced to a freak show that aims no higher than to produce physical disquiet in lieu of what it cannot produce: delight, absorption, a heightened sense of vitality.
Despite what Hal Foster claimed, desublimation did not constitute a “return of the Real” because the Real is just what the frame of art rigorously excludes. Art only admits fictions and, when the efficiency of the modernist fiction of autonomy begins to wane, it is replaced by the fiction of an abolished fiction, the fiction of producing the “Real.”
Fried’s response to the alignment of art with perversion was correct in its assessment of the impoverishment that would result. The putative de-aestheticization of the art object did not bring “art” closer to “life.” It brought it closer to shit.